The Identity of Black Women in the Post-Bellum Period 1865-1885

Carl Greenfeld

Family Identity

The role of family was also very important to southern black women after the Civil War. They would no longer have to worry about their husbands or children being sold away from them. They would no longer have to dread a situation in which their husband inhabited a different plantation than the one on which they lived. The freedom these women now had allowed them to live in a situation in which “putting marriages on a legal footing bolstered the ability of ex-slaves to keep their families together, to make decisions about labor and education, and to stay out of the unscrupulous grasp of erstwhile masters.” Black women could raise a family in the manner in which they had observed free white women raising theirs. This desire for family life, however, like every other part of the freedwomen’s life, did not come without hardships and great sacrifices. A complete family and the ability to provide for this family did not just appear after the flames of the Civil War had been extinguished. The black female, in most cases, needed to locate one or more of her immediate family members who had run away or been sold, and also needed to support her family in an era in which black men were paid little and black women even less.

In the aftermath of slavery, black women often did not have their complete family with them. They had husbands and children who had been sold too distant places where they might have died or married other women. These freedwomen were determined to rebuild their families. One of the first things that these women did after slavery was attempt to locate family members who had been sold or otherwise moved away. If there was a situation in which:

Word came through the grapevine that a daughter-sold off at ten or twelve-was working on a farm sixty miles away, her mother would begin walking and would not stop until she stood at the gate of that farm with her daughter in her arms.

These black women were willing to go anywhere and make any sacrifice to rebuild their families. They persevered for many years after the Civil War, moving around the South and trying to find the remnants of their families.

The black woman, however, was often not successful in rebuilding her family. The situation became one in which “the challenge for former slaves was often not so much rebuilding families as creating them.” In many cases their was nothing left or no knowledge available about the freedwoman’s family. This did not stop the quest of black women, but instead made them more determined to form a family life. If they knew they could no longer be with their husbands because they had remarried, been killed, or could not be located, the women found another husband. If these women were themselves remarried, and a former husband tracked them down, they chose whom they preferred to be with; these women did whatever was necessary to put their families back together or to start new ones. As Hine and Thompson state, “The fact that African Americans were able to put their families together as well as they did is a tribute to the abiding respect for family in the culture.” The success and the hard work involved in their endeavor to recreate their families illustrate the importance of family to the southern black woman. The black woman wanted and needed family; she used whatever means were necessary to secure the family life that she craved and that was so valuable to her. Once the freedwoman had rebuilt or recreated her family, she needed to aid in its economic support. According to Anglo-American gender roles, the man went to work to provide financially for his family and the woman took care of the home and the children. This ideology, however, did not conform to the structure of the black southern family in the post-bellum period. The main reason for this is that “black husbands have had lower labor income and higher unemployment than white husbands, and non-labor income for blacks has also been less than that for whites.” The black husband, for the most part, did not have the financial ability to support his family while his wife stayed home. In addition to taking care of the home, raising the children, and tending to the needs of her husband, the southern black woman now had to provide for her family economically.

The effect of this new responsibility on the black female was thus two-fold. First, as discussed earlier in this essay, the women now had to contend with the difficulties and the unfairness that was inherent in the work experience of freedwomen in the South. They would be exposed to the beatings, the sexual abuse, and the lost pay. Second, black women would have to work harder than ever in order to complete all the tasks that they now had committed themselves to; “part of the price [for freedom] was enormously long hours, for black women ended up working in the fields when they were needed-as they often were-in addition to their work at home.” The freedwomen, however, did not complain about the extra effort. They saw the negatives of extra work as being strongly counteracted by the positives of family life. These women now had their freedom, their husbands, and their children, and were not going to permit some inconveniences to stand in the way of their happiness.

Family identity was a strong presence in the African American woman’s life. She was willing to travel any distance or make any effort to regain lost family members or recreate a new family structure. After she rebuilt or created her family, she was willing to sacrifice all the time that she had in her life, whether it was by working, staying home, or as in most cases, both. She would spend all day laboring in the fields or in an employers dwelling, and then come home and take care of her house, her children, and her husband. The freedwoman’s dedication to the institution of family displays the importance of this part of her identity.

Sexual Identity
Gender Identity

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Last Updated: 8/12/16