Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The "Chords of Love": Legalizing Black Marital and Family Rights in Postwar Texas

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

The "Chords of Love": Legalizing Black Marital and Family Rights in Postwar Texas

Article excerpt

In late 1862, concerned about her husband Norflet, Fannie, a slave woman, wrote to him from "Spring Hill" plantation in Harrison County, Texas. A personal servant to Theophilus Perry, Norflet accompanied his master when the latter joined the Confederate Army. Fannie worried whether they would ever be rejoined. Separated since mid-year, she touchingly wrote: "I haven't forgot you nor I never will forget you as long as the world stands, even if you forget me." Her love was now "just as great as it was the first night I married you, and I hope it will be so with you." Fannie's "heart and love" was "pinned" to Norflet's "breast, and I hope yours is to mine." If she never saw him again she hoped to "meet" him "in Heaven."

Fannie asserted that "there is no time night or day but what I am studying about you." It had been several months since she had received a letter from Norflet. Informed by her mistress that her husband had been ill, Fannie was gratified to learn that Norflet had recovered. Fannie missed her husband, particularly during the holiday season. She reminded him of the Christmas tradition (which both had previously shared), when the master gave the slaves three days off. At loose ends, she attended a "candy stew." Fannie passed on greetings from "Mother, Father, Grand-mama, Brother & Sisters." All hoped Norflet would "do well." Fannie, lonely and desirous of seeing her absent husband, wished that it would "not be long before you can come home."

She poignantly closed by writing, "If you love me like I love you no knife can cut our love into [sic]." Whether Fannie and Norflet ever resumed their marriage at some future date is unknown. He disappeared from around Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in March 1863. Perry was killed at the Battle of Pleasant Hill in 1864. Fannie and Norflet do not appear in the 1870 Harrison County census, but this does not mean they never reunited.(1) Evident in Fannie's letter is the deep and abiding feeling slaves felt about marriage and family although neither was legally recognized. If Fannie and Norflet had rejoined and lived in postwar Texas, they would have faced incredible obstacles in finding a legal official to sanction their union.

The Civil War resulted in the emancipation of the slaves, but as Reconstruction commenced, the civil rights of the freedpeople remained unclear. Although the former Confederate states would be required to establish basic freedom for blacks once they made constitutional changes to reflect the war's result, national sovereignty also superimposed itself onto the state legal structure. From county clerks to congressmen, confusion seemed to reign among everyone concerned with black rights. The legal evolution of their status varied across the South. In Texas, a perplexing situation existed. Through the combined efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau and the Texas black community, marital and parental rights were finally recognized in state law.

A Texas black newspaper, The Freedmen's Press, summarized the former slaves' antebellum dilemma in an 1868 editorial. During slavery, the newspaper stated, "lawful wedlock was unknown and relations of husband and wife, parent and child" were not protected by Southern law and but a "slight degree, in fact." Severely treated, slaves were "sold and resold, regardless of kindred ties," and "human affection" was an emotion alien to the "merciless slave dealer." Indeed, when "families were allowed to grow up with some semblance of respect for the decencies of humanity," numerous obstacles loomed on the horizon, not the least of which was the slave auctioneer.(2) Couples who survived these traumas faced a different situation once the war ended.

Many questions of a marital and parental nature emerged during the early years of Texas Reconstruction among the black community. This legal entanglement had begun during slavery and the Civil War. The disruptive nature of the conflict only exacerbated the problem, further postponing a solution. …

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