Slave Marriages

Georgia Slave Marriages

Slave Narratives are a collection of accounts taken by government workers assigned to go out in about the year 1937 and record the experiences of former slaves before they had all passed away. This work was done under the Work Projects Administration, an agency of the United States government, brought into being by President Roosevelt during his administration. There are many more states where this work was done and many more slave narratives but my research to date has only included South Carolina and Georgia. For a substantial collection of the slave narratives go to Gutenberg Project under Work Projects Administration for further accounts.

What follows are accounts by former slaves from Georgia describing in their own words about slave marriages. Keep in mind the accounts were based on memory and about 72 years had passed since they had had that experience. Of the broader list of slave narratives accounts (this list only includes interesting accounts from those who shared their stories about their experience) many could not remember the various things that had happened to them and some did not want to give their experience on various subjects.

“When a slave wanted to git married up wid a gal, he didn’t ax de gal,
but he went and told Marster ’bout it. Marster would talk to de gal and
if she was willin’, den Marster would tell all de other Niggers us was
a-goin’ to have a weddin’. Dey would all come up to de big house and
Marster would tell de couple to jine hands and jump backwards over a
broomstick, and den he pernounced ’em man and wife. Dey didn’t have to
have no licenses or nothin’ lak dey does now. If a man married up wid
somebody on another place, he had to git a pass from his Marster, so as
he could go see his wife evvy Wednesday and Sadday nights. When de
patterollers cotched slaves out widout no passes, dey evermore did beat
’em up. Leastways dat’s what Mammy told me.

[Jasper Battle, Part I, Georgia]

No promiscuous relationships were allowed. If a man wanted to marry he
merely pointed out the woman of his choice to the master. He in turn
called her and told her that such and such an individual wished her for
a wife. If she agreed they were pronounced man and wife and were
permitted to live together.

[Henry Bland, Part I, Georgia]

Sin, according to Rias Body, who voices the sentiment of the great
majority of aged Negroes, is that, or everything, which one does and
says “not in the name of the Master”. The holy command, “Whatever ye do,
do it in My name,” is subjected to some very unorthodox interpretations
by many members of the colored race. Indeed, by their peculiar
interpretation of this command, it is established that “two clean sheets
can’t smut”, which means that a devout man and woman may indulge in the
primal passion without committing sin.

[Rias Body, Part I, Georgia]

“Folkses didn’ make no big to-do over weddings like they do now. When
slaves got married they jus’ laid down the broom on the floor and the
couple jined hands and jumped back-uds over the broomstick. I done seed
’em married that way many a time. Sometimes my marster would fetch
Mistess down to the slave quarters to see a weddin’. Effen the slaves
gittin’ married was house servants, sometimes they married on the back
porch or in the back yard at the big ‘ouse but plantation niggers what
was field hands married in they own cabins. The bride and groom jus’
wore plain clothes kazen they didn’ have no more.

“When the young marsters and mistesses at the big houses got married
they ‘lowed the slaves to gadder on the porch and peep through the
windows at the weddin’. Mos’en generally they ‘ud give the young couple
a slave or two to take with them to they new home. My marster’s chilluns
was too young to git married befo’ the war was over. They was seven of
them chilluns; four of ’em was gals.

[James Bolton, Part I, Georgia]

Courtships were brief.

The “old man”, who was past the age for work and only had to watch what
went on at the quarters, was usually the first to notice a budding
friendship, which he reported to the master. The couple was then
questioned and, if they consented, were married without the benefit of
clergy.

[Della Briscoe, Part I, Georgia]

“De white folks allus helped deir Niggers wid de weddin’s and buyed deir
clothes for ’em. I ‘members once a man friend of mine come to ax could
he marry one of our gals. Marster axed him a right smart of questions
and den he told him he could have her, but he mustn’t knock or cuff her
’bout when he didn’t want her no more, but to turn her loose.

[Julia Bunch, Part I, Georgia]

If you want to go a courtin’–et would take a week or so to get your
gal. Sometimes some fool nigger would bring a gal a present–like
“pulled-candy” and sich like. I had no time for sich foolishness. You
would pop the question to boss man to see if he was willing for you to
marry de gal. There was no minister or boss man to marry you–no
limitations at all. Boss man would jes say: “Don’t forget to bring me a
little one or two for next year” De Boss man would fix a cottage for two
and dere you was established for life.

