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date: 29 March 2020


  • Martha I. Pallante
  •  and Kathleen Thompson

A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895.

[This entry contains two subentries dealing with the demographic, legal, economic, religious, and social experiences of African American women from the origins of colonial settlement in America to 1895. The first article covers the topic from the colonial era to 1830, while the second article continues the discussion of African American women through the end of the nineteenth century.]

African American Women and Early America

Any discussion of African and African American women in British North America is predisposed to be complex and difficult, given the documentary record and performance of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century historians. Being black and female places this cohort far outside the mainstream of the historical record and academic discussion; their race and gender virtually guarantee that black women show up in the record only when there has been a problem or when individual behavior has fallen far outside the norm. A history of black women in early America can be broken down into three rough periods: settlement to the codification of slavery (1607–1660s), late seventeenth century through the American Revolution (1670–1780), and from the constitutional era through the beginnings of the antebellum period (1780–1830).

Changing Legal Status

An examination of black women in early America must include an evaluation of their changing legal status. Originally, female African captives sold into bondage in British North America functioned under the same legal restrictions and positions as their European counterparts. In 1619, when the first significant shipment of Africans arrived in Jamestown, English settlers had no legal framework for perpetual bondage—slavery—in place. As a consequence, African captives were sold into traditional English indenture contracts lasting from five to nine years for adults or until maturity in the case of minors. Race, while obvious, was not a legal factor.

“Portrait of a Negro Girl”

in seventeenth-century Dutch attire; miniature oil on glass, about 4 by 3 inches, unsigned and undated but possibly by Charles Zechel. It indicates how a black woman in New York might have looked c. 1650.

Austin-Thompson Collection, by permission of Princeton Art Museum.

African women initially engaged in labors similar to those of European or native women in indenture contracts; that is, the division of labor in this period fell along gender lines rather than those drawn by race. The first legal break in this policy occurred in 1643 by an act of the Virginia legislature. According to Hening's Statutes, in March 1642/3 legislators passed an act concerning the funding of ministers' salaries through a tax on all tithable persons. The definition included, “all youths of sixteen years of age upwards, as also for negro women at the age of sixteen years,” making a clear distinction between white and black women. Perhaps the most significant legal factor affecting the lives of black women in this period was the extension of indentured servitude to a lifetime commitment. While the status of Africans prior to 1660 remains unclear, a 1661 case provides evidence that some Africans were being held in perpetual bondage. By the end of the century perpetual servitude had become the norm for most persons of African descent. Virginia colonists had somehow perverted English common law, which made no reference to slavery, into a local variant that recognized the unique status of both male and female persons of African origin.

During the 1660s Virginians enacted a spate of laws that further circumscribed the position of African and African American women. Perhaps most significant was a 1662 statute that made slave status inheritable through the mother. This law, which stated that “all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother,” guaranteed the continuation of slave status from one generation to another. By the start of the eighteenth century institutionalized slavery and legal codes that formalized racial discrimination fully shaped black women's experiences. Although Virginia enacted the first statutes, other colonies in British North America quickly followed suit, passing laws that instituted chattel slavery as inheritable through the mother and denying African American women status as human beings under the law.

By the last third of the seventeenth century, factors concerning race became more significant than those concerning gender. For example, neither black women nor black men could testify in a legal matter or file a suit on their own behalf against a white person. This was particularly problematic for African Americans in cases concerning sexual predation, because neither the victims nor the likely witnesses could testify against their abusers. By the end of the following century, laws limiting access to education and public gatherings also applied uniformly to men and women of African descent.

While African American women had no legal status, they occasionally appeared in criminal- and civil-court records; that is, they were not fully excluded from the legal process. In most instances, however, only women outside the norm—those who either had extraordinary benefactors or had behaved in socially deviant ways—made such appearances. African American women were fully subject to the law, though they had no civil or legal rights under it; they could be punished for crimes and infractions even while they lacked the protections of their white counterparts. After the 1660s the courts generally invoked corporal punishments because the addition of time onto their period of bondage became a moot point.

At times, some women of African descent did prove able to successfully sue for their freedom; such cases were most likely to occur either earlier in the seventeenth century or after the mid-eighteenth century. Elizabeth Kay, a mulatto woman, appeared in 1656 in court abstracts in Northumberland County, Virginia, suing for her freedom. Apparently bound by her natural father, Thomas Kay, to Humphry Higginson in 1636, her lawyer petitioned the court to recognize her freedom in January 1655/6. The court granted Kay a certificate of freedom from James City in March of that year, enabling her to marry her attorney, William Greenstead (or Grimsted).

Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman

, watercolor on ivory, 1811. The artist, Susan Anne Livingston Ridely Sedgwick, was the daughter of the lawyer who represented Freeman before the Massachusetts state supreme court in 1781, in a successful suit for his client's freedom.

Massachusetts Historical Society.

Over a century later John Adams recounts in his diary the story of a mulatto woman who brought an action for trespass. On 5 November 1766 he notes that the cause of the case was restraint of her liberty (enslavement) and refers to the case as “suing for liberty.” Adams states that this was “the first action I ever knew of the sort, though I have heard there have been many.” Similarly, in 1781 a black man and a black “spinster” filed a suit for replevin to recover their freedom. Brom and Bett claimed that John Ashley of Sheffield deprived them of freedom by claiming them as his “bond servants-for-life.” The white jury and court found in their favor.

Another area in which the law impinged upon the lives of African American women was that of marriage and family structures. Legislation generated in British North America affected free and slave alike, but in different ways. After the mid-seventeenth century, slave marriages were social rather than legal institutions; these unions were roughly akin to common-law marriage in frontier regions, which depended on a public declaration of intent. Such common-law unions were frequent among African Americans, Native Americans, and poorer whites by the mid-1700s. One Anglo-American minister noted that African American couples could dissolve “by mutual consent their negro marriage.” These marriages carried no legal status, and while generally acknowledged by slave masters, they did not prevent permanent separations without consent of the partners.

The law placed similar constraints upon free women of color. In most northern and mid-Atlantic regions there existed precedence for marriage between persons of African descent. On the other hand, antimiscegenation laws became accepted practice by the second quarter of the eighteenth century across all British North American colonies; Virginia and Maryland led the way with statutes passed during the 1690s. In April 1691 the Virginia legislature, fearing insurrection and miscegenation, stated in act 16 of The Statutes at Large:

And for the prevention of that abominable mixture and spurious issue which hereafter may increase in the dominion … whatsoever English or other white man or woman being free shall intermarry with a negroe, or mulatto, or indian man or woman bond or free shall within three months after such marriage be banished and removed from this dominion forever.

(p. 86)

By the mid-1700s all Anglo-American colonies had such laws. In Pennsylvania, for example, a 1720s law gave heavy fines to ministers who performed ceremonies for mixed-race couples. Participants in the unions also suffered. The courts could fine whites or bind them for seven years if they could not pay fines. The black party, meanwhile, was automatically bound for seven years; children of such unions were routinely indentured until they reached the age of thirty-one. While Pennsylvanians repealed their law in the 1780s when they provided for the abolition of slavery, most northern states retained antimiscegenation laws until after Emancipation. In the post-Revolutionary period, states maintained these laws over concerns of racial purity even where slavery did not exist. For example, a law passed in Virginia in 1723 made the children born of white women and black male slaves bond servants for thirty years. Any mixed-race female who had children during that period also saw them bound for thirty years. The general rule was to maintain the distinction between the races through an almost castelike system: slave mothers had slave children; free mothers had free children; mixed race, long-term servants had the same.

Demographic Influences

The demographics of early America played a significant role in shaping the lives of African American women. Factors such as gender ratios, immigration figures, mortality, and birthrates had profound impacts. Between first settlement and the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, approximately 300,000 to 350,000 African captives were transported to British North America. The vast majority of these enslaved Africans came from the west of the continent on ships from Liverpool, London, and Bristol in England and from Newport, Rhode Island. Slavers “favored” male over female workers as better suited to plantation economies. West African practices also prejudiced the ratio, because custom there dictated the use of females for agricultural labor, and owners were therefore less likely to offer female slaves to the transatlantic traders. As a consequence, the ratio of males to females ran as high as two to one. Through 1660 mainland populations reflected this proportion, with twice as many men as women. In years after 1660 the male-to-female ratio was approximately three to two. Not until the mid-1700s did natural replacement of the population result in a more balanced ratio in the Chesapeake region. Areas farther south took longer to reach equilibrium because of continued imports from Africa. That is, Creole slave colonies with native-born populations tended to have more equal balance than those relying on continual imports.

Reproductive rates among African and African American women affected the demography of British North America. Lower birthrates among African-born women resulted from the stresses of acculturation and ages at importation. Native-born African Americans, on the other hand, suffered less from local diseases and high mortality rates because they were, in effect, exempt from the seasoning processes that all immigrants endured. As a consequence, African American women bore an average of six children, African women only three. American-born women also formed conjugal unions earlier and saw lengthened spans of childbearing years.

