“Just Like Raising Stock and Mating It”
She say, “Yous am de portly gal and Rufus am de portly man. De massa wants you-uns for to bring forth portly chillen.”
De nex’ day de massa call me and tell me, Woman, I’s pay big money for you and I’s done dat for de cause I wants yous to raise me chillens. I’s put yous to live with Rufus for dat purpose. Now, if you doesn’t want whippin’ at de stake, yous do what I wants.
Like most enslaved men and women, Rose and Rufus were expected to reproduce. Some enslaved men and women were beaten for resisting forced coupling and reproduction. Ambrose Douglass recalled that at the age of sixteen he “was given a sound beating by his North Carolina master because he attempted to refuse the mate that had been given to him—with the instructions to produce a healthy boy-child by her—and a long argument on the value of having good, strong, healthy children.”1 Rufus’s warning to Rose after her initial refusals—“Dey’s gwine larn you somethin’”—has an ominous tone and underscores that he understood the power of master and mistress to enforce their decision.
Forced reproduction divided men along lines of fertility and virility, isolated men who were prolific, and fractured families and communities. Forcing men to father children was but one way that slavery affected gender and sexuality for enslaved men. The practice itself is still debated among scholars on slavery, and those scholars who do take it seriously focus on women and their experiences. This chapter pushes beyond those debates about the existence of forced reproduction and builds on scholarship on women by examining existing evidence, including what former slaves have told us about the experiences of men and their communities.
This chapter draws upon the reflections of those who were enslaved as they recounted their own remembered experiences and the oral histories passed down by others. Many of the recollections of former slaves about the practice of forced reproduction of men mention fathers, kin, and community members. The exploitation of men’s reproductive capabilities affected many more people than simply the individuals coupling; it affected entire communities in which these men lived. The control of masters and the wider threat of forced reproduction impacted an even broader range of enslaved people, touching even those who did experience it in their own community.
In the 1970s scholars used quantitative analysis to try to answer the question of whether forced reproduction had occurred. Richard Sutch concluded that demographic information confirmed that slave breeding was widespread in the border states and southern states on the Atlantic coast.2 He argued that demographic data supported the conclusion for “systematic and widespread interference with the sexual life of the slaves.”3 Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s 1974 work, Time on the Cross, however, examined quantitative data and determined that slave “breeding” was a “myth.” Like other works, Time on the Cross set the bar quite high—at the level of “systematic” breeding for a “market” and a “major share” of economic profit—and argued that it was not a “systematic” and hugely profitable enterprise.4
Subsequent scholars continued to echo the conclusions in Time on the Cross about the lack of systematic breeding.5 David Lowenthal and Colin G. Clarke, for example, decried in 1977 the “myth” of “slave-breeding” in Barbuda. They argued against what they saw as a widespread belief that Barbuda served as a “stud farm” for other islands in the West Indies.6 Richard Dunn argues in his 2014 study of Mount Airy plantation in Virginia that there is “absolutely no reason to suppose that William Tayloe ever engaged in such a practice.” Dunn continues: “He had no need to. His slaves were young and vigorous, and—like most people—they enjoyed sex.” Although Dunn is comfortable asserting that sex was pleasurable, he is unwilling to imagine that reproduction could have been coerced. He employs a similarly high bar as those who study reproduction only in terms of mass production. That reproduction continued after the move from Virginia to Alabama is, for Dunn, evidence of the “vigor” and normal sexual disposition of the enslaved people.7 In sum, both sides of the debate generally share one thing in common: they both use a standard of proof that recognizes forced reproduction only if it was widespread and successful.8 These studies thus operate at the level of the institution of slavery, discounting the palpable possibilities of lived experience.9 Yet, at the same time, Time on the Cross argues that the family was the “main instrument for promoting the increase of the slave population.”10 And in that formulation there is much room for coercion and forced reproduction.
This chapter builds on what Jacqueline Jones concluded in 1985: “The suggestion that masters failed to engage in systematic or widespread breeding (as evidenced by the relatively late age at which slave women bore their first child, for example) does not negate the obvious conclusions to be drawn from the slave narratives—that white men and women at time seized the opportunity to manipulate slave marital choices, for economic reasons on the one hand, out of seemingly sheer highhandedness on the other.”11 This chapter goes further in arguing not only that marital choices were manipulated but also that reproduction itself was affected by the actions of slave owners.
Those scholars who do accept the significance of forced reproduction to the enslaved experience focus the brunt of their attention on the experiences of enslaved women. Most recently, Marie Jenkins Schwartz has noted that slave owners’ exploitation of “the reproductive lives of women” has been “all too often ignored.”12 Paul D. Escott’s examination of the Works Progress Administration interviews with former slaves only tersely observed the incidence of enslaved men being forced to reproduce. Escott concludes that “interference” in the coupling of enslaved men and women was “rare” and that the numbers “cannot suggest the suffering and degradation [it] caused.”13 Existing scholarship on forced reproduction has offered little sustained examination of the men’s experiences. One recent excellent book on “slave breeding” included a portion of a chapter on men but maintained throughout an overall focus on women. (Indeed, the introduction mentioned only women’s experiences.)14 It echoed the traditional focus on “violence against black men” and “sexual exploitation of enslaved women.”15
The lack of attention paid to the significance of forcing men to reproduce has resulted from a variety of factors. First and foremost is that while the quintessential slave has traditionally been a male subject, that subject had not been a gendered one until recent scholars began to concern themselves with constructions of masculinity and manhood. The literature has for a longer period focused on women’s experiences as sexual assault survivors under slavery in part because abolitionists highlighted the situation of enslaved women early and relatively often. The experiences of men have been less well analyzed in part also because of the vexed nature of recognizing the sexual assault of men at all, given that patriarchal systems have long defined rape as the violation of one man’s female subordinates by another rival male. Patriarchal notions of manhood and masculine power have also contributed to a general cultural avoidance of topics that highlight the vulnerability of men, especially in ways that could feminize otherwise masculine male subjects. Finally, the richest source of testimony about the forced reproduction of men is the collection of interviews conducted in the early twentieth century by the U.S. government. The sources for too long have been viewed with skepticism for a host of reasons, ultimately adding to the other concerns and leading to a relative silencing of male victims of sexual abuse and exploitation under slavery.
