Foundry Series: "Bound in Wedlock": Marriage after the War

so Tara W hunter is a professor of history in african-american studies at Princeton University a native of Miami Florida and a graduate of Duke University in Yale University her research and teaching focus on labor gender race and southern history from early Americas to present times dr. hunter has written and edited multiple publications in her most recent book was the 2017 award-winning bound in wedlock slave in free black marriage in the 19th century we have copies at the desk if you'd like to purchase them when you're done today she has also written pieces for and been featured on numerous media outlets including New York Times The Washington Post Christian Science Monitor evany and National Public Radio so without any further ado please something welcome so this is the marriage certificate of my great great grandparents Helen Martha hunter from 1870 they were the first intra-racial couple in the family who we can say with certainty legally married emmalin in Moses's marisota because it's quite typical of many such documents that came out during the Reconstruction period when slave secured their freedom their citizenship and a host of rights including the right to marry if their story encapsulates many aspects of African American marital love and struggles in the 19th century most of their ancestors did not have the same opportunity that they did to choose their own names and marriage fighters slaves were not allowed to marry legally but they were allowed to marry informally with their masters permission when they decided to Wed they were forced to revise the standard wedding vows to make the bit the status their status as chattel property as one white minister slave ceremony frankly reminded the couple their marriage was only binding until death or distance do you part a black preacher identified the persons to blame or bluntly by saying to death or buckram party feed the white man marriage under slavery was the foundation upon which slave families were built so we can't really fully appreciate how the enslaved endured those those centuries of oppression without understanding the importance of family to them at the same time family was nearly always at the center of the most horrendous podrace spouses children and other thing family members were frequently sold away or otherwise separated from one another against their will so probably many of you here in Richmond know the story Henry box Brown he actually leave chair Richmond who was in a slave person here and he mailed himself in that box from Richmond to Philadelphia and he had room enough only for his his his body and a few biscuits and a flask of water and he was quite successful in reaching his destination within 27 hours but most people don't know the story behind that escape what motivated him to escape it was his wife and children being sold away from him that drove him to the brink he had done all that he could humanly do as a hired out slave to keep his family together together even if paying his wife's master not to split as he walked along the side of the Wed and take family away he recalled the agony in his autobiography and I'll just quote briefly what our hearts were so overpowered with feeling that we could say nothing and when at last we were obliged to part the look of mutual love which we exchanged was all the token which we could give each other then we should yet meet in heaven so this is a story of love and loss which prompted the dramatic escape by a man desperate to get out of bondage to tell the world about the sufferings of fellow slaves so the simpler became an important sort of moment of reprieve for african-americans seeking to protect their families and it was a key turning point in the history of marriages for several reasons so the first reason had to do and I'm sure there's plenty of information surrounding us about exactly what I'm talking about but the first was that african-americans put themselves on the nation's agenda at the moment that the war broke out they insisted despite promises to the contrary that their freedom would be a factor in the war and they did this by running away in droves following in the foot trails of Union Army soldiers and officers which forced the federal government to have to contend with them so the government too quickly realized that they could not ignore this population officials begin to set up over call contraband camps these were places that became magnets for runaways first it was mostly men who ran away and then soon after women started to run away in large numbers along with children and the elderly nor the missionaries came down to assist in these camps running these camps seeing this as an opportunity learn to swim encourage Christianity but also as a way of starting to inculcate the values that they thought that African Americans would need once they became free people one of the first camps that was set up was right here in Virginia not that far away from here from here in Hampton Roads area and Fortress Monroe in the fall of 1861 and the missionaries they are begin the process of introducing legal marriage to explain people they begin marrying couples who had not been married before and also started to remarry those couples who have been married according to slave tradition federal officials began to participate in this process of what became known as marriage under the flag in some cases ceremonies were officiated by by Union officers by army chaplains literally below flags flying above or within the facility of these ceremonies and then after that after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 and black men were allowed to enlist in the army federal officials became even more interested in the married lives and families of the soldiers black men made it perfectly clear that they were not willing to join the military without the guarantee that their families would be protected and given their freedom so in essence marriage became important because it was a way to encourage enlistment because it fit within the or aims it was seen as a way to basically help win the war for the United States so that was part of what was motivating the federal government interests once the war was over most African Americans were able to legalize their existing relationships we're into into their first marriages as we know spouses so this is a period when my great-great grandparents decided to get married in 1873 their first child was born in 1866 and we can talk later if you're innocent about that gap first under the auspices of the federal government through the Freedmen's Bureau couples begin to put their marriages on legal plate so that states were at first reluctant to embrace granting any civil rights to former slaves including the right to marry many of you may recall several years ago and we had marriage equality instituted there was a woman who was a clerk in Kentucky who refused to