A final demographic factor affecting women of color was regional population distributions. By the late 1700s all British mainland colonies had African and African American populations. In the North, however, they represented less than 10 percent of the total; New York City had by far the largest proportion in the region, at about 20 percent of its total population. Africans and African Americans in the South, meanwhile, numbered approximately 400,000 during the same period, or nearly 40 percent of the total population. In several regions they constituted the majority of the population.

Regional demographics also affected the pattern of labor for African and African American women. In the North, where there were fewer Africans or African Americans and the boundaries between free, indentured, and enslaved were less overt, women of color became more acculturated. Living largely in urban settings, they engaged in trades and domestic operations such as baking and weaving. Labor conditions had a distinctly different character in the South, where most women were enslaved and worked as part of labor gangs in tobacco or rice fields. This labor was generally less intensive than the sugar gangs of the Caribbean, favoring a split between the gang and task systems of labor. During the seventeenth century the majority of black women labored as field hands, while jobs as domestics went largely to the young, the old, or the infirm. On Chesapeake tobacco farms, women constituted the majority in the gangs, often under the direction of male black foremen or white overseers. Males and females alike counted as “full hand” if adult (sixteen years old or so) and in good health, and often had production quotas established for them. More variety in domestic labor existed in mainland North America because planters were less likely to be absentee landlords and had their families in residence. As a consequence, the labor force on these plantations included spinners, weavers, seamstresses, dairymaids, laundresses, cooks, ironers, and nurses. The percentage of nonfield work went from under 15 percent in the early 1700s to 25 percent during the mid-1700s, to above 34 percent in 1800. By the end of the eighteenth century, southern slave women's labors allowed elite white women the leisure time to cultivate the genteel lifestyle for which they were noted.

Social, Cultural, and Political Factors

The social and cultural aspects of black women's lives in early America also merit some recognition. The standard of living for free black women, particularly in the northern and midAtlantic regions, greatly resembled that for their poor white counterparts. They engaged in the preindustrial labors common to women in such societies. They managed the domestic aspects of their households and provided additional hands in the fields when needed. African American women also frequently engaged in skilled endeavors such as weaving, baking, and sewing, and they provided domestic service in the homes of the more affluent. Female slaves in the North, due largely to their relatively small numbers, existed under conditions much less rigid than those of their counterparts in the South. With the exception of the bans on interracial marriage, local slave codes were milder and less subject to enforcement. As a result, African American women were more likely to be assimilated.

The life of Phillis Wheatley illustrates this assimilation process. An African brought to North America in 1761 as a child of seven or eight, she was sold in Boston to John Wheatley as a servant for his wife. She attracted the Wheatleys' intellectual interest when she quickly mastered the English language; by the age of thirteen she wrote poetry in the style of the Enlightenment. In 1773 the Wheatleys arranged for her to visit England, where she published her first book of poems. Although she stayed with the Wheatleys until their deaths, they freed her upon her return to North America. She then married John Peters, a black grocer, bore two children, and died in poverty following the birth of her third child in 1784. While her literary accomplishments and fame were extraordinary, her life as a wife and mother illustrate the fate of most African and African American women.

In the South, where Africans and African Americans constituted a significant percentage of the total populations, white hierarchies, fearing rebellion, made greater efforts to enforce the laws constraining their civil and legal rights. As in the North, free black women of the South engaged in the same sort of subsistence activities as their white sisters; however, they had the added burden of living in a culture that assumed that they were not free. Slave women were largely bound to rural and agricultural settings and had lives constrained not only by their lack of legal status but also by their masters' rules and whims. On plantations slaves attempted to maintain traditional gender roles. Slave marriages, however, had no force under the law; additionally, husbands and wives frequently resided on different plantations, further straining relationships. In recognition of this phenomenon, naming patterns in slave communities often emphasized paternity. Fictive kin sometimes replaced blood relationships to mitigate disruptions caused by sales. Child care also tended to be extensive rather than intensive—that is, all adult women shared child-rearing duties of, authority over, and responsibility for the slave community's young—to cope with demands of plantation labor.

Sexual exploitation by males in positions of authority was common. Since slave women had little to no legal recourse, the only protection lay in avoidance. This pattern of abuse began with the Middle Passage and persisted under servitude. Chattel slavery also subverted the reproductive capacities of bound African and African American women, whose capacity to replace enslaved labor forces and reduce the necessity of imports generally increased their value; thus slave women were “encouraged” to bear children, further increasing health risks. As with all women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they faced high mortality rates associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum complications. These hazards were compounded by their hard physical labor, lack of accommodation for the physical changes caused by pregnancy, and occasionally inadequate diets.