This chapter finds that some men were valued not only for their ability to work but also for their ability to reproduce. This conclusion has generally been applied to women alone, but it must be drawn about men as well. Forced coupling affected men’s hearts and minds and was a type of sexual assault. It created family bonds and offspring. It could even bolster a man’s sense of masculinity and prowess in some situations.
As Emily West argues for enslaved people in South Carolina, “slaves married for love,” and such bonds were “of immense value to them.”16 Given this emphasis on love and choosing one’s spouse, as discussed in chapter 2, the violation of this process would have been almost unbearable to many. One formerly enslaved man spoke of his own experiences: “The marriage ceremony was very often omitted with us, and the overseer would simply bring some female slave and say, ‘you live with this woman,’ and that was about all there was to it. At a later date on another plantation that is just the way I was married myself.”17 The pain inflicted by such unions would have been compounded when enslaved individuals were denied the ability to create a family unit based on love with which to shield themselves from the traumas of enslavement.
Not all men and women were forced to reproduce, although virtually all were expected to do so. Enslavers mandated that bondspeople would reproduce. Jennifer Morgan’s research in wills showed that other sources provide evidence that reproduction was assumed to be one way that slave owners were to benefit from slavery. Bequeathing not only living slaves but also their “increase,” “a planter could imagine that a handful of fertile African women might turn his modest holdings into a substantial legacy.”18 Many masters allowed men and women to find their own relationships and establish their own families. Natural increase of the population then occurred, and allowing enslaved people to form their own relationships was in some cases the path of least resistance for some masters. Others did not engage in forced reproduction because of their religious views.19 Many slave owners allowed enslaved men and women to develop personal ties and to form relationships and families of their own choosing. Some masters clearly took a more active role in selecting for the qualities they wanted in slaves, forcing some to have children or to live as husband and wife. Controlled reproduction of specific individuals ensured greater profits and increased slave owners’ control over enslaved people. The conclusions that historian Thelma Jennings draws about the power that slave owners held over enslaved women should be applied as well to enslaved men: “The white patriarch had the power to force them to mate with whomever he chose, to reproduce or suffer the consequences, to limit the time spent with their children, and even to sell them and their children.”20
Some formerly enslaved people recalled extreme instances of coerced sex. Some masters could and did force couples to have sexual intercourse, and if “either one showed any reluctance, the master would make the couple consummate the relation in his presence.”21 Some also encouraged reproduction by forcing groups rather than specific individuals together. Ida Blackshear Hutchinson, enslaved in Alabama, spoke about this occurrence on her plantation: “They used to strip them naked and put them in a big barn every Sunday and leave them there until Monday morning. Out of that came sixty babies.”22 Restricted to the barn for the night and stripped of their clothing, these young people would have known that they were expected to reproduce. The pressure to impregnate and to become pregnant as a result of being forced into this closed space together would have been palpable.
Although much more scholarly attention has been paid to the antebellum era, the practice of forcing slaves to reproduce had colonial roots. Most scholars identify the early nineteenth century as the period of greatest expansion of this practice, coinciding with the growth of slavery in the United States and the maturation of the domestic slave trade. But as other scholars have shown, evidence of interference and expectation of profiting from forced copulation has long been part of the institution. Even as early as the seventeenth century—and in New England—some slave owners were forcing men and women together. One English traveler published in his account what he observed while visiting one Mr. Mavericks. While there he observed an enslaved woman who through her “countenance and deportment” clearly “expressed her grief.” When he asked his host the reason for her sorrow, he learned from this man who owned her that he “was desirous to have a breed of Negroes” and that “she would not yield by perswasions to company with a Negro young man he had in his house.” In response to her resistance, the master had “commanded” the enslaved man to force her to accept him, but she “kickt him out.” “She took [her predicament] in high disdain beyond her slavery, and this was the cause of her grief.”23 That this occurred in the seventeenth century and in New England, with its relatively small enslaved population at the time, tells us that the practice and public discussion of forced reproduction were endemic to slavery and not restricted to the particular conditions of the antebellum era. It was a predictable element of enslavement. Slavery, after all, was hereditary and followed the status of the mother.
Other sources, some unpublished, provide further evidence that in the colonial era, forced coupling occurred. Jennifer Morgan’s research in wills found that even in the earliest decades, individuals were essentially forcing couples together. Even from beyond the grave, planters did so by including in their wills named male and female pairings that were to be placed together and willed as property to various heirs, with a specific understanding of both present and future values. Some 13 percent of wills in 1730s South Carolina “brought specific men and women together in their bequests.”24 Thus, even after death, masters interfered with the reproduction of enslaved people. Enslavers were well aware of the profit to be had from reproduction.25
In the antebellum era, abolitionists drew attention to the practice of forced reproduction to highlight the sexual assault of enslaved women as symbolic of the inhumanity of slavery. But even before abolitionists were a political force, politicians and others were pointing to the practice.26 American Slavery as It Was, written by Sarah Grimké, Angelina Grimké Weld, and Theodore Dwight Weld, included firsthand accounts from freedmen and detailed descriptions of slave life. It also included proslavery arguments made by politicians and legislators as a way of exposing their corruption and flawed logic. Some of these arguments contained specific references to forced reproduction, called “slave breeding” at the time. The book quoted a number of speeches before the 1832 Virginia Legislature. Mr. Gholson, for example, was quoted as stating: “It has always (perhaps erroneously) been considered by steady and old-fashioned people, that the owner of land had a reasonable right to its annual profits; the owner of orchards, to their annual fruits; the owner of brood mares, to their product; and the owner of female slaves, to their increase… . I do not hesitate to say, that in its increase consists much of our wealth.” The book also quoted Thomas Mann Randolph: “It is a practice and an increasing practice, in parts of Virginia, to rear slaves for market. How can an honorable mind, a patriot and a lover of his country, bear to see this ancient dominion converted into one grand menagerie, where men are to be reared for market, like oxen for the shambles.” The book argued that so widespread was recognition of this practice that the president of William and Mary concluded that the situation in fact “ENCOURAGE[S] BREEDING, and to cause the greatest number possible to be raised. &c.” “Virginia,” he concluded, “is, in fact, a negro-raising state for other states.” For proslavery legislators, the practice of forced reproduction could besmirch an institution they wished to protect, making it appear to be a corruption of economic enterprise and of the depiction of slavery as a benevolent institution.27