give barest certificates to gay couples well this was happening in the period of reconstruction with African Americans some officials just refused to give marry certificates to African Americans or they they hiked up the licenses so they did all kinds of things basically to try to prevent african-americans from marry but the states did come around and they begin to pass laws that legalized the marriages of former slaves and so between the period about 1866 and 1870 a teen seventy lots of states started to recognize these marriages for the first time as a result that african-americans gained new benefits from legalizing their relationships as well as unexpected burdens first for the benefits they gain the right to protect the integrity of their relationships from outside interference the marriage bed they gave the right to love the people they wanted to love to reject the people that they wanted to reach other men gain rights as heads of households women gain rights as their dependents parents gain rights over their children they also gave up gained the right to basically pass on inheritances to their surviving spouses and children in terms of the unexpected burdens they discovered that they would be disproportionately punished for not marrying legally so those form of informal relationships that have been formed under slavery that had been standard and required for now found upon and penalize states use marriage laws not just to grant a new civil right to African Americans but also to punish them for their seeming deviance when they did not obey them so African Americans were often prosecuted disproportionately for marital infractions like adultery desertion we're even engaged in disputes as couples these were often trumped-up charges used by white landowners to undermine the autonomy of former slaves suddenly marriage did not look as attractive or as self-empowering when it was used as a way to discipline workers or to force them to conform to rules designed to undermine their freedom in advance the economic interests of landowners and the new sharecropping systems but despite this African Americans overwhelmingly chose legal marriage in the decades following the Civil War African Americans had come a long way by the beginning of the a century so it is remarkable that by 1900 most African Americans of marital age did marry they marry at rates that were equal to and sometimes at greater rates than whites because they tended to marry younger than most white Americans they also tended to remarry if their relationships ended because of divorce or death also at higher rates than whites this should not diminish the fact that African Americans continued to adopt a diverse array of intimate and familiar forms that included informal arrangements many moving from legal marriage to common-law marriage or the reverse in serial relationships over the course of their lives but the larger point should not be missed black people married at high rates just decades after the end of slavery a century later however those patterns would be completely reverse by the 1990s only a minority of African Americans were married so what happened how do we go from nearly Universal rates of marriage to the complete reversal the decade of the 1940s is a critical decade in thinking about the beginning of the decline in marriage rates and a growing racial gap between black and white marriage rates and that gap has grown increasingly at since not by coincidence the vast new class which we wants to credit but no longer had its origins in this period this was the era in which the first and only major redistribution of wealth in the century occurred as a result of technological innovations savings from wartime wages and the infusion of federal dollars into the economy for the first time in US history the differences between the earnings of blue-collar and white-collar for Hearst shrink so the inequality that we talked about today it was at its lowest point in this period South Americans benefited from this growth and others did less so however white marriage rates rose after World War two thanks in no small part to financial subsidies redistributed through what was called the GI Bill or the Selective Service Readjustment Act of 1944 between 1944 and 1971 the bill gave out ninety five billion dollars to millions of veterans to buy homes to attend college to start businesses to find jobs and to marry there was a concern about what would happen to those soldiers once they came back from the war there was a concern that they would be disorderly if they weren't brought that home and you know sort of given the normal life treatment that one expects from a marriage men who married we see more benefits than men who remain single to encourage them to from the nearly all-male world that they had lived in in the military again to more traditional the entitlement was ostensibly erased in Detroit there was no racial discrimination in the law but the federal government basically allowed local and state studio album it so in the context of the Jim Crow South that meant that black veterans often did not get the benefits that they were entitled to because those states and localities were allowed to discriminate in doling out the resources and the jobs so while white marriages widowed black marriages decline as a result of the artificially low racial quotas that constricted employment markets slow to entry into homeownership and hotel educational opportunities and marriage rates have grown increasingly divergent by race since then it is important to note that all marriages are strongly correlated with the health of the economy so generally speaking when the economy is good marriage rates go up when the economy is not so good people tend not to marry as much but the marriages of our American have suffered even more because they have been disproportionately at the bottom of the economy in every decade since the 1940s African Americans have experienced a steady growth of permanent unemployment it's one thing to face difficulty in finding jobs during temporary periods of economic distress it's quite another to be permanently thrust out of the job market with no prospects for employment just to put a footnote here think about this it's an unprecedented moment in American history because after Americans from the very beginning of American history have always had a place a central place in the economy so to be kicked out literally lots of people decade by decade are being kicked out of the economy that was really quite unprecedented deindustrialization in the 1960s and 70s added further insult to injury ratcheting up racial and class and equities even further and the economic constraints have also been exacerbated by cultural changes such as the growth of women's employment outside of the home and advances in education these and other cultural factors have contributed to the overall decline of rates of marriage so for all racial groups