Black women played significant roles in two other areas of North American life: religion and rebellion. While rarely having legitimized control, African and African American women were participants in determining matters of faith, playing roles in both mainstream Christian congregations and in the development of folk or traditional practices. While conditions in North America rarely allowed it to bloom fully, a variety of religious culture was brought across the Atlantic by Africans. The lack of “leisure” under servitude and the ethnic mix of African captives rarely permitted full-scale cultural transmission of African practices, but some remnants were preserved through syncretism. Ecstatic trances and possession were frequent manifestations; conjuring, healing, and second sight were not gendered and often gave practitioners in North America positions of consequence and authority within their own communities. The relationship of African and African American women to organized Christian congregations was complex. Anglo-Americans initially used Africans' status as non-Christians as an excuse to exploit them. By the eighteenth century, however, many Anglo-Americans perceived religion and its message of accepting life's burdens in order to find salvation as a mechanism for controlling slave populations. For the enslaved, organized religion had two sides: it promised the ultimate reward for their suffering and opportunities for expression but also facilitated the transmission of subversive ideas. In the post-Revolutionary period, free black evangelical churches frequently became the focus of black women's activities, particularly in northern communities.

Sarah Bass Allen

, (1764–1849), was the second wife of Richard Allen; they were married in 1800. She supported his work with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and helped found its Daughters of Conference organizations.

New York Public Library, Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

Deprived of civil and legal status, blacks could not participate in the political system. While the limits of race outweighed those of gender, African and African American women were doubly constrained. The inhumanity of slavery thus often inspired the enslaved to various forms of resistance. African and African American women engaged in two active forms of rebellion: one encompassed their personal lives and the other the fate of the nation. Slave women and male counterparts participated regularly in overt and covert acts of defiance against servitude. Subtle forms of resistance included work slowdowns, acts of sabotage, thefts, and feigned illnesses. Through these means they attempted to control their masters and the conditions of their labors. In their more blatant form, acts of rebellion amounted to acts of violence, mob behavior, and flight. Black women also participated in certain forms of political decision making. This was particularly true during and after the American War of Independence, when notions of personal liberty and natural rights had come to the forefront of the social consciousness. Women of African descent acted intellectually and physically for and against the Revolution, taking up arms on both sides of the conflict. Deborah Gannett, for one, fought in disguise for the Continental forces late in the war. A significant number of black women fled to the British, who offered freedom in exchange for the abandonment of rebel masters and service to the Crown. Others, such as Phillis Wheatley, took up their pens in their chosen cause. African Americans played a greater role in the agitation for abolition in the aftermath of the war. While some, such as the educator Charlotte Forten and the antislavery essayist Maria W. Stewart, gained high profiles in the 1830s, most chose more realistic and tangible forms of protest.

See also Africanisms; Black Family; Childhood; Civil Rights; Crime and Punishment; Demographics; Discrimination ; Forten, James ; Gender; Hair and Beauty Culture; Indentured Servitude; Inheritance and Slave Status; Laws and Legislation; Marriage, Mixed; Midwifery; Occupations; Riots and Rebellions; Religion; Resistance; Sexuality; Skin Color; Spirituality; Wheatley, Phillis; and Work.


  • Berkin, Carol, and Leslie Horowitz, eds. Women's Voices, Women's Lives: Documents in Early American History. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998. This compilation of documents and narration provides a wealth of specifics and examples. Its focus on women outside the mainstream is extremely valuable.
  • Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800. London: Verso, 1997. Blackburn establishes the position of Anglo-American slavery in the larger scope of the Atlantic Rim. He focuses primarily on the intersections of economic imperatives and historically contemporary thought.
  • Hening, Walter Waller, ed. The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1629. 13 vols. Richmond, VA: Samuel Pleasants Jr., 1809–1823.
  • Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. The African American Odyssey. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000. Although meant as a general survey of African American life, the early sections of the text provide rich source information. The bibliography is also extremely helpful.
  • Hodes, Martha, ed. Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. New York: New York University Press, 1999. This social and cultural history reveals the rich fabric of women's personal lives in the American past, with a focus on the intersections between public belief and private practice.
  • Kierner, Cynthia A. Beyond the Household: Women's Place in the Early South, 1700–1835. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. This work places women in extended plantation households in the context of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Particularly useful on the changing relationship between white and black women.
  • Melish, Joanne Pope. Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. This text deals with slavery and New Englanders' attempts to balance a disdain for the institution with a lack of trust in African Americans. Particularly interesting discussion of the position of black abolitionists in the movement.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: Norton, 1975. A classic study focusing on the origins of Anglo-American slavery in colonial Virginia. Morgan's work details the legal, economic, and social origins of the institution.
  • Morgan, Kenneth. Slavery and Servitude in Colonial North America: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 2001. This work examines women's lives in the overall context of slavery in early America.
  • Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660–1740. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. A sophisticated look at the social, economic, and legal origins of slavery in early Virginia.
  • Wallenstein, Peter. Tell the Court I Love My Husband: Race, Marriage, and Law—an American History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Examines American attitudes and reactions to interracial relations throughout American history. While his primary concern is with the modern ramifications of interracial relationships and their legal consequences, his look at the origin of miscegenation legislation is helpful.