In addition to these proslavery individuals, the book also quoted from meetings of the American Colonization Society: “In Virginia and other grain-growing slave states, the blacks do not support themselves, and the only profit their masters derive from them is, repulsive as the idea may justly seem, in breeding them, like other live stock for the more southern states.”28 For antislavery legislators, forced reproduction symbolized much of what was wrong with slavery, in particular, its inherent violations of Christian family structure and values in the name of financial gain. Eddie Donoghue analyzes the debates around ending the slave trade in London as a time when breeding was openly discussed, given concerns about potential population declines if the slave trade stopped. Donoghue looked at one London publication in particular, Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves in the Sugar Colonies, for concrete evidence of breeding approaches among slave owners. Donoghue argues that the 1788 debates and eventual vote to end the slave trade led to changes in the law in the British West Indies that contained elements “designed to facilitate the breeding of slaves already in the West Indies and thus provide an assured source of labor for the plantocracy.” These incentives included encouraging monogamous unions, financial payments for children, and relief from hard labor.29
Nineteenth-century published slave narratives also noted the practice. In his 1857 account of his experiences as a slave, William J. Anderson described what he knew about one master’s attempts at forcing couples together: “I have known him to make four men leave their wives for nothing, and would not let them come and see them any more on the peril of being shot down like dogs; he then made the women marry other men against their will. Oh, see what it is to be a slave? A man, like the brute, is driven, whipped, sold, comes and goes at his master’s bidding.”30 Henry Bibb shared his experience of being told that he and his wife would have to reproduce and wrote of it as unspeakable: “Malinda’s master was very much in favor of the match, but entirely upon selfish principles. When I went to ask his permission to marry Malinda, his answer was in the affirmative with but one condition, which I consider to be too vulgar to be written in this book.”31 Frederick Douglass described what he had witnessed on the Maryland plantation where he grew up. His overseer, Covey, had purchased just one slave that he could afford, a woman “breeder.” “After buying her, he hired a married man of Mr. Samuel Harrison, to live with him one year; and him he used to fasten up with her every night!” “The result was, that, at the end of the year, the miserable woman gave birth to twins.” Covey, he explains, was “highly pleased, both with the man and the wretched woman.”32 Individuals who had survived enslavement and told of their experiences testified to the practice and its effects on those still enslaved.
After emancipation, forced reproduction became part of the shared memory of the violations of enslavement. Fiction and nonfiction books referred to it. Some have contended that individual plantations devoted themselves to the practice of reproducing slaves for sale. Scholars have noted, for example, the Covingtons, who consciously established a plantation for the express purpose of “raising young negroes.”33 The account of Stephen Jordon, recorded in the 1890s, similarly noted that his master in New Orleans would “never allow the men to be single after they were eighteen, nor the women after they were fifteen.”34
Thus, long before the WPA interviews of the early twentieth century, slaves and freedmen discussed the violations of forced reproduction. But it would not be until the early twentieth century that a significant number of individuals would record the various experiences and their meaning for those individuals and their communities. By the early twentieth century, the surviving generation who had experienced slavery firsthand and who were most familiar with the stories told to them by parents and kin shared their experiences and memories with interviewers. The WPA interviews and those conducted by John Cade at Southern University corroborate what we see in other types of records from other times produced for other reasons. Tom Douglas, born enslaved in Louisiana, remarked that “in slavery white folks put you together. Just tell you to go on and go to bed with her or him. You had to stay with them whether you wanted them or not.”35
Others similarly recalled that “the master mated his hands.”36 Across the centuries, individuals echoed the comments made by John Josselyn in the seventeenth century, that masters sought wealth by exploiting not only the labor but also the reproductive capabilities of their slaves. As one interviewee recalled, “Some not ’lowed to git married, ’cause de marster anxious to raise good, big niggers, de kind what am able to do lots of work and sell for a heap of money.”37
Not all masters engaged in forced reproduction, but few slaves and masters would have been unaware of the practice. Some slaves acknowledged that their masters did not do this but that they were aware of the practice. J. M. Parker, who was enslaved in South Carolina, recalled that his master “didn’t force men and women to marry” and that “he didn’t put ’em together just to get more slaves.” The interviewer’s underlining of “he didn’t” could indicate emphasis in speech or the emphasis of the interviewer. Regardless, it highlights that stories about forced coupling were not unusual. Parker noted that “some times other people would have women and men just for that purpose. But there wasn’t much of it in my country.”38 Similarly, Amsy O. Alexander, who was born enslaved in 1854, stated that his parents’ masters “never forced any breeding.” “I have heard of that happening in other places,” he noted, “but I never heard them speak of it in connection with our master.”39 Even slaves whose masters did not engage in this practice would have been aware that they could one day be victimized by it either by their master if he changed his mind or by a new master if they were sold.
Many used the analogy of animal husbandry to refer to forced reproduction. Ida Blackshear Hutchinson, enslaved in Alabama, recalled that her grandfather “was bought and given to his young mistress in the same way you would give a mule or colt to a child.”40 According to Barney Stone, his father “was used much as a male cow is used on the stock farm.”41 Sarah Ford, enslaved in Texas and around fifteen years old by the time of emancipation, recalled being told by her mother that “de white folks … puts a man and breedin’ woman together like mules.”42 As Daina Berry and others have shown, masters (and slaves) were engaged in the practice of breeding animals for labor and sale. The similarities to their predicament would not be lost on enslaved people.
