Bound In Wedlock

2018 Mary Nickliss Prize Winner

The Mary Nickliss Prize is given for “the most original” book in U.S. Women’s and/or Gender History (including North America and the Caribbean prior to 1776).  The OAH defines “the most original” book as one that is a path breaking work or challenges and/or changes widely accepted scholarly interpretations in the field. If no book submitted for the prize meets this criterion, the award shall be given for “the best” book in U.S. women’s and/or gender history. “The best” book recognizes the ideas and originality of the significant historical scholarship being done by historians of U.S. Women’s and/or Gender History and makes a significant contribution to the understanding of U.S. Women’s and/or Gender History.

2018 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize Finalist

Tera W. Hunter, professor of history at Princeton University is a finalist for the 2018 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize. Her book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard University Press: 2017) is one of seven finalists for this prestigious award presented by the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History and Gettysburg College. According to the prize’s press release, Bound in Wedlock is “one of the best works of the year on the Civil War period.

Bound in Wedlock is the first comprehensive history of African American marriage in the nineteenth century. Uncovering the experiences of African American spouses in plantation records, legal and court documents, and pension files, Tera W. Hunter reveals the myriad ways couples adopted, adapted, revised, and rejected white Christian ideas of marriage. Setting their own standards for conjugal relationships, enslaved husbands and wives were creative and, of necessity, practical in starting and supporting families under conditions of uncertainty and cruelty.

Past Winners of the Award include: Eric Foner and Ken Burns.


2018 Deep South Book Prize

Presented by the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South and the University of Alabama, Bound in Wedlock, has won the 2018 Deep South Book Prize.  The prize is award biennially for the best book on the history or culture of the Deep South, and carries with it a cash award and a plaque.

Shortlisted: Longman-History Today Book Prize 2018

Established in 1997, the Longman-History Today awards are made jointly by the publishers Longman and History Today magazine to foster a wider understanding of, and enthusiasm for, history. There are two main awards: Book of the Year, awarded for an author’s first or second book, and the Historical Picture Researcher of the Year. 

Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century

By. Tera W. Hunter


Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century

Marriage and race were closely linked at the onset of the codification of slavery. The very first law defining racial difference set into motion a series of regulations that would make it difficult and eventually impossible for most African Americans to gain legal recognition and security of their marriages and families.

The Virginia General Assembly passed a law in 1643 that defined African women as “tithable” labor.

Tithes were taxes, revenue raised by the colony, that were usually imposed on men engaged in agricultural labor and male heads of households. The law inscribed racial difference by exempting the labor of English women whether indentured servants or free. It distinguished between African women as productive laborers capable of arduous physical fieldwork and English women as weak, dependent wives and servants unsuitable to labor under the same regimen.


  • The tax on African women had to be paid by her master (if she were a slave or servant) by her husband (if she were married) or by herself (if single). The consequences for black marriages and families were grave.
  • Paying the tax could be prohibitive, making it difficult for African Americans to advance economically or purchase freedom.
  • It created obstacles for free blacks to marry, as it burdened their households with levies, unlike white households in which men enjoyed the fruits of the labors of their wives and daughters tax-free.
  • It stigmatized black women’s bodies as constitutionally different and amenable to super-exploitation and marked their inability to overcome all of these hurdles as moral failures.

After establishing the uniqueness of black women’s productive labor in the law, colonists were faced with the potential conflict between their roles as producers of agricultural commodities and reproducers of chattel property.

If the master owned exclusive claims to the products of a slave woman’s labor, who owned the offspring she reproduced?

Some colonists in New England were already operating under the assumption by 1638 that Africans were uniquely situated to being treated as permanent laborers who could be forced to breed future increase on demand. Further South, white Virginians decided to codify the concept into law by altering the rules of English family lineage and descent.


  • The General Assembly condemned African slaves and their descendants to lifetime tenure.
  • Unlike British laws in which paternity determined a child’s birthrights, the children of African slaves followed the condition of their mothers.
  • The law denied the paternity of black fathers and stripped the possibilities that black women could resort to the law for protection against the sexual predations of white men.
  • Fathers could not be held accountable to recognize, care, or support black children or be charged with violations against their mothers.

Though marriage and childbirth were highly valued cultural practices in the West African nations of origin, the institutionalization of slavery as an inheritable, permanent condition would profoundly trouble the consciousness of slave men and women who contemplated either or both.

The creation of the legal foundation for racial slavery in Anglo-America was constituted in the subjugation of black women. African-American women’s sexuality served as a central axis of power of masters over slaves, the means by which gender, racial, and material oppression were enmeshed.

The diminution of motherhood, the negation of fatherhood, the disavowal of sexual violence, and the invalidation of marriage became an interlocking system of white dominance over blacks that would be further codified in the laws and carried out in everyday practice for centuries.

Extract edited from Bound in Wedlock by Tera W. Hunter, published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century

By. Tera W. Hunter