Family, Slavery, and Flight

Brenda E. Stevenson, UCLA

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A circa 1861 tintype photograph of an African American family. Historical Society of Pennsylvania Cased Photos Collection (#3139)

From the instant that Africans experienced capture to be enslaved in the Americas, they fled. These men and women took every opportunity to escape—while being marched to the coast; during the transport to the slave ship; throughout the middle passage, which boasted at least one ship-board slave revolt for every month of the trade; and, of course, when they reached land again in the Americas. Colonial-era newspapers in the Americas were filled with advertisements searching for those who had escaped, such as the one Margaret Arbuthnott purchased in 1745 seeking information on “two new Negroe Men, imported from Gambia” who “understand no English,” or that of James Buchanan in 1770 looking for “three negro fellows, imported this last summer from Africa.” Enslaved men, women, and youth fled their bondage for numerous reasons—physical, sexual, psychological abuse; fear of, or as a response to, sale; and, of course, the great desire of humanity to live as, and with, free persons. Indeed, attempts of enslaved blacks to flee their bondage were so pervasive that flight clearly was the natural response to enslavement.

Likewise, it is clear that just as the enslaved were determined to gain their freedom, they also were determined to establish and preserve families. Family was central, and essential, for those who fled. Treated by owners as isolated individuals, rather than as persons who were part of kinship networks, enslaved people who fled viewed family as both a physical and psychological destination—people to return to, to be united with, or with whom they shared familial relations and responsibilities.  James Christian, for example, fled because he could not marry. He believed that “he would stand a better chance of gaining his object in Canada.” Alfred Brewer of Choctaw, Mississippi, escaped after his master brutally whipped him for marrying the woman Alfred chose. Venus, on the other hand, was thought to have left to return to where she had been “purchased a few years ago,” presumably to seek out family and friends.

Flight was a gendered and generational activity that affected family structure and stability accordingly. Young men dominated those persons who escaped, comprising at least four-fifths of fugitives. Men in general had many greater opportunities to escape. Men were more likely to be given a pass to travel for work or recreation. Those with special skills were often permitted to be on the road, and those skills could provide them with the means of earning funds with which to survive once they escaped. Meanwhile, women had greater child care responsibilities, which kept them closer to home. In addition, men were much more likely to be separated from family through sale, since men were sold more often. This frequent loss or rupture of family ties (typically three to five times during a male’s life), often prompted flight. The sale of a wife or children also could provoke a man’s escape, as Charles Ball, a Maryland slave, explained of his own father’s reasons for escape—he left after his wife was sold.

Sometimes, men and female kin escaped together or in a coordinated fashion. When John Wilson escaped, for example, his sister Sarah followed the next week. Not a few adult sons took their mothers with them, as did Jupiter and Robin who escaped with their mother, Dinah. Husbands and wives also sometimes managed to escape together. Moreover, some husbands were determined that their wives reach freedom first. Mary Reeves’s husband, for example, was a skilled slave who had managed to save $100 with which to bribe a ship’s captain to aid in Mary’s escape. He planned to follow, though it is unclear if he succeeded.

Children often determined if a woman would attempt escape. Mothers’ responsibility for small children routinely prohibited them from leaving, since taking the young almost certainly meant failure. Charity Still’s flight was commemorated in her son William Still’s book The Underground Rail Road. She initially tried to escape with her four children, but they all were captured. She subsequently escaped with the two girls, leaving her boys (William’s brothers) behind at her master’s and one of the girls on the road. Her decisions undoubtedly were unbearably difficult ones. Some mothers did successfully take their children with them. Still wrote, for example, of families who had, miraculously, escaped, including Harriet Shephard, who fled with her five children. Many young women ran away before they had children or when they were pregnant. Mary Clay, for example, advertised for the slave woman Jude who had many “scars in her face and has been subject to running away since she was ten years old.” Twelve-year-old Margaret and her teen sister Lizzy managed to flee together. Sally Saws, “big with child,” and another woman “about four months gone with child” were among many expecting women who sought family and freedom simultaneously. If caught, they could expect torture and sale, sometimes away from their infants. Still, the idea of bearing and rearing their children in slavery, or without supportive kin, seemed worth the risk to some.

Family was so important that the many and varied threats and losses brought on by slavery proved to be the impetus for flight, regardless of the obvious devastating consequences if caught. Some managed to succeed, either reuniting with family members who had left previously or creating new families for themselves once they reached free territory. To have a family, after all, was an essential marker of freedom that the enslaved relentlessly sought to establish and fought to protect and maintain from the beginning of the slave era to its end. Indeed, escape to freedom would have lost much of its luster without the specter of a family gained at the end of one’s journey.

Bibliography

Ball, Charles. Fifty Years in Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave. New York: John Campbell, 1837.

Stevenson, Brenda. Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Still, William. The Underground Rail Road. Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872.

Windley, Lathan A., ed. Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from the 1730s to 1790. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Yetman, Norman, ed. Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999.