As a practice designed to maximize agricultural production, forced reproduction was also about selection of certain individuals in order to create children with similar desirable physical traits to their parents. Recall that Rose and Rufus were forced together because both were “portly.” According to one interviewer’s notes, masters “bred” slaves “like live stock … just like horses, cattle, dogs and other animals are managed today in order to improve stock.”43 One man remarked that the control over marriages was “just like raising stock and mating it.”44 Will Ann Rogers, enslaved in Mississippi, similarly remembered that her mother, who had been enslaved in Virginia, told her that her owner “mated” slaves “like stock.”45 Masters forced slaves into couples because they wanted slaves to “breed like livestock.”46 In nineteenth-century Brazil, cultural associations of animal mating and breeding with slaves circulated and illustrate dehumanization.47
Enslaved people knew that forced reproduction occurred in order to maximize profits for masters. Thomas Hall, born enslaved in North Carolina in 1856, commented that masters allowed relationships “to raise more slaves in the same sense and for the same purpose as stock raisers raise horses and mules, that is for work.”48 Indeed, many used the very term “stock” to describe the men who were forced to reproduce. James Green recalled that his master “breeds de niggers as quick as he can—like cattle—’cause dat means money for him.”49 According to one interviewer’s notes, masters “bred” slaves “like live stock … in order to get a good price.”50
Some enslaved people recognized the value in performing for masters. Katie Darling, born enslaved in Texas in 1849, recalled that “what he want am the stock.”51 Frances Anne Kemble, an antislavery actress who married into a large slaveholding family, noted this in her diary, kept in the early nineteenth century. On the Sea Coast Islands in Georgia she recorded that “the more frequently [the enslaved woman] adds to the number of her master’s livestock by bringing new slaves into the world, the more claims she will have upon his consideration and good will.” “This,” she quipped disdainfully, “was perfectly evident to me from the meritorious air with which the women always made haste to inform me of the number of children they had borne.”52 Eliza Jones illustrates this by calling herself a “good breeder,” referring to the fact that she had fifteen children.53
Forced reproduction was not simply analogous to how animals were bred; it also signaled the inhumanity of the practice. Thomas Johns, born enslaved in Alabama in 1847, recalled: “Dey figgered, kill a nigger, breed another—kill a mule, buy another.”54 Willie McCullough recalled that his “grandmother said that several different men were put to her just about the same as if she had been a cow or sow.”55 Forced reproduction was not only about profit but also about control over enslaved bodies, male and female. Sam Everett, enslaved in Virginia, recalled that “if there seemed to be any slight reluctance on the part of either of the unfortunate ones ‘Big Jim’ [the owner] would make them consummate this relationship in his presence.” He also noted that for his master this was pleasurable, beyond the profits to be gained: “He enjoyed these orgies very much and often entertained his friends in this manner; quite often he and his guests would engage in these debaucheries, choosing for themselves the prettiest of the young women. Sometimes they forced the unhappy husbands and lovers of their victims to look on.”56
Forced reproduction zeroed in on certain individuals, scrutinized and assessed their bodies and reproductive capacities, and left others to suffer the residual trauma of witnessing this intimate brutality. Ultimately, the practice created categories of men who were in a way isolated from their communities and from other men. Men who were used for their reproductive abilities were singled out from other men, dividing the community of men. Dora Jerman, enslaved in Arkansas, recalled that “they had a regular stock man.”57 Cornelia Andrews, born enslaved in 1850, didn’t know who her father was but speculated that this might have been because he was the “stock nigger on de plantation.”58 According to one interviewer’s notes, he was a “male negro who was kept for that purpose because of his strong physique.”59 Such men were “kept,” according to G. W. Hawkins, who was born in slavery in Alabama in 1865.60 Julia Cole, enslaved in Georgia, explained that masters observed the strength and power of offspring—what a man could produce. If a man was credited with “raising up strong black bucks,” then he was expected to produce more. Cole underscored such a man’s singular status by referring to such men as a “species.”61 The men who were singled out for this particular type of exploitation were labeled individually, distinguishing them from other men. This would have the effect of marking them, as well as those men who were not used in this manner. John R. Cox, who had been born enslaved in Kentucky in 1852, told the interviewer that “the species was propogated by selected male negroes, who were kept for that purpose.”62 Bill Cecil-Fronsman argues that folktale humor from eastern North Carolina illustrates how “common” whites viewed black men as hypersexual. It is also worth noting that they also apparently understood that some enslaved men served as “studs.” In the tale, when approached about borrowing an enslaved man to impregnate women on his plantation, an owner left it up to his slave but pressured him by saying that there were “nice black gals waiting there.” When the enslaved man learned that there were “five or six,” he decided not to go, claiming that it was too far to travel for “jes’ a half-day’s work.”63
In addition to assessing the offspring of certain men, masters evaluated enslaved men’s bodies for their reproductive potential. Larger men were deemed to be more virile and also more desirable to reproduce laborers. Height was one indicator. West Turner, who had been enslaved in Virginia, recalled that on his plantation was Joe, “de breedinges’ nigger in Virginia,” whom he described as being unusually tall, “’bout seven feet tall.”64 Willie McCullough recalled that his mother had told him that when she turned sixteen the owner went to a nearby plantation and “got a six-foot” man to impregnate a woman.65 Another woman, Ida Blackshear Hutchinson, enslaved in Alabama, recalled that her grandfather “was a ‘stock’ Negro.” She recalled his son’s stories about her grandfather, that he was “six feet four inches tall and near two hundred fifty pounds in weight” and was “known as the GIANT BREEDER.”66 To be a tall man or a powerful man was to be seen by masters as an individual who could create not only by his labor but also by his fertility.
General assessments of health and vigor also could have led to a man being singled out. Jeptha Choice, born enslaved in Texas in 1835, remembered that his master “was might careful about raisin’ healthy nigger families and used us strong, healthy young bucks to stand the healthy nigger gals.”67 Here we have a firsthand recollection from a man who recalled being used for “breeding.” Mary Ingram recalled that her master would “select de po’tly and p’lific women, and de po’tly man, and use sich for de breeder an’ de father ob de women’s chillums.”68 Henry Nelson, born enslaved in Arkansas, recalled that his mother had been “made to marry” her first husband because both of them were “fine and stout,” and “they wanted more from that stock.”69 According to G. W. Hawkins, “big fine men” who “masters wanted the women to have children by” were “kept” and forced to reproduce.70 Fred Brown, born enslaved in Louisiana in 1853, recalled that the overlooker “used fer to father de chillum” because he was a “portly man” and would pick women who were “portly” and “healthy” to produce “portly chillen.”71 Katie Darling, born enslaved in Texas in 1849, recalled that “massa pick out a po’tly man and a po’tly gal and jist put ’em together.”72
Forced coupling thus created a lesser status for men who were beyond the years thought suitable for reproduction. Former slave Lulu Wilson noted that her father was forced off her plantation once the slave owner considered him to be “too old for breeding.”