“If you want to go a courtin’, I sho’ you where to go,
Right down yonder in de house below,
Clothes all dirty an’ ain’t got no broom,
Ole dirty clothes all hangin’ in de room.
Ask’d me to table, thought I’d take a seat,
First thing I saw was big chunk o’meat.
Big as my head, hard as a maul,
ash-cake, corn bread, bran an’ all.”

[Marshal Butler, Part I, Georgia]

The Willis family did not object to girls and boys courting. There were
large trees, and often in the evenings the boys from other plantations
would come over to see the girls on the Willis plantation. They would
stand in groups around the trees, laughing and talking. If the courtship
reached the point of marriage a real marriage ceremony was performed
from the Bible and the man was given a pass to visit his wife weekly.
Following a marriage a frolic took place and the mistress saw to it that
everyone was served nice foods for the occasion.

[Mariah Callaway, Part I, Georgia]

Courtships were very brief for as soon as a man or woman began to
manifest interest in the opposite sex, the master busied himself to
select a wife or husband and only in rare cases was the desire of the
individual considered. When the selection was made, the master read the
ceremony and gave the couple a home. He always requested, or rather
demanded, that they be fruitful. A barren woman was separated from her
husband and usually sold.

[Berry Clay, Part I, Georgia]

At this time marriages resulted from brief courtships. After the consent
of the girl was obtained, it was necessary to seek permission from the
master, whether she lived on the same or an adjoining plantation. In the
latter case, the marriage rites were performed by her master. The
minister was not used in most instances–the ceremony [HW: being] read
from a testament by the owner of the bride. Marriages were nearly always
performed out of doors in the late afternoon. The bride’s wedding dress
was fashioned of cloth made on the plantation from a pattern of her own
designing. Attendants at marriages were rare. After the ceremony, the
guests danced far into the night by music from the fiddle and banjo.
Refreshments consisting of ginger cakes, barbecue, etc., were served.
Such a couple, belonging to two different masters, did not keep house.
The [HW: husband] was allowed to visit his wife on Wednesday night and
Saturday when he might remain through Sunday. All marriage unions were
permanent and a barren wife was considered the only real cause for
separation.

[Pierce Cody, Part I, Georgia]

“When slaves got married, de man had to ax de gal’s ma and pa for her
and den he had to ax de white folkses to ‘low ’em to git married. De
white preacher married ’em. Dey hold right hands and de preacher ax de
man: ‘Do you take dis gal to do de bes’ you kin for her?’ and if he say
yes, den dey had to change hands and jump over de broomstick and dey wuz
married. Our white folkses wuz all church folkses and didn’t ‘low no
dancin’ at weddin’s but dey give ’em big suppers when deir slaves got
married. If you married some gal on another place, you jus’ got to see
her on Wednesday and Sadday nights and all de chilluns b’longed to de
gal’s white folkses. You had to have a pass to go den, or de
patterollers wuz sho’ to git you. Dem patterollers evermore did beat up
slaves if dey cotched ’em off dey own Marster’s place ‘thout no pass. If
Niggers could out run ’em and git on deir home lines dey wuz safe.

[Willis Cofer, Part I, Georgia]

“I never seed no slave marriage. Ma went to ’em sometimes, but she never
‘lowed us to go, ’cause she said us wuz too little. Marse Billie sont
atter his own preacher, and de couple would come up to de Big ‘Ouse and
stand in de parlor door to be married ‘fore Marster and Mist’ess. Den
de colored folkses would go back down to da cabins and have a weddin’
supper and frolic and dance. Dat’s what ma told me ’bout ’em.

[Martha Colquitt, Part I, Georgia]

A preacher was never used to perform a wedding ceremony on the Ormond
plantation. After the man told the master about the woman of his choice
and she had been called and had agreed to the plan, all that was
necessary was for the couple to join hands and jump over a broom which
had been placed on the ground.

[George Eason, Part I, Georgia]

All of the marriages ware performed by the colored preacher
who read a text from the Bible and then pronounced the couple being
married as man and wife.

[Lewis Favor, Part I, Georgia]

His mother, Barbara Booker, belonged to “Marse Simmie and Marse Jabie
Booker”–(“Marse Simmie wuz the one what named me”) his father, Franklin
Gresham belonged to “Marse George Gresham.” The Bookers and Greshams
lived on adjoining plantations and were the best of friends and
neighbors. They would not sell a slave no matter what happened, so when
Barbara and Franklin wanted to marry they had the consent of their
owners and settled down on the Booker plantation where Barbara continued
her work and Franklin spending all his spare time with her, although he
belonged to the Greshams and kept up his work for them. He had a pass to
go and come as he pleased.

