Conference - The Black Family: Between the Civil War and the Era of Civil Rights

January 31, 2002 // 11:00pm

Summary of a meeting with Dylan Penningroth, Assistant Professor of History, University of Virginia; Sharon Harley, Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies and Director of Women and Work Research Seminars, University of Maryland; James O. Horton, Benjamin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History, George Washington University, and Director, the Afro-American Communities Project of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent decades about the black family and the kinds of public policy that would best benefit black families. Much of the discussion, however, has centered around the assumption that black families are dysfunctional and that the reason can be traced to the legacy of slavery. The program participants examined that assumption by looking at the black family in historical perspective, from the decades preceding the Civil War through the 1930s. They agreed that while slavery had a detrimental effect on black families, it destroyed neither them nor their communities.

Prof. Penningroth drew on Southern court cases of the 1860s and 1870s to ascertain the meaning of family and property to black litigants. During slavery, the definition of property was customary rather than legal. After the Civil War, female ex-slaves turned to courts to establish their property rights, particularly in the context of marriage. The question of who would control women's labor and property sometimes led to domestic violence, with some men asserting their "right" to force their wives to work and some women turning to their parents for protection. The family was viewed as a resource unit, both for work and for protection.

Prof. Sharon Harley discussed attitudes toward women's work and the construction of gender roles in African-American communities of the 1880s through the 1930s. Women were caught in the contradiction between the perception of woman's proper place as the home and the reality of their need to produce income. Because there were so few public spaces in which black men could assert their authority, and because the community correlated manhood with the size of a paycheck, the question of authority in the home became a central one. Simultaneously, political rights became a family matter, with many couples viewing a black man's vote as a family vote and wives accompanying their husbands to the voting booth.

The work done by Prof. James Horton on free black families in the North during the 1850s and 1860s uncovered vibrant black urban communities with stable family situations. 80% of the black households in Boston, for example, were two-parent households. There were black mutual aid societies, drama groups, debating societies, choir groups, etc., almost all of them involving both sexes. Barbershops became major political forums; many contentious issues were resolved through "trials" in black churches rather than in courtrooms. Black men caucused with black women to decide on their voting choices, and voting day became a festival day in many communities. The black family was an economic, political and social unit, not a problem.


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