My paw warn’t no slave. He was a free man, ’cause his mammy was a full blood Creek Indian. But my maw was born in slavery, down on Nash Hodges’ paw’s place, and he give her to Wash when he married. That was the only woman slave what he had and one man slave, a young buck. My maw say she took with my paw and I’s born, but a long time passed and didn’t no more young’uns come, so they say my paw am too old and wore out for breedin’ and wants her to take with this here young buck. So the Hodges got the nigger hounds on my paw and run him away from the place and maw allus say he went to the free state.73
As this example indicates, free men could suffer from this system as much as enslaved men did, with broad repercussions for families. Masters also sometimes sold older men away, as Mary Reynolds recalled that her master only sold those who were too old to work and “past their breedin’ times.”74
Other men who might be young enough to reproduce but were deemed undesirable were prevented from fathering children. Benjamin Russell shared how certain men would be deemed undesirable because of their perceived inferiority for reproduction: “The master and mistress were very particular about the slave girls. For instance, they would be driving along and pass a girl walking with a boy. When she came to the house she would be sent for and questioned something like this: ‘Who was that young man? How come you with him? Don’t you ever let me see you with that ape again. If you cannot pick a mate better than that I’ll do the picking for you.’ The explanation: The girl must breed good strong serviceable children.”75 Smaller men could be devalued by the community as well as by masters. Bill Simms, who was born in slavery in Missouri in 1839, recalled that “if a Negro was a small man he was not cared for as a husband, as they valued their slaves as only for what they could do, just like they would horses.”76 One Tennessee slave woman remarked that a “scrubby man” would not be permitted to father children. Another slave woman, Polly Cancer, noted that her suitor was forced by her master to discontinue seeing her and told “to git coz he didn’t want no runts on his place.”77 Thomas Johns, enslaved in Alabama in 1847, recalled: “If a owner had a big woman slave and she had a little man for her husban’ and de owner had a big man slave, dey would make de little husban’ leave, and make de woman let de big man be her husban’, so’s dere be big chillen, which dey could sell well.”78 Similarly, William Matthews explained that “if a unhealthy buck take up with a portly gal, de white folks sep’rate ’em.”79
The bodies of men were thus examined for their reproductive capabilities and were sometimes medically assessed and treated accordingly. Cornelia Andrews, born enslaved in 1850, recalled that “dey ain’t let on little runty nigger have no chilluns. Naw sir, dey ain’t, dey operate on dem lak dey does de male hog so’s dat dey can’t have no little runty chilluns.”80 One recalled that doctors sometimes scrutinized bodies: “De marster picks out de big nigger and de doctor ’xamine him, too.”81 Irene Robertson, enslaved in South Carolina, recalled that “durin’ slavery there was stockmen. They was weighed and tested.”82 Recall that chapter 1 noted that at slave auctions in Barbados white women could be seen “dispassionately fondling the genitalia of semi-naked black male slaves in order to assess their health and future breeding potential” and that in his account of slavery in Brazil one man remarked that “the necessity of paying attention to the Negro’s sexual organ in order to avoid acquiring individuals in whom it was undeveloped or ill-shaped [was known]; for it was feared that they would prove bad procreators.”83 Henery Hickmon, enslaved in Missouri, shared with an interviewer from Southern University that at his plantation the “overseer would sometimes announce … a big black breeding stallion for sale.” As he explained, “A large, strong, portly, well-built negro was placed upon the block, stripped of his clothing and his fine qualities enumerated they dubbed him as ‘Daddy.’” If buyers couldn’t afford the sale or did not want to make a purchase, they could rent him to impregnate women whom they enslaved: “Those who did not care to buy would bring girls from New Orleans and sometimes it seemed from everywhere just for breeding purposes.”84
The distinctions drawn between certain males began at an early age, affecting not just adult men and women but children, fathers, mothers, and their wider communities when masters employed forced reproduction.85 Children and young men were also scrutinized for their size and potential reproductive capability. Jordan Smith recalled that buyers selected men and women in their late teens with an eye toward reproduction.86 George Austin explained that his father was purchased specifically for reproduction: “Marster Morris buys him fo’ de stud nigger w’en him gits old ’nough to wo’k.”87 Fred Brown, born enslaved in Louisiana in 1853, recalled that when the children were “half-grown” some would be sold away as “fine, portly chillen.”88 Similarly, J. W. Whitfield recalled that marriages were broken up if masters decided to put together others, and “when a boy-child was born out of this marriage they would reserve him for breeding purposes if he was healthy and robust. But if he was puny and sickly they were not bothered about him.”89 Recall also Ida Blackshear Hutchinson, enslaved in Alabama, who spoke about group-forced intimacy. Her recollection was that the individuals forced into the barn naked for the night were “boys and girls” who were “thirteen years old or older.”90
Forced coupling thus created a number of distinctions among men along lines of height, musculature, number of healthy children, and general strength. In designating some men as a “species” to be “kept” for reproduction, forced coupling had implications for labeling other men as lesser men. Singling out certain men as bucks and others as less than worthy affected the community of men and could be an additional factor dividing it.
DIVIDED FROM THE COMMUNITY
Dividing men along lines of reproductive capabilities had significant implications for the community as a whole. As William Mathews’s comment about men singled out for reproduction being given “four, five women” indicates, often these men were denied the opportunity to develop monogamous relationships and family ties and were used with multiple women. As scholarship has shown, the family unit was a building block of the slave community, and the two-parent family was the norm.91
Since the appearance in 1972 of the work of John W. Blassingame and continuing into the 1980s and 1990s, there has been great debate among antebellum historians regarding the structure of slave families. Some have argued that there was a “natural tendency” for enslaved people to develop “stable” families whenever possible. In her study of nineteenth-century Louisiana, Ann Patton Malone found that most families contained two parents.92 Emily West, in her study of antebellum South Carolina, found that most enslaved people desired to live in “stable, nuclear partnerships” even when that was not always possible.93 Alternatively, Brenda E. Stevenson argues that the families were largely matrifocal. This does not mean that a significant number of slaves did not grow up with fathers. Indeed, many did. Stevenson uses George Washington’s slaves as an example. Of 183 men and women enslaved by Washington in 1799, 40 lived together as husband and wife. More than 70 percent of those who were identified as married had spouses at another plantation.94 As others have pointed out, abroad marriages did not necessarily mean the lack of a bond between husband and wife and between father and children.