When a negro
couple wanted to marry the consent of the owners was ceremony enough and
they set up a home as man and wife and lived on “‘thout all dis ‘vocin’
lak dey has terday.”

[Wheeler Gresham, Part II, Georgia]

Marriages were very easily performed on the Griffin Plantation: After
securing the consent of both owners the rest of the ceremony consisted
only in having the couple jump the broom. In the event, the bride and
groom lived on separate plantations the groom was given a pass to visit
her on week ends, beginning Saturday afternoon and ending Sunday
evening.

[Heard Griffin, Part II, Georgia]

“Folks didn’t even git married back in dem days lak dey does now,
leastwise slaves didn’t. If a slave wanted to marry up wid a gal he
knocked on his Marster’s door and told him ’bout it. If his Marstar
laked de idea he told him to go on and take de gal and to treat her
right; dat was all dere was to slaves gittin’ married.

[Bill Heard, Part II, Georgia]

A marriage ceremony was performed after both owners had given their
consent, when bride and groom did not belong to the same master. Often
neither owner would sell their slave to the other, in which case it was
necessary for the husband to be given a pass in order to visit his wife.

[Emmaline Heard, Part II, Georgia]

“On some places de bosses kep’ nigger mens at stud but Gen’l Heard an’
Mars Tom didn’t low nobody to live in sin on dey plantation. Us wuz all
married by a white preacher, just lak white folks.

[Robert Heard, Part II, Georgia]

A slave desiring marriage with a slave on another plantation must get
his master’s consent after which he went to see the master of his
prospective mate. If both agreed, the marriage was set for the following
Saturday night. All marriages usually took place on Saturday nights. The
master of the bridegroom would then pick a straw broom or a pole and
give two slaves the job of holding the ends of it. To be devilish they
often held the stick too high and would not lower it until the master
asked them to. After the bridegroom made the jump over the stick, the
knot of matrimony was considered tied. Without any more ceremony the
bride became his legal wife. If it so happened that the bride and groom
lived on different plantations the groom would be given two passes a
week, one to visit her on Wednesday nights and another which permitted
him to remain over the weekend, from Saturday until Monday morning.
Following the marriage there would take place the usual “frolic” ending
up with several members drunk. These were thrown into the seed house
where they remained all night.

[Benjamin Henderson, Part II, Georgia]

“Weddin’s? Didn’t you know slaves didn’t have sho’nough weddin’s? If a
slave man saw a girl to his lakin’ and wanted her to make a home for
him, he just axed her owner if it was all right to take her. If the
owner said ‘yes’ then the man and girl settled down together and behaved
theyselves. If the girl lived on one plantation and the man on another
that was luck for the girl’s marster, ’cause the chillun would belong to
him.

[Jefferson Henry, Part II, Georgia]

“Whenever any of our white folks’ gals got married dere was two or three
weeks of celebratin’. What a time us did have if it was one of our own
little misses gittin’ married! When de day ‘rived, it was somepin’ else.
De white folks was dressed up to beat de band and all de slaves was up
on deir toes to do evvything jus’ right and to see all dey could. Atter
de preacher done finished his words to de young couple, den dey had de
sho’ ‘nough weddin’ feast. Dere was all sorts of meat to choose f’um at
weddin’ dinners–turkeys, geese, chickens, peafowls, and guineas, not to
mention good old ham and other meats.

[Charlie Hudson, Part II, Georgia]

The presence of slave visitors was not encouraged, for Mr. Huff usually
purchased women with children and there were no married couples living
on his place. However, young Negro men would often sneak in the cabins
at night–usually coming through the windows–and visit with their
sweethearts.

[Annie Huff. Part II, Georgia]

“Slaves didn’t even git married lak folks does now. Dere warn’t none of
dem newfangled licenses to buy. All dey had to do was tell Marster dey
wanted to marry up. If it was all right wid him he had ’em jump over a
broom and dey was done married. Slaves couldn’t git out and do no
courtin’ on other plantations widout deir marsters knowed it, ’cause dey
had to have passes to leave de place whar dey lived. If dey was brash
enough to go off widout no pass de paterollers would cotch ’em for sho,
and dey would nigh beat ’em to death. Dat didn’t stop courtin’,
‘specially on our place, ’cause dey jus’ tuk anybody dey laked; it
didn’t matter whose man or ‘oman dey had.