African American Women in the Nineteenth Century

Black women have suffered discrimination on the basis of race or gender or the combination of the two, which is actually a third form of oppression. In the first centuries of U.S. history, this combined form of discrimination was expressed, legally, in several ways. Black women were excluded from the rights of citizenship, along with all women and black men. Beyond that, the definition and oppression of black women began with the laws against interracial marriage that were found throughout the South and in much of the North. In their final form these laws provided that white men could form illicit, and only illicit, relationships with black women. Moreover, most areas of the country did not recognize marriage between enslaved African Americans, leaving black women and men unable to form secure bonds of love and forcing women to bear the onus of immorality if they had families. Nonetheless, black women fashioned a culture that stressed survival as a form of resistance and placed tremendous value on education, community, courage, and self-respect.

Too often black women were regarded as a homogeneous group, but from their African roots they maintained diverse customs, skills, and cultural heritages, and they experienced America in different ways. The circumstances of a free black woman who owned a farm with her husband in the North in 1790 were vastly different from those of a sharecropper in the South in 1880. The life of a member of the free black elite of New Orleans in 1850 bore little resemblance to that of a teenage mother on the South Side of Chicago in 1890. The diversity of experience within the culture of black women is dictated by time, place, and class.

Antebellum Years

Black women were taken from a variety of backgrounds, primarily in West Africa, and brought forcibly to an alien world, where they were compelled to forget their languages, their families, and what they had always believed their lives would be. In the earliest years slavery often resembled indentured servitude, and slaves were sometimes able to acquire their freedom after a time, especially in the North. Some black women came to identify with their new country and to participate in its economic, cultural, and political life in a way that would become impossible in later years. Lucy Terry Prince, for example, was a slave in 1746 when she wrote the first poem that we know of by a black woman. It mourned the deaths of white neighbors in an Indian raid. Later she and her husband, a free black man named Abijah Prince, owned two farms, and he was a town councilman. When a white man tried to cheat them of some of their land, they went to court. Although they were represented by counsel, it was Lucy Terry Prince herself who argued their case, possibly before the U.S. Supreme Court and certainly before Samuel Chase, a Supreme Court justice.

While attending churches in the North, black women participated in the early merging of African and European music. In both the North and the South they began to create the quilting, weaving, and basketry that laid the foundation of later developments in the art of black women. In 1772 Phillis Wheatley published the first book of poems by a black woman—only the second by a woman of any color—in North America. At the same time many black women resisted assimilation, just as they resisted slavery. Even in the eighteenth century, most enslaved women led lives of unremitting toil and deprivation, prompting numerous women to run away or to participate in slave revolts in which many were killed.

When slavery was legally recognized and defined in the new Republic, the status of black women under the law was also defined. The shadow of slavery loomed larger and darker. After the slave trade was outlawed in 1808 and before slavery was abolished in the South, the cruelty of the system intensified for black women. Eli Whitney's cotton gin could take the seeds out of short-staple cotton, a hardy plant that was easy to grow, in about one-fiftieth of the time it could be done manually. This made cotton a hugely lucrative crop, but growing and harvesting it were still labor-intensive jobs. Thus, the demand for slave labor was renewed at just the time that the supply of slaves from Africa had been cut off. Suddenly, the South had to produce its own slaves, and the consequences for enslaved women were terrible. In the Chesapeake states, where slaves had become economically infeasible, slaveholders stopped freeing unwanted slaves and began selling them. Some former tobacco plantations became “slave farms,” producing slaves for sale “down the river.” In the Deep South enslaved women had a new duty added to their farming and household chores: giving birth to a new crop of workers.