Although most slave families did not and could not follow the nineteenth-century idealized patriarchal model, scholars have shown that we would be remiss to conclude from this fact that fatherhood and family meant little to men or to their families. As Blassingame argued, the family served as a “survival mechanism” for the enslaved.95 And yet as Heather Andrea Williams points out, the “relationship of father and child was not protected at all.” Williams concludes, “While many enslaved children lived in homes with both mother and father, or had a father who lived nearby, for others, fathers were only vague memories.”96 She also argues that the assault on family for enslaved people may have only heightened its meaning and value. Such meaning included marriage as an “expression of love,” “an antidote for loneliness and emotional pain,” “what made the hard labor and abuse of slavery bearable,” and an “act of soul preservation.” She also notes that marriage could be a “costly compromise,” as family ties and bonds of emotional attachment could threaten a slave’s hope of running away and could leave him or her vulnerable to the pain of separation.97
Not knowing one’s father has traditionally been interpreted as harmful because of the presumed inferiority of woman-headed households. The low prevalence of male-headed households has often been misread as the absence of fathers and fatherhood. Fathers, even those from other plantations, played key roles in their children’s lives. But some children did not know their fathers at all, and the significance of African lineage for enslaved people suggests that not knowing one’s father denied those children and adults the ability to trace ties to Africa through their fathers. As Michael Gomez has argued, knowing one’s African lineage could serve as one of the “psychological weapons of resistance” available to enslaved people. Gomez gives the examples of one Samuel Ringgold Ward, who noted in his biography that he descended from “an African prince.” Certainly, for an earlier generation such ties to Africa held even greater resonance. An advertisement for a runaway slave in 1780 stated that he “boasts much of his family in his own country, it being a common saying with him, that he is no common negro.”98
Forcing some enslaved men to reproduce with many different women denied them a fatherly role even while it prevented their children from bonding with them. A Texas woman who had been enslaved attested to this result when she noted that “half of us young negroes didn’t know who our fathers were.” Similarly, one enslaved woman named Mary Young remarked: “We never hardly knew who our father was.” Another enslaved woman, Millie Williams, also commented: “Shuck’s nobody knows who der father waz.”99 It is possible that African and African American men would have viewed this violation differently from Anglo-Americans, given Anglo-American norms of monogamy and traditional West African matrilineal kinship practices, although these differences would have become lessened within long-enslaved populations. Nonetheless, men from both cultures shared the values of male independence and mastery in a broad sense.100
Many men singled out for reproduction were not allowed to get married. Jacob Manson, enslaved in North Carolina, recalled that “a lot of de slave owners had certain strong healthy slave men to serve de slave women.” Such men were restricted and controlled: “Ginerally dey give one man four women an’ dat man better not have nuthin’ to do wid de udder women.”101 Another former slave similarly noted how his master had prevented him from engaging in sexual relations with only one woman, forcing him to reproduce with about fifteen women and to father dozens of children.102 One man recalled that such men “have ’bout ten wenches him not ’low to git married.”103 George Austin recalled that “Pappy am used wid de diffe’nt womens on de place.”104 Ida Blackshear Hutchinson, enslaved in Alabama, recalled that her grandfather “Luke was the father of fifty-six children.”105 Lewis Jones, born enslaved in Texas in 1851, recalled that his father had “close to 50” children with seven or eight different women. His mother explained to him that his father was “de breedin’ nigger.”106 What other men would this practice have affected? The women’s other lovers and family members would have also had both a connection and a sense of separation from this man.
Slave life revolved around work, and in this most important, and defining, area, men singled out for reproduction would have been further demarcated in contrast to their communities. Men who were forced to reproduce could be treated differently in terms of workload. Many recalled that men who were used for reproduction did not have the same workload as other men. Jeptha Choice, born enslaved in Texas in 1835, remembered, “When I was young they took care not to strain me and I was … in demand for breedin’.”107 West Turner’s recollections suggest that the man he identified as a breeder had a separate status from other slaves. He “didn’t have no work to do, jus’ stay ’round de quarters sunnin’ hisself ’till a call come fo’ him.”108 Oscar Junell, enslaved in Arkansas, stated that he was told by his father that enslaved men taken by an owner for “breeding” were treated differently: “They wouldn’t let them strain themselves up nor nothin like that. They wouldn’t make them do much hard work.”109 Ida Blackshear Hutchinson, enslaved in Alabama, explained that although her father was not a field hand he suffered punishment not expected for a man forced to reproduce: “Although he was a stock Negro, he was whipped and drove just like the other Negroes… . He had to labor but he didn’t have to work with the other slaves on the farm unless there was no mechanical work to do.”110 Another man recalled that workload was limited to reproduction: “Dat nigger do no work but watch dem womens and he am de husban’ for dem all. De marster sho’ was a-raisin’ some fine niggers dat way.”111 George Austin, whose owner was slave dealer Ab Morris in Texas, explained that his father performed energetically when he was on the block because his owner told him that it would result in a higher price and better treatment. His father was well aware of the different workload for men who were selected for reproduction and didn’t intend to work hard: “Him makes up hims mind not to be no good at tudder kind of wo’k.”112 Austin in effect tried to play the system by signaling to buyers the markers they sought to evaluate a man’s reproductive capabilities, including his energy level and physique. In the end, when he failed to produce what masters wanted he was resold, and feuds between slave traders erupted with charges of false representation. Irene Robertson recalled that masters treated “stockmen” differently—“didn’t let them work in the field and they kept them fed up good.”113
The significance of this different workload was not lost on many—it could engender ill will, and it also inhibited the kind of community building and networking that slave work could foster. Working socials and gendered work were both important for developing a sense of community.114 The workload distinction may well have nurtured resentments among men: “Dr. Ware had a fine man he bred his colored house women to. They didn’t plough and do heavy work. He was hostler, looked after the stock and got in wood. The women hated him, and the men on the place done as well. They hated him too.”115
Some men who were selected to reproduce were not only separated from family and community because of the work that they performed on the plantation but also physically removed from their own plantations. Men were taken from the community by being rented out to owners of other plantations. George Austin recalled that his father was “hired out to be diffe’nt plantations ’roundabout ’cause him am such a fine big nigger an’ bound to build up a Marster’s slave stock of niggers.”116 Irene Robertson recalled that “a man would rent the stockman” to other masters.117 Julia Cole, enslaved in Georgia, told her interviewer: “If a hand were noted for raising up strong black bucks … he would be sent out as a species of circuit-rider to the other plantations… . There he would be ‘married off’ again—time and again.”118 Willie Blackwell, who had been enslaved in North Carolina, recalled that his father was the Blackwell plantation “stud” and “was used on de Glover place [plantation]” nearby because the owners wanted to “breed” him.119 Barney Stone discussed how his father was “hired out to other plantation owners for that purpose.”120 Others noted that the men were rented out to others: “The owners of this privileged negro, charged a fee of one of every four of his offspring for his services.”121 Cross-plantation families were not unusual and did not mean weaker family ties for those who formed such families. But for a man who crossed plantations as a “species” of “breeder,” his status as an outsider could have significantly affected his interpersonal ties to that community.