there's a kind of downward slope of marriage over the course of the 20th century since the mid 20th century and that's not just true in the United States that's true in in most Western industrialized countries but the trends have been most dramatic and most destructive to African Americans these negative repercussions may seem ironic or contrary to the achievements of the civil rights movement the movement generated other important milestones in the history of racial justice in heightened expectations that black achievements in many arenas could be overcome or could overcome you know sort of the racial injustice 'as of a pest but whatever progress is engendered it could not and did not reverse the pattern of racial disparity and mayor trades at mid-century or since well civil rights victories enabled the growth of the black middle-class they did more to secure voting rights desegregation of public accommodations and expand opportunities for participating in the electoral politics economic gains among some African Americans were made in the transition from agricultural and domestic work to industrial jobs the strongest gains occurred in the public sector which were fragile and subject subjected to shifts over the next several decades but this process existed alongside a deep well of chronic permanent unemployment that continued to grow for a significant segment of the most vulnerable particularly as they move from the south to the from the rural South especially to the industrial north in the era of the world wars the fact that there has been progress is also used to blame the decline in marital race and nuclear families on individuals sort of seeing individuals as being responsible for what's considered to be moral dysfunction this downplays and/or ignores the role that economic factors and racism have played in driving swings down economic distress has been compounded by and linked to other factors harro sexual marriage making requires relatively even numbers of men and women in the population but unusual demographic shifts have occurred in the late century that have threatened the potential for mating so you have high mortality rates caused by homicides heart and respiratory diseases especially among black men that has really helped to lower the numbers of marital men in the pool of sort of people seeking to me and Mary in addition a new variation on an old theme of disfranchisement and unjust imprisonment emerged as the war on drugs and mandatory prison laws have led to mass incarceration especially since the 1970s and 1980s despite the decline in violent crime so more people are going to prison even though crime is coming down more african-americans are under the supervision of the criminal justice system today that is probation parole Jil of prison then were enslaved in 1850 this has pushed down marriage rates even further by depriving communities of disproportionate numbers of men in their prime years men and growing numbers of women are barred by laws and discriminatory practices are participating in mainstream economic and political activities then made sustaining marriages families while in prison and forming them once released difficult at best it is an undeniable fact that by the 1990s our American marriage rates for the opposite of where they began activity by the last decade of the 20th century most blacks over 18 years old about 40% were unmarried raspberry Berks was still true for white Americans most of whom seventy-two percent we're married although some policymakers political pundits even some scholars probably argue that recent pattern of black marriage are the product of slavery they tend to ignore or minimize the impact of things that have happened all the social and economic conditions and things that have happened to shape family formation in the intervening years long after slavery ended the close connection between economic inequality and the decline of black marriage rates have persisted into the 21st century just to give you one example in 20 in 2008 32 percent of blacks over the age of 18 were married compared to 56 percent of whites but African Americans have also served as the Canaries in the coal mine projecting warnings of ominous situations that await other populations so we have arrived in a moment in time with few are gaining access to all the benefits of citizenship and national belonging and the many appear to be stalling or falling further behind we've seen this in how economic inequality is also eroding the prospects for marriage and family formation for working-class and underemployed white Americans marriage is now perceived to be a privilege of affluence rather than a strategy for survival that working people were able to rely on in yes it is often considered to be more of an aspirational as something held in high esteem but just out of reach by people struggling economically marriage is now seen as something you do after you have established your material foundation in life and this is further complicated by the fact that many people now have much higher expectations than previous generations of what a spouse should be not just an equal partner perfect soul mate and yet we've also brought arrived at a historic moment when marriage equality is now available to all regardless of sexual orientation thanks to the United States Supreme Court ruling in Oberkfell versus Hodgins in 2015 still it is worth remembering that marriage has always been a privilege not even accessible to all straight people groups that have been historically deprived of equal marriage rights discover upon achieving them that they need to be supported by economic and social equality in order to truly afford the dignity and the choice intended once they gain these rights it becomes more difficult to reject them without incurring disrespect and even anger further marginalizing you need to mess payments that refused to be or unable to be corralled under the terms of legal marriage and marriage equality of course is not without its ironies members of the LGBTQ community can now legally Wed yet they're still not fully guaranteed many other basic civil rights that protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation the achievement of marriage equality whether in the 19th century for African Americans or the current day for everyone may not ultimately be what we have bargained for until and unless our society is committed to providing the commensurate institutional supports that allow people to marry to form healthy safe and functioning families of their choosing in a context in which true equality and justice prevail so my great-grandparents traveled a long way compared to the people before them yet their descendants have had their share of struggles too even with increasing marriage rights so it's up to all of us as a society to decide how will we shape the future generations to come [Applause]

Michael Martin

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