Ironically, this all happened in the wake of the Revolutionary War and the formation of a new country, with its fever for liberty and equality. Reconciling the contradiction between those principles and human slavery produced the virulent racism that would characterize antebellum slavery and set it apart from most systems of slavery the world had previously known. If all men were equal and free in the United States, then those who were held in slavery must not be men. Indeed, in 1809 in South Carolina a judge declared that “young slaves … stand on the same footing as other animals.” In 1829 the North Carolina Supreme Court decided the case of State v. Mann, in which the slave Lydia tried to avoid punishment by “running off” from John Mann, who had rented Lydia from the white woman who owned her. Mann shot and wounded Lydia, and her owner initiated a battery prosecution against Mann. In holding that Mann could not be prosecuted for shooting Lydia (although Lydia's owner could sue Mann for her value), Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin said that the renter had the same power as the owner and that the “power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect. The slave, to remain a slave, must be made sensible that there is no appeal from his master.”

Dehumanization was particularly crucial in the case of women, given the increasing reverence of womanhood and the high value given to chastity during the nineteenth century. Enslaved women, whose reproductive capacities were now in the service of the economic system, could not, under any circumstances, be equated with white women, for whom motherhood was sacred. Their disqualification from womanhood was accomplished in many ways, including intense brutality. Violent treatment, such as rape, was a way of dehumanizing the slave woman so that no one would suddenly see her as a thinking and feeling individual and turn against his fellows. Slaveholders in the South also used the myths of amorality and animal sexuality to justify their abuse of the black woman's body. The world of Lucy Terry Prince and Phillis Wheatley ceased to exist.

Enslaved women resisted abuse and exploitation in various ways. There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence of physical resistance to rape, and many women “stole themselves” from their owners by running away. That alternative was less open to women than men because women were more immediately necessary to the survival of young children, but there were women who chose it, including the legendary Harriet Tubman. Others chose to resist in less overt ways. Enslaved women helped each other, cared for children whose parents were sold away from them, taught their own children loyalty to one another, and in hundreds of other ways created communities of survival. Some efforts were extraordinary. Milla Granson, for example, was able to learn the rudiments of reading from white children with whom she grew up in Kentucky. When she was sold to a slaveholder in Mississippi, she started teaching her fellow slaves in the middle of the night. After working all day, she and her students would have school from 11:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. Granson “graduated” many classes from her midnight school.

Movement toward Freedom

The new, even uglier form of racism and violence against blacks was not confined to the South but spread throughout the country, erasing many of the rights that free African Americans had enjoyed. However, the extension of slavery did not go unopposed. In the 1830s the movement toward the abolition of slavery became intense, with black women in the forefront. Free black women in the North formed mutual benefit societies to solidify communities and ensure their survival in a culture where freedom, for African Americans, was severely limited. Black women also established schools to provide the education denied their children by the dominant culture, and they started small businesses to gain some independence from a labor market in which they were usually limited to menial work. Many businesses grew out of skills black women learned in slavery or in paid domestic work. Elleanor Eldridge, for example, opened a weaving business with her sister, branched out into painting and wallpapering, and finally made a real estate investment in Warwick, Rhode Island, in the early nineteenth century. During the same period another former slave, a woman known only as Sally, established a laundry and cleaning business and also manufactured and sold soap in Nashville, Tennessee.

Elizabeth Keckley

(c. 1820–1907) was a successful designer and dressmaker in Washington, D.C. Her clientele included, notably, the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, whose friend and confidante she became. However, the publication, in 1868, of Keckley's autobiography, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, caused a rift between the two women.

Austin-Thompson Collection.

By the 1830s women's mutual benefit societies and literary groups had shifted their focus to active agitation for abolition. They were particularly effective in raising money for antislavery activities. At antislavery “fairs” they sold handcrafted goods and homemade food to raise funds to publish abolitionist broadsheets and feed and clothe escaped slaves. The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, a biracial group, built a hall in Philadelphia at which meetings could be held. The Colored Females' Free Produce Society, founded in 1831, was dedicated to supplying its members with goods that had not been produced by slave labor and encouraged the black community to boycott goods that had involved the labor of slaves.

