The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

Synopsis

In Claims of Kinfolk, Dylan Penningroth uncovers an extensive informal economy of property ownership among slaves and sheds new light on African American family and community life from the heyday of plantation slavery to the "freedom generation" of the 1870s. By focusing on relationships among blacks, as well as on the more familiar struggles between the races, Penningroth exposes a dynamic process of community and family definition. He also includes a comparative analysis of slavery and slave property ownership along the Gold Coast in West Africa, revealing significant differences between the African and American contexts.

Property ownership was widespread among slaves across the antebellum South, as slaves seized the small opportunities for ownership permitted by their masters. While there was no legal framework to protect or even recognize slaves' property rights, an informal system of acknowledgment recognized by both blacks and whites enabled slaves to mark the boundaries of possession. In turn, property ownership-and the negotiations it entailed-influenced and shaped kinship and community ties. Enriching common notions of slave life, Penningroth reveals how property ownership engendered conflict as well as solidarity within black families and communities. Moreover, he demonstrates that property had less to do with individual legal rights than with constantly negotiated, extralegal, social ties.

Excerpt

My name is Pompey Bacon. I was born in Liberty County, Georgia, I am 70 years of age I am farming and the claimant in this case.” With this statement Bacon, a former slave of plantation owner Thomas Mallard, claimed compensation for property he had owned as a slave, property Union soldiers had taken for “forage” on a raid during the Civil War. With him on this late summer day in 1873 were Bacon’s wife, Bellu, his older brother, Joseph, and three other freedpeople from farms near the one he worked; all intended to serve as his witnesses. Except for Mrs. Bacon, each had a petition before the Southern Claims Commission. Under oath, Bacon unfolded his story of the raid in response to a long list of standardized questions read by Virgil Hillyer, a special commissioner of the federal commission.

During the siege of Savannah in December 1864, Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry, part of General William T. Sherman’s army, was ordered to forage supplies. Most white people had fled the countryside near Savannah, with Sherman’s westerners hard on their heels. the troops arrived at Thomas Mallard’s plantation just after harvest, when mornings turned the earth “white with frost.” Liberty County was a rich agricultural area, and 1864 had been a good year for food crops. Hogs were “in good flesh” in December, when the business of butchering and salting began in earnest. Pompey Bacon remem-

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