A man who was rented out may well have missed out on the vitally important day of Sunday for visiting and socializing. He may have taken part in Sunday activities, but as a man brought in, what were his relations with the men and women on that other plantation, and what would he have missed on his own plantation? These questions would be especially important if a man’s visits were infrequent or if it was known that he was there for this special task. West Turner’s recollections about a man named Joe included the fact that Joe was not at his home plantation on Sundays and that it was known that he was rented out to “a white man what lived down in Suffolk.” “Dey come an’ got him on a Friday,” Turner explained. “Dey brung him back Monday mo’nin’. Dey say dat de next year dere was sebenteen little black babies bo’n at dat place in Suffolk, all on de same day.”122 The ripple effect of being singled out as a man selected to impregnate women and sometimes travel between communities to do so must have been quite large. Workload, sex- segregated work, and shared experiences were all key to building slave communities. For those men who found themselves unable to access these networks, as the final section explores, ties of the utmost importance were challenged.
DIVIDING MEN AND WOMEN
Men selected for forced reproduction were in fact being driven apart from enslaved women even as men and women were being paired together. Although sex-segregated work nurtured gendered ties, a primary relationship for enslaved people was that of husband and wife. Forced reproduction complicated these relationships. Men who were forced to reproduce bore the responsibility of ensuring women’s compliance and had to negotiate this dynamic with their own personal skills. For some men, this meant the use of force and the threat of violence. For others, it could involve reasoning or even tenderness. In all cases, men’s actions were supported in the background by the threat of punishment against the women if they resisted—and in the back of men’s minds was their own punishment for disobeying a master’s directive to reproduce.
Many men lived under the threat of punishment. Forced reproduction, as we have seen, meant not only money but also control. Some enslaved people offered no comment about what happened to men who resisted but focused instead on women’s experiences: “Iffen the women don’t like the man it don’t make no diff’rence, she better go or dey gives her a hidin’.”123 But others did note that both the men and the women had only the choice of reproducing or being whipped. Thomas Johns, born enslaved in Alabama in 1847, similarly stated: “If de man and woman refused, dey’d get whipped.”124 G. W. Hawkins, who was born in slavery in Alabama in 1865, said that if the “slave woman didn’t do it, the masters of the overseers whipped them till they did.”125 Ponder the situations that could arise for enslaved men under this system. Did they have full freedom to refuse? They were selected for their size, another uncontrollable attribute, and then put in situations that, if they didn’t go well, could result in the women being whipped. No doubt the women would likely be known to these men. They might be friends or even kin. The men were violated, as their bodies were used to violate the bodies of others. Willie McCullough recalled a man who was “almost an entire stranger to her,” and she was told that “she must marry him.” “Her marster read a paper to them, told them they were man and wife and told this negro he could take her to a certain cabin and go to bed. This was done without getting her consent or even asking her about it.”126 John Henry Kemp, enslaved in Mississippi, remarked that his master employed overseers who were known for “brutality” and who threatened the slaves if they did not “behave,” which he defined as including “mating only at his command and for purposes purely of breeding more and stronger slaves on his plantation for sale.” Kemp explained that severe punishment awaited those women who might resist: “In some cases with women—subjecting to his every demand if they would escape hanging by the wrists for half a day or being beaten with a cowhide whip.”127
Some masters concocted elaborate scenarios perhaps to shore up their own sense of benevolence to slaves, and some thus created a tainted veneer of autonomy for men and women who were forced to be together. Louisa Everett, enslaved in Virginia, recalled that her master forced her and her husband, Sam, together:
Marse Jim called me and Sam ter him and ordered Sam to pull off his shirt—that was all the McClain niggers wore—and he said to me: Nor [her name before she changed it], “do you think you can stand this big nigger?” He had that old bull whip flung acrost his shoulder, and Lawd, that man could hit so hard! So I jes said “yassur, I guess so,” and tried to hide my face so I couldn’t see Sam’s nakedness, but he made me look at him anyhow. Well, he told us what we must git busy and do in his presence, and we had to do it. After that we were considered man and wife.128
Louisa’s passage suggests that her master believed women, too, evaluated men based in part on their bodies. But what informed her decisions, as she explained, was the master’s cruelty and the threat of whipping. She knew perfectly well that there was but one answer to his question, even if he pretended otherwise.