Black women provided an indispensable base for a movement in which they were denied virtually all positions of leadership. Still, women such as Maria Stewart, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sojourner Truth, and Sarah Redmond made their presence felt through their speaking and writing. In addition, the biracial women's abolitionist groups that were eventually formed gave rise to the women's suffrage movement. Women were also primary forces in the Underground Railroad. Harriet Tubman made at least nineteen trips to the South as a conductor on the railroad, delivering to freedom more than three hundred slaves. Anna Murray Douglass operated a stop on the Underground Railroad almost single-handedly while her husband, Frederick, was away from home speaking for the cause. In the abolitionist movement, black women were powerful, dynamic, and committed.

In this atmosphere some free black women were also able to gain recognition in a variety of fields. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield became the first black woman to perform on the nation's stages when she began a successful career as a concert singer. Jarena Lee and Zilpha Elaw became traveling preachers. Elizabeth Lange founded the first Roman Catholic religious order for blacks. Elizabeth Keckley established herself in Washington, D.C., as a successful designer and dressmaker, attracting such clients as Varina Davis, the wife of the future president of the Confederacy, and Mary Todd Lincoln.

When the Civil War began, black women served the Union cause in numerous ways. Many worked as nurses for the Union forces. Susie Baker King Taylor, for example, began nursing soldiers when she was just fourteen years old. Harriet Tubman became a spy and scout for the Union Army and earned the distinction of being the first woman in American history to plan and execute an armed expedition. Elizabeth Bowser took a job waiting at table in the home of Jefferson Davis and, feigning mental retardation, spied on the South's military plans. Elizabeth Keckley raised funds to care for black soldiers. As the early campaigns began to free slaves from captured plantations, such women as Charlotte Forten Grimké went into the South to educate the freedpeople, and Edmonia Lewis, the first prominent black woman artist, sculpted medallions and busts commemorating Civil War heroes.

Free Women in Search of Freedom

After the Civil War, formerly enslaved black women began the difficult task of infusing meaning into their recently acquired freedom. These newly freed women quickly discovered that freedom did not translate into either civil rights or economic opportunity. For black women who had enjoyed a certain status and financial security as free people in the years before the Civil War, emancipation meant that white society grouped them with recently freed slaves, who had little or no education and were often destitute. Poverty was widespread. Many former slaves in the South found themselves working as sharecroppers, or tenant farmers, on land they had once plowed as slaves.

Because black men had so often been separated from their families under slavery, women were often at the head of the most desperately poor black families. The federal government set up the Freedmen's Bureau to help former slaves. In 1867 in one Alabama county almost 90 percent of the families who applied for help were without adult males; this was indicative of the situation throughout the South. Black women had even fewer options for employment than did black men, because men were preferred as fieldworkers and married couples with children were preferred for tenant farms, where everyone in the family worked. In addition, despite federal troops, antiblack violence was rampant in the post–Civil War South. Rape was one of the primary weapons in the arsenal of the white supremacist terrorists, and lynching was not limited to black men.

For a brief period after the war federal legislation opened some doors, and a few black women managed to go through them. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, a nurse from Massachusetts, was admitted to the New England Female Medical College in Boston and, in 1864, became the first black woman in the United States to receive a medical degree. Two others became doctors by 1870. Charlotte E. Ray graduated from Howard University Law School in 1872 and was admitted to the District of Columbia bar. Educated black women from the North flooded into the South to teach. Often, the teacher became the center of a rural community, serving as a healer, letter writer, arbitrator, and counselor as well as a teacher. Dedicated to the advancement of their people, these teachers were utterly above reproach in matters of morality and came to represent all that was most valued among black women.

Jim Crow and Black Women

With the end of Reconstruction and the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, the era of Jim Crow began to evolve. Two separate and thoroughly unequal societies grew up in the South. Black Americans found that the white government had no intention of providing services to the society in which they lived and worked. Into the void left by Jim Crow stepped black women, who made up almost 90 percent of the congregations of black churches and were overwhelmingly responsible for their power in the community. They formed clubs that became the backbone of the black community's efforts to care for its own. The clubs built schools and clinics, orphanages, and old folks' homes, and raised funds to clothe and feed children. The black women's club movement became one of the most remarkable phenomena in the history of social services.

Charlotte Forten Grimké

(1837–1914), an abolitionist, educator, diarist, and essayist, want to the South to teach freedpeople. In 1862 she became the first African American teacher on Saint Helena Island, working at the school conducted there by Laura Towne.

Austin-Thompson Collection, by permission of Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

The “third oppression,” of race and gender together, interacted with class distinctions to create a remarkable phenomenon among upper-class and middle-class black women. They felt themselves embattled, forced constantly to rebut the morally inferior image of black women. The result was twofold. They became socially conservative, outdoing the most proper white women in purity and respectability. At the same time, however, they felt their lot in life to be inextricably bound up with that of their lower-class sisters. As a result, they worked ceaselessly to improve “the race.”