“Norman Green had two wives and dey didn’t live fur from our plantation.
I knows ’bout dat, ’cause in years to come I lived on de same farm whar
dey was. It was dis way: his fust wife, Tildy, was sold off from him in
slavery time. He got married again, and atter freedom come Tildy come
right back to him. He kept both his wives right dar in de same one-room
cabin. Deir beds sot right ‘side each other. One wife’s chilluns was all
boys and de other didn’t have nothin’ but gals.

[Lina Hunter, Part II, Georgia]

Mrs. Jackson clearly related the method of courtship and marriage on her
master’s plantation. Dr. Hoyle never selected the mates for his slaves
but left it to each person to chose whomever he wished. However, the
selection would have to be made from among the slaves on some of his
friends plantations. They were not allowed to chose anyone on their own
plantation. The person chosen was allowed to call on Sundays after
getting a “pass” from his master. She told how courtship was carried on
in those days. A young man courted the girl in the presence of the
parents. Every now and then he would be seen looking at the clock. When
he left, the mother would go to the door with him. When the master was
properly notified of the intended marriage, he would prepare a feast and
call in his own preacher to perform the ceremony. After the ceremony
everybody was allowed to take part in the feast. When Mrs. Jackson’s
oldest sister married the master roasted a pig and stuck a red apple in
its mouth. She smiled over this incident.

[Camila Jackson, Part II, Georgia]

When asked about the negro marriage customs of slavery days, Susie
stated that her mother said that “she and Jim (Susie’s daddy) when they
got in love and wanted to marry, jest held each others hands and jumped
over the broom and they was married”.

[Susie Johnson, Part II, Georgia]

Charlie’s parents were married by the “broom stick ceremony.” The Master
and Mistress were present at the wedding. The broom was laid down on the
floor, the couple held each other’s hands and stepped backward over it,
then the Master told the crowd that the couple were man and wife.

[Charlie King, Part III, Georgia]

When a couple wished to marry the man secured the permission of his
intended wife’s owner and if he consented, a broom was placed on the
floor and the couple jumped over it and were then pronounced man and
wife.

[George Lewis, Part III, Georgia]

When asked if people in the old days got married by jumping over a broom
she made a chuckling sound and replied: “No, us had de preacher but us
didn’t have to buy no license and I can’t see no sense in buyin’ a
license nohow, ’cause when dey gits ready to quit, dey just quits.”

[Liza Mention, Part III, Georgia]

Concerning marriages, Pattillo believes in marriages as they were in the
olden days. “Ef two people felt they wuz made for each other, they wuz
united within themselves when they done git the master’s ‘greement, then
live together as man and wife, an’ that was all. Now, you got to buy a
license and pay the preacher.”

[G W Pattillo, Part III, Georgia]

“My fust chap was born in slavery. Me
and my husband lived on diffunt plantashuns till after Freedom come. My
Ma and my Pa lived on diffunt places too. My Pa uster come evy Sadday
evenin’ to chop wood out uv de wood lot and pile up plenty fur Ma till
he come agin. On Wensday evenin’, Pa uster come after he been huntin’
and bring in possum and coon. He sho could get ’em a plenty.

[Nancy Settles, Part III, Georgia]

Robert chuckled when he was asked to tell about his wedding. “Miss,” he
said, “I didn’t have no sho’ ‘nough weddin’. Me and Julie jus’ jumped
over de broom in front of Marster and us was married. Dat was all dere
was to it. Dat was de way most of de slave folks got married dem days.
Us knowed better dan to ax de gal when us wanted to git married. Us jus’
told our Marster and he done de axin’. Den, if it was all right wid de
gal, Marster called all de other Niggers up to de big house to see us
jump over de broom. If a slave wanted to git married to somebody on
another place, den he told Marster and his Marster would talk to de
gal’s Marster. Whatever dey ‘greed on was all right. If neither one of
’em would sell one of de slaves what wanted to git married, den dey let
’em go ahead and jump over de broom, and de man jus’ visited his wife on
her Marster’s place, mostly on Wednesday and Sadday nights. If it was a
long piece off, he didn’t git dar so often. Dey had to have passes den,
’cause de patterollers would git ’em sho’ if dey didn’t. Dat meant a
thrashin’, and dey didn’t miss layin’ on de stick, when dey cotch a
Nigger.

