Family Over Freedom

The Chesapeake region, often neglected when thinking of “The South,” was a slave society. Once a mostly tobacco producing plantation system, by the 1830’s, the region’s economy had transitioned  to railroad construction, manufacturing and boating.  It is during this period, Calvin Schermerhorn argues, that slaves in the region put the defense of family ties above individual freedom and relied on social networks and the slave economy itself to keep their families together. Both enslaved and master felt pressured by the growing economy, but in different ways.  “Tidewater grandees (Masters) complained that their holdings in slave families were making them poor [, and] growing black families …cost them food, shelter, and clothing” and they sold, rented or leased out their slaves to support to booming industries, and not to mention put money in their own pocket (5).  Enslaved people on the other hand felt an increased strain on their family ties.  Already, the average “enslaved [person] had to prepare to lose a family member every decade,” now slaves prepared not only for the threat of sale to southern cotton fields, but now for separation within the new intensifying market with limitless unknown destinations (13).

To combat this, “enslaved people sought to defend blood kin from the worst aspects of the market by participating in it” (20–21). Using the market to their benefit, they took advantage of opportunities to avoid sale or relocation by building an internal network, which Schermerhorn defines as “strategic ties and sets of exchanges” that provide “human and material resources as well as information” (24). Enslaved people assembled their network slowly each day, by building connections with allies and patrons, especially white patrons and freed blacks; connecting with “coworkers” in fields, on boats, or riding trains; and collecting and saving small sums of money from wages and errands.  In some instances, these networks were not only vital for keeping families together, but also for relocating and reuniting displaced family members.

Schermerhorn explores the challenges of the enslaved people using individual narratives in five different chapters “Networkers,” “Watermen,” “Domestics, “Makers,” and “Railroaders.” In the first chapter, “Networkers,” Schermerhorn uses the tales of Solomon Bayley and Charles Ball as examples to illustrate how enslaved people “sought to order their world” by building networks to ensure their family connections (24). For Solomon Bayley the Methodist church and the court played and vital role in keeping his family together; the church helped purchase his son and helped support his during his court cases suing for both freedom and recognized marriage rights. After starting his journey to freedom in 1799, by 1813, the Bayley family had spent all their savings and credit “to buy their freedom,” but they were free and they were together (39).  For Charles Ball, the ability to build new a flexible network was a vital skill. He was separated from his family three times, and three different times he designed plans to travel from the south, once from South Carolina and once from Georgia to return to Calvert County, Maryland.  Unfortunately, on his third trip back, he arrived in Maryland only to discover that his family taken by kidnappers and sold into slavery in the Deep South.

In the second chapter, “Watermen,” Schermerhorn explains how maritime workers used the mobility, flexibility and occasional wages afforded by the work on the boats to build far reaching networks that stretched beyond their local or regional areas. In the case of Moses Grandy, A North Carolina, this networking enabled him to buy his freedom. Six masters owned Grandy during his lifetime, and he lost four generations of family members; as well as, his pregnant wife and six children to slave traders.  In 1814, Grandy worked on Dismal Swamp canal boats as a pilot and ship manager, but while his resources were not sufficient to thwart the sale of his wife and child, he was able to earn enough money purchase his own freedom for the hefty sum of $1,850.  However, while these openings and resources provided opportunities for enslaved people to protect family ties or attain freedom they networks were essentially fragile.  As Wilmington tugboat hand, Peter Robinson learned when He traveled to California in 1850 to earn better wages in the goldfields, and found himself instead kidnapped and sold into slavery.

“Domestics,” the subject of the third chapter, lacked interstate mobility of watermen, and used their wits, interpersonal skills, sentiment, and sexuality to recruit allies in kitchens, parlors, and regions. Schermerhorn explains the Domestics exploited the area market for resource accumulation and resorted to desperate strategies to hold families together, building networks that crossed class, gender, race, and generational lines to avoid separation at the auction house. Corinna Hinton and Mary F. Lumpkin became domestic partners with slave traders out of self-preservation and bargained to protect other slaves and tending prisoners awaiting sale.  Harriet Jacobs escaped the sexual violence of her master in Edenton, but faced separation from her children as a result.  Molly Horniblow, Jacobs’s grandmother, used a vast network of love and loyalty to hide Jacobs in the attic of her bakery for seven years.

In the last two chapters Schermerhorn explores the networking of “Makers” (the factory workers) and “Railroaders.” “Companies employed enslaved labor to construct new roads, maintain existing tracks, service trains in depots, and ride the rails as firemen, brakemen, porters, and stewards” providing  makers and railroader similar networking opportunities to watermen (p. 165).  In the case of Henry Brown, an enslaved cigar maker, he used wages earned by exceeding his factory quota to lease his wife Nancy from her master and rent a house where they could live together.  However, as commercialization increased and slave trading moved further south, enslaved families began to struggle to maintain their networks of protective family ties.

Schermerhorn closes the book by repeating that the late antebellum Chesapeake region was a “slave market society” (202), powered by the slave family and its reproduction of human capital. Essentially, the Society was fueled by the slaveholders’ choosing “Money of Mastery — hiring out slaves as labor; and “within a hierarchy of values, the enslaved chose family over freedom” (p. 210).

Adapted from Family Over Freedom by Megan Hardy

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