In October 1892 a group of black women in New York City organized a dinner in support of the antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells. Out of this dinner came two important clubs: the Woman's Loyal Union, organized by Victoria Earle Mathews and Maritcha Lyons later that month, and the Woman's Era Club of Boston, founded by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin in January 1893. That year in Chicago the board of directors of the World's Columbian Exposition formed its “board of lady managers,” composed of the white wives of several wealthy and prominent white men, to represent women in the planning of the fair. When black women petitioned to be represented on the board, the fair managers denied their request with the excuse that they had no national organization.

At that point the drive for a national organization of black women picked up speed. In January 1894 the Colored Woman's League incorporated. Soon after, the Boston Woman's Era Club began publishing a monthly magazine, the Woman's Era, which had contributors from around the country. In October 1894 the white National Council of Women invited the Colored Woman's League to become a member and send delegates to its 1895 convention. To accept this invitation, the Colored Woman's League had to declare itself a national organization and thus became the National League of Colored Women, but still no national meeting of black women had been held.

Then a southern journalist provided the needed impetus by writing a letter slandering Ida B. Wells and all other black women as immoral. The letter, originally written to warn a British reformer of the dangers of supporting Wells and the antilynching movement, was widely circulated in the black community and created a sense of outrage. Josephine Ruffin published the letter in the Woman's Era and called for a national conference in Boston. A number of women's groups sent delegates and formed the National Federation of Afro-American Women, representing fifty-four clubs in fourteen states. Both the National League of Colored Women and the National Federation of Afro-American Women had their 1896 meetings in Washington, D.C., at the same time. A joint committee formed a new organization, the National Association of Colored Women, electing Mary Church Terrell as its president. It was the first secular black national organization, preceding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People by almost fifteen years; this organization would provide virtually all social services to the black community for decades. The National Association of Colored Women would also be in the forefront of the struggle against lynching and for civil rights for black men and women. Black women actively worked for suffrage. They were often discriminated against by white women in the movement and, at times, were forced to form their own organizations. Nonetheless, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and others were among the front ranks of suffrage workers.

Mary Church Terrell

(1863–1954), educator, social activist, and first president of the National Association of Colored Women. This photograph dates from c. 1890.

Library of Congress.

Black theater emerged during this time, and black women were the first to take it beyond the minstrel show. Anna and Emma Hyers, renowned concert singers, formed a troupe to perform serious musical theater. Sissieretta Jones, a soprano who had signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera only to find her engagement there canceled, formed the Black Patti Troubadours. The company's shows were the predecessors of black musical comedy. Gertrude “Ma” Rainey began singing what would come to be known as the blues.

Among the mass of black women, the third oppression sometimes resulted in what we now can see as training for liberation. Because the standard sexist stereotypes did not apply, they were able to explore areas of life that remained closed to white women. At the beginning of the Civil War, 15 percent of free black women had been dressmakers and hairdressers, and 5 percent had owned boarding houses and small shops. In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, their enterprise expanded. Madam C. J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone created beauty product empires. Walker was the first woman in America to become a self-made millionaire. Maggie Lena Walker became, most historians agree, the first woman banker in the United States. In the last decade of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of black women migrated to northern urban areas. With that migration would come great changes in the circumstances and the story of black women in America.

See also Acculturation; Africa, Idea of; African Diaspora; American Revolution; Antislavery Movement; Black Church; Black Family; Black Politics; Black Press; Childhood; Civil Rights; Class; Discrimination ; Douglass, Anna Murray ; Economic Life; Education; Emancipation; Entrepreneurs; Feminist Movement; Free African Americans before the Civil War (North); Free African Americans before the Civil War (South); Freedmen; Freedmen's Bureau; Gender; Howard University; Identity; Integration; Lincoln, Mary Todd; Literature; Lynching and Mob Violence; Marriage, Mixed; Minstrel Shows; Music; New York City; Poverty; Proslavery Thought; Race, Theories of; Racism; Reform; Resistance; Segregation; Sexuality; Sharecropping; Slave Resistance; Slave Trade; Slave Trade, Domestic; Slavery; Stereotypes of African Americans; Supreme Court; Truth, Sojourner; Suffrage, Women's; Tubman, Harriet; Underground Railroad; Violence against African Americans; Visual Arts; Washington, D.C. ; Wells-Barnett, Ida ; Work; and World's Columbian Exposition.


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