[Robert Shepherd, Part III, Georgia]

“Dem old slavery-time weddin’s warn’t lak de way folkses does when dey
gits married up now; dey never had to buy no license den. When a slave
man wanted to git married up wid a gal he axed his marster, and if it
was all right wid de marster den him and de gal come up to de big house
to jump de broomstick ‘fore deir white folkses. De gal jumped one way
and de man de other. Most times dere was a big dance de night dey got
married.

“If a slave wanted to git married up wid a gal what didn’t live on dat
same plantation he told his marster, den his marster went and talked to
de gal’s marster. If bofe deir marsters ‘greed den dey jumped de
broomstick; if neither one of de marsters wouldn’t sell to de other one,
de wife jus’ stayed on her marster’s place and de husband was ‘lowed a
pass what let him visit her twict a week on Wednesday and Sadday nights.

[Paul Smith, Part III, Georgia]

As far as marriage was concerned on the Brown estate, Mr. Brown, himself
placed every two individuals together that he saw fit to. There was no
other wedding ceremony. If any children were born from the union, Mr.
Brown named them. One peculiarity on the Brown estate was the fact that
the slaves were allowed no preference or choice as to who his or her
mate would be. Another peculiarity was these married couples were not
permitted to sleep together except when the husband received permission
to spend the night with his wife. Ward is the father of 17 children
whose whereabouts he does not know.

[William Ward, Part IV, Georgia]

Asked, how did the slaves marry? She replied, “Ah jest don’t ‘member
seeing any marry ’cause ah wuz so small. Ah wuz jest eleven years old de
time of de war but ah’ members hearing some of dem say dat when two
slaves wanted to git married dey would hafta get permission from dere
marster. Den dey would come ‘fore de marster an’ he would have dem to
jump over a broom an den ‘nounce dem married.”

[Lula Washington, Part IV, Georgia]

“I never seed but one marriage on Old Marster’s plantation, and I never
will forgit dat day. Miss Polly had done gimme one of little Miss Mary’s
sho’ ‘nough pretty dresses and I wore it to dat weddin’, only dey never
had no real weddin’. Dey was jus’ married in de yard by de colored
preacher and dat was all dere was to it.

[Frances Willingham, Part IV, Georgia]

When Adeline was fourteen years old she and Lewis married, or rather it
was like this: “We didn’t have no preacher when we married, my Marster
and Mistess said they didn’t care, and Lewis’s Master and Mistress said
they didn’t care, so they all met up at my white folks’ house and had us
come in and told us they didn’t mind our marryin’. My Marster said, ‘Now
you and Lewis wants to marry and there ain’t no objections so go on and
jump over the broom stick together and you is married’. That was all
there was to it and we was married. I lived on with my white folks and
he lived on with his and kept comin’ to see me jest like he had done
when he was a courtin’. He never brought me any presents ’cause he
didn’t have no money to buy them with, but he was good to me and that
was what counted.”

[Adeline Willis, Part IV, Georgia]

When a male slave reached the age of twenty-one he was allowed to court.
The same was true of a girl that had reached the age of eighteen. If a
couple wished to marry they had to get permission from the master who
asked each in turn if they wished to be joined as man and wife and if
both answered that they did they were taken into the master’s house
where the ceremony was performed. Mr. Womble says that he has actually
seen one of these weddings and that it was conducted in the following
manner: “A broom was placed in the center of the floor and the couple
was told to hold hands. After joining hands they were commanded to jump
over the broom and then to turn around and jump back.

“After this they were pronounced man and wife.” A man who was small in
stature was never allowed to marry a large, robust woman. Sometimes when
the male slaves on one plantation were large and healthy looking and the
women slaves on some nearby plantation looked like they might be good
breeders the two owners agreed to allow the men belonging to the one
visit the women belonging to the other, in fact they encouraged this
sort of thing in hopes that they would marry and produce big healthy
children. In such cases passes were given freely.

[George Womble, Part IV, Georgia]

Marriages were usually performed by the colored preacher although in
most cases it was only necessary for the man to approach “Old Marster”
and tell him that he wanted a certain woman for his wife. “Old Marster”
then called the woman in question and if she agreed they were pronounced
man and wife. If the woman was a prolific breeder and if the man was a
strong, healthy-looking individual she was forced to take him as a
husband whether she wanted to or not.

[Henry Wright, Part IV, Georgia]

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