Some masters used enslaved men to enforce their will. Some testimony suggests that enslaved men in this situation could use force to sexually assault women in a multilayered instance of sexual exploitation. Some enslaved men used tenderness. Some men employed reason. Louisa Everett explained that because they produced “fine, big babies,” she was spared ever having “another man forced” on her, to which she added, “Thank God.” Despite that final comment that it was by the grace of God that she only experienced forced pairing once, she also observed that her partner, Sam, “was kind to me and I learnt to love him.”129 Similarly, for children of forced couples, kindness was not taken for granted, as evidenced by some accounts. For example, Jacob Branch, born enslaved in Louisiana and sold to a plantation in Texas when a baby, recalled that his father and mother were put together by his mother’s owner. “Old massa go buy a cullud man name Uncle Charley Fenner. He a good old cullud man. Massa brung him to de quarters and say, ‘Renee, here you husband,’ and den he turn to Uncle and say, ‘Charley, dis you woman.’ Den dey consider marry. Dat de way dey marry den, by de massa’s word. Uncle Charley, he good step-pa to us.”130
The forcing of couples together not only affected those individuals and their offspring but also often resulted in other couples being broken apart. Louisa’s partner, Sam, recalled that slaves on their plantation were “mated indiscriminately and without any regard for family unions. If their master thought that a certain man and woman might have strong, healthy offspring, he forced them to have sexual relation, even though they were married to other slaves.”131
In addition to being forced into sexual situations with women they did not choose, enslaved men could also face the emotional withdrawal and resentment of these women. Rufus, for example, faced the physical resistance of Rose Williams: “After I’s in, dat nigger come and crawl in de bunk with me ’fore I knows it. I says, ‘What you means, you fool nigger?’ He say fer me to hush de mouth. ‘Dis am my bunk, too,’ he say.” But Rose persisted: “You’s teched in de head. Git out, I’s told him, and I puts de feet ’gainst him and give him a shove and out he go on de floor ’fore he know what I’s doin’.” When Rufus started to proceed to the bunk, Rose recalled that she “jumps quick for de poker. It am ’bout three foot long and when he comes at me I lets him have it over de head. Did dat nigger stop in he tracks? I’s say he did. He looks at me steady for a minute and you’s could tell he thinkin’ hard. Den he go and set on de bench and say, ‘Jus wait. You thinks it am smart, but you’s am foolish in de head. Dey’s gwine larn you somethin’.” A second night “I grabs de poker and sits on de bench and says, ‘Git ’way from me, nigger, ’fore I busts yous brains out and stomp on dem.’ He say nothin’ and git out.” After emancipation she was able to leave Rufus, with whom she bore only two children, which some have taken to suggest a resistance to him throughout their marriage.132 As Wilma King points out, the account “raises questions” about such pairings: “Did they learn to love each other and build mutual respect and trust?”133 Thelma Jennings’s observations on the psychic trauma of forced marriage for women should also be applied to men. Forced marriage, she argues, caused both “physical and mental anguish” and “may have even caused greater humiliation than concubinage … since marriage was long term.”134 A level of resentment and even hatred could more easily be aimed at the enslaved male husband than at the slave master or white overseer. One woman, Mary Gaffney, told her interviewer: “I just hated the man I married … but it was what Mas[t]er said do.”135 In forced coupling, the levels of victimhood were multilayered. Irene Robertson recalled that a “stockman” would be put “in a room with some young women he wanted to raise children from. Next morning when they come to let him out the man ask him what he done and he was so glad to get out. Them women nearly kill him. If he said nothin’ they wouldn’t have to pay for him. Them women nearly kill him.”136
Men such as Joe in Virginia who were forced to have children with many women might also have found themselves unwanted within the slave community. These unions might have led to children who would have been desired by the white planter class but certainly not always by enslaved women. Some slave women, for example, rejected husbands and lovers because of their promiscuity, as did one woman “on account of his having so Many Children.”137 Deborah Gray White notes in one example that after a slave named Molly lost her husband because he ran away, she was “given” a new husband—meaning forced into another arrangement to produce children. Despite having nine children with this man, however, Molly would later reject him and exclaim that he was not her “real” husband, despite their years of cohabitation. “In Molly’s heart her real husband was the man sold away by their master.”138 For such men, the rejection and resentment of their forced wives would have further compounded their dehumanized situation. Women they were placed with could also resent them. Silvia King, born in Morocco and enslaved in Texas, recalled rejecting, as best she could, the man whom she was forced to be with by not acknowledging his name and physically resisting him until she was forced to concede under penalty of whipping. She told her interviewer: “I don’t bother with dat nigger’s name much, he jes’ Bob to me. But I fit him good and plenty till de overseer shakes a blacksnake whip over me.”139
Pressures for couples did not end after they were forced to be together. As Jennifer Morgan points out, some observers in early eighteenth-century North Carolina understood the importance of planters’ interference with slave coupling and that this meant that couples who did not reproduce were often separated from one another and paired with others. In his history of North Carolina, physician John Brickell declared that women who did not reproduce were to take “second, third, fourth, and fifth and more Husbands or Bedfellows” if children were not born after a “year or two.”140 According to Morgan, women “bore the burden and pain” of these “manipulations and scrutiny.”141 The evidence here suggests that weakly or small men similarly experienced these repercussions. Many enslavers carefully scrutinized enslaved women, and this had significant implications for men: “If a woman weren’t a good breeder, she had to do work with de men.” Thus there were incentives for reproduction. Husbands would be aware of this pressure to protect their wives and to reproduce. They were also well aware that if they did not sire children, their wife could be sold away.142 Frances Anne Kemble, an antislavery actress who married into a large slaveholding family, noted this practice in her diary and also observed that masters not only put men and women together to produce children but also broke up quarreling couples so that the “estate lost nothing by any prolongation of celibacy on either side.” This practice, she lamented, was “arbitrary destruction of voluntary and imposition of involuntary ties” and the cause of “misery.”143 A ripple effect occurred when weak or infertile men were deemed unfit by their masters. Daina Berry notes the pain that this could cause. Stephen Jordan, enslaved in Louisiana, explained how he was forced to leave his wife and children and put with another woman, herself forced to leave her husband. The woman had no children, and presumably the pairing was because the husband was deemed to be the problem. For Jordan and the woman, it was painful: “We were put in the same cabin, both of us cried, me for my old wife and she for her old husband.”144 Sam Everett explained that his master forced him and Louisa to copulate in front of him and that “he used the same procedure if he thought a certain couple was not producing children fast enough.”145
Although it is difficult to determine the number of men who found themselves singled out for their reproductive capabilities, the evidence presented here suggests that the impact of the practice was widespread and not only changed those individual men but also altered their relationships in countless ways.
For the generations of African Americans in the early twentieth century who only heard about slavery and had not experienced it firsthand, the sexual use and abuse of enslaved men figured in the larger narrative of trauma and pain. The WPA interviews and other evidence presented here capture the recollections of many who were born enslaved. The men and women who recalled the status of their fathers lived with their own particular memories of that abuse and how it informed their sense of manhood and family.146 The practice of forcing enslaved men to reproduce thus influenced black manhood during slavery and beyond.