Events

The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

December 15, 2003 // 11:00pm

At a book launch organized by the Division of United States Studies, Dylan Penningroth addressed the seeming contradiction implicit in the ownership of property by African-American slaves–themselves considered property. Speaking about The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth Century South, which draws heavily upon the records of the Southern Claims Commission and country court archives in Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi, Penningroth examined both the role property played in constructing slave identities and the ties between property and kinship in the immediate aftermath of slavery.

Penningroth painted a picture of the slave quarter of a plantation in which slaves established their property claims through display: any item set out on a front porch or in a side yard came to be recognized as affiliated with the slave or slaves who lived there and thus, even though slaves' property ownership was not legally recognized, an informal understanding was reached both in the slave quarters and in the eyes of slaveholders. White overseers took kickbacks in exchange for permitting slaves to work for themselves and accumulate small amounts of cash; other local whites and travelers bought cheap agricultural goods from the slaves. Although these transactions were too small to upset the white establishment, they were far from insignificant to slaves themselves. Their possessions were often modest (corn, grinders, brooms, a wagon, a cow, occasionally a horse) but they represented an opportunity for a slightly better life for their owners: higher quality food for the family or a chance to till a plot of land for private income rather than for the master. The sense of autonomy, of mastery of surroundings, of resistance to the system, Penningroth emphasized, was often more significant than the monetary gains.

But property ownership was as much about relationships to other people as it was about resistance or about the property itself. In the absence of formally recognized family ties, Penningroth declared, kinship during slavery was an ideology and a struggle over belonging. He described the dimensions of slave ownership in Ghana on the Gold Coast of Africa, providing a comparison with African slavery in the United States. The most significant difference, he found, stemmed from the understanding of the place of slaves within the kinship structure of the larger society. In Ghana, slaves were folded into the broader society so intimately that, as "family" members, they were sometimes able to inherit their master's property.

The end of slavery touched off negotiations over "the claims of kinfolk"–over how black people were going to relate to each other in the new world of freedom." Penningroth described the importance of the freedmen's courts in adjudicating disputes over property ownership in the newly emancipated African-American community. Although the most violent disputes were with whites, fully 40% of debt cases and 52% of property disputes brought to the freedmen's courts were between blacks. The starkest cases were between husbands and wives struggling to relate to one another in a new context. Their former masters could no longer assert ownership of their bodies and their labor, but now the freedmen's courts heard numerous cases of men asserting what they felt was justifiable ownership over their wives' time and labor, and of women disputing the validity of that claim. As black men were employed further from their homes for wage work after emancipation and black women's work became centered closer to their homes and unpaid, women's contributions to their families were often undervalued. Husbands felt justified in beating wives for what they considered the under-performance of their family duties; wives tried to assert control over their work and their lives.

Because "slavery was an institution that involved both a person and property," Ira Berlin commented, slavery embodied the contradiction of the slave as property and as property-owner. He noted that scholars of slavery fall into two competing schools, one of which views slavery as a system of domination and expropriation backed by the power of the state, while the second focuses on the slaves as having agency and as resisting in creative ways. Penningroth, Berlin stated, bridges the divide by understanding that slaves created life, turning the family into a unit of production as well as reproduction, even while they suffered the oppressive slave system. Institutions such as the family, church, politics, gender roles were all sources of both oppression and liberation. When freedom arrived, it did not eliminate the old institutions; rather, the old systems became enmeshed with new ones and relationships had to be renegotiated. Penningroth's volume is important, he declared, because of its exploration of those negotiations and for its understanding that in the period immediately after emancipation, property became the basis of a web of new relationships.

Philippa Strum, Director of U.S. Studies (202) 691-4129

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