Prof. Tera Hunter Explores The Meaning Of Slave Marriages In New Book, ‘Bound In Wedlock’

“…and so far inferior, that they [African Americans] had no rights which the white man was bound to respect–” Chief Justice Roger B. Taney on his decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case.

Unfortunately, history and even present-day has been, and still is, in total agreement with Taney’s beliefs on race relations. Even in marriage for that matter. During slavery, for black couples who were lucky enough to enter marriage, African American unions were at the discretion of their masters. Furthermore, an overwhelming number of slave marriages, many of which were not legally recognized, were broken-up by auction blocks which prevented strong family ties within the black community.

Tera Hunter, Professor of History and African American Studies at Princeton University and author of To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors After the Civil War, has penned the unprecedented first comprehensive history of African American marriage in the nineteenth century with her new book, Bound in Wedlock: Slavery and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Harvard University Press).

Here, in this brilliantly researched book, Hunter examines the experiences of slave marriages as well as the marriages of free blacks. She also looks at the ways in which married couples rejected the Christian ideals of marriage, among other issues.


VIBE caught up with Prof. Hunter to get the scoop on her new book, why slaves aspired to get married, what inspired her research and more.


VIBE: What’s the purpose of Bound in Wedlock
Tera Hunter: The main objective of the book is to explore the meaning of marriage for African Americans during slavery and after emancipation. I examine how slaves constructed intimate bonds that they called “marriage” in a context of severe constraints. I also look at how free blacks (some of who were married to slaves) were impacted by living in a society in which enslavement was racialized. Their relationships, in many instances, were marked negatively because of “guilt” by association.

Where did you get the inspiration to tackle this research?
I was inspired by the stories of African Americans as they struggled to reconnect their families after the Civil War. Finding lost relatives, protecting family members from threats from enemy retaliations, giving shelter and food to kin and extended kin-folk were among the highest priorities of slaves once they were freed.

One of the things that stood out most to me was the enduring ties between husbands and wives, despite separations that were initiated by slaveholders before and during the war. Couples went to great lengths to find previous partners, not knowing whether they were dead or alive or whether they had remarried. The deep love and affection of women and men for one another are revealed in these efforts. I decided that I needed to write about the period of slavery, as well as the period after emancipation, to encompass the entire nineteenth century to be able to fully capture what these couples were up against and what they achieved.

Considering the anguish of being enslaved, why would a slave want to get married, and what were the benefits of slaves marrying?
Marriage was an important emotional bond, an affirmation of mutuality, intimacy, and usually, love. It was also motivated by practical needs that spouses provided for one another in their domestic lives. Marriage was an important basis for building and extending their social networks within and across plantations and towns. Familial and marital ties were crucial to enslaved people as they provided a buffer against the degradation they faced as exploited laborers.

For those who identified as Christian, marriage was an expression of their faith and a way of signaling that their relationships were endowed by God–a superior force above their masters. In some cases, those who participated in religious ceremonies forced slaveholders to think twice about separating them, though this was not guaranteed to stop them.

Many of us know about rebellions such as running away and violence against slave masters or even destroying tools, but what were some ways that slaves opposed Christian ideals of marriage?
Slaves created a variety of intimate bonds out of necessity. They did not define all heterosexual coupling as marriage. For example, they did not always agree with their masters who considered “marriage” only those relationships that they affirmed and sanctioned. But ultimately, masters could not dictate personal feelings. Sex, both inter- and interracial, could be thrust upon slaves for whatever purposes enslavers desired. But marriage was ultimately a mutual exchange of affections and services, a chosen emotional and social bond. Persons could be forced to play the roles and abide by the form, but that did not make a marriage.

On page 64, you discussed the tax that “encouraged African men in some counties in Virginia to marry European women to avoid the extra tax burden they would bear by interracial marriage.” Were marriages between blacks and whites normal during this period?
The 1643 tax was implemented as a “tithe” on African women’s agricultural labor, unlike European women’s labor which was not taxed. This posed a burden on free black families as it meant that their households were assessed an extra economic hurdle. Most people married within their race, but the tax surely did encourage some black men to choose to marry white women. This was early in American history when interracial marriages were not yet widely outlawed. The tax would not have been the only reason for interracial marriages, however. There was quite a bit of interactions across racial lines, especially among the working classes, which would have put people near one another socially.

Did slave masters benefit by allowing slaves to marry? If so, how?
Absolutely. Slaveholders perceived marriage to be an instrument of social control. It helped to pacify the slave force by creating more stability and by encouraging less resistance. Marriage also gave masters an alibi against criticism from abolitionists. They tolerated a form of marriage without giving slaves all the rights and privileges that free people enjoyed.

Why were some slave masters intent on not recognizing marriage among their slaves?
It is important to note that while most masters recognized their slaves’ informal marriages those relationships had no legal standing. Southern slaveholding societies refused to recognize legal rights primarily because they believed that doing so would violate their property rights. Legal marriage acknowledged the sovereignty of two people merging into the proverbial “one”—until death. This was in direct contradiction with slavery, which was a permanent, inheritable condition. Slave owners refused to yield their rights to dominate their slaves, including separating couples and selling them off to increase their profits. They also wanted to maintain control over the children that couples produced.

What other areas of research would you like to see on slavery?
I would like to see more research not just on slavery, per se, but on the era of slavery so that we also incorporate the lives of free blacks. My book looks at the relationships of mixed status (slave and free) couples and free blacks married to each other. We need to know more about what it meant to be a free black person in a slave society.

You can purchase Bound in Wedlock over at