How enslaved women’s sexual health was contested in the antebellum south.

Antebellum Enslavers Struggled to Control Their Single Economic Wellspring: Female Sexuality

Antebellum Enslavers Struggled to Control Their Single Economic Wellspring: Female Sexuality

Our defining institution, in nine lives.
Aug. 24 2015 10:50 AM

“Good Breeders”

During the antebellum period, enslaved women wielded their reproductive capital and fought off white encroachment on their sexual health.

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A slave family or families posed in front of a wooden house on the plantation of Dr. William F. Gaines, Hanover County, Virginia.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by G. H. Houghton/Library of Congress.

This article supplements Episode 7 of The History of American Slavery, our inaugural Slate Academy. Please join Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion for a different kind of summer school. To learn more and to enroll, visit Slate.com/Academy.

Excerpted from Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. Published by Harvard University Press.

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By the 1820s planters and would-be planters were moving in large numbers to places previously unavailable for settlement and growing the fiber for sale in Europe and New England, where a textile industry was beginning to thrive. The extension of the so-called Cotton Kingdom required new laborers. As of 1808, when Congress ended the nation’s participation in the international slave trade, planters could no longer import additional slaves from Africa or the West Indies; the only practical way of increasing the number of slave laborers was through new births. With so much at stake, black women’s reproductive role became politically, as well as economically, decisive. If enslaved mothers did not bear sufficient numbers of children to take the place of aged and dying workers, the South could not continue as a slave society.

Every woman of an appropriate age needed to bear children. Early in the 19th century, slaveholders looked to both heaven and Earth for answers to why childless women had not given birth. They were willing to attribute a role to providence, but they also scrutinized the behavior of the woman herself and the circumstances in which she lived. Generally, owners adhered to a racist assumption that all black women were fecund—more so than whites—and would breed if given the chance.1

Most provided an opportunity for woman to become a mother by ensuring that she had access to a mate, even if it meant tolerating the visits of an enslaved man living on another plantation or purchasing additional slaves. One planter, Bill Alford of Mississippi, first purchased Jacob Dickerson. Shortly after, he bought Sally. When he brought Sally home, he said to Jacob, “I brung you a good woman, take her an’ live wid her.” The couple consented, and according to their son, lived contentedly thereafter.2

Not all slaves accepted planter matchmaking docilely, but the willingness of some couples to mate under such circumstances is not hard to understand given that the majority of enslaved people wanted to marry and have families. Any couple who did not have the approval of an owner might be denied access to material resources as well as the owner’s assistance in maintaining family ties.3 Although no slave couple could be certain that they would be allowed to remain together, everyone knew that an owner was more likely to respect a union that had been approved. Only those couples who gained an owner’s consent for marriage obtained separate housing with furnishings, patches of land for growing foodstuff, passes to visit one another if husband and wife lived on separate plantations, and other accouterments of married life. For these reasons, a woman or man would have thought long and hard before rejecting a spouse proposed by the owner.

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Not all owners purchased spouses specifically for particular slaves. Those who did not might hurry women to have children in other ways. Many exploited an attraction that already existed by encouraging or insisting on marriage. Jacob Thomas married Phoebe the year the Civil War began. Their courtship lasted only a brief time, Jacob later recalled, because the master gave his permission for marriage “’fore I axes fer hit.” Georgina Gibbs testified that her Virginia master “would marry” any couple he saw spending time together. She apparently meant that he would press the pair to live together as husband and wife. For youths experiencing the glow of first love and sexual attraction, mild pressure often proved effectual.4

An owner who suspected a couple of courting might persuade the man and woman to set up a household by offering a variety of inducements. These could consist of not only separate housing, small patches of land, and passes but also chickens or other animals and time to perform domestic tasks. Rewards for motherhood followed the birth of children. These included “extra clothing,” exemption from harsh punishment, even (rarely) freedom. Some women were able to avoid field or other arduous labor as the result of bearing children. “A ‘breeder’ always fared better than the majority of female slaves,” former slave Douglas Parish observed.5 Slaves considered rewards for motherhood a customary right and acted proactively to secure them from owners.

And there were repercussions for barrenness. Young women who had not demonstrated fertility faced the possibility of separation from family as well as additional labor, as the story of Lulu Wilson’s mother illustrates. If a married couple lived together for long without having a baby, North Carolina planter Joe Fevors Cutt would force both husband and wife to choose new partners. Former slave Henry Bobbitt maintained that many marriages did not last longer than five years because if no children were born within that period, husbands and wives were expected to find other spouses.6

The fact that a woman proved a poor breeder did not necessarily mean she was infertile. Slaveholders were often poor judges of whether a woman could bear children. When an enslaved woman called Minerva was badly burned and scarred, her owners were “disappointed because before the accident they had thought she would be a good breeder.” It is unclear whether they feared she would be unable to attract a mate, conceive, or bring a baby to term, or perhaps all three; but their assessment proved wrong. Minerva gave birth to more than one child, including her namesake, Minerva Davis, who related these facts years after slavery had ended.7 The slaveholders’ poor judgment in such cases reflected in part common misperceptions about the causes of infertility as well as the difficulty of enforcing particular sexual relations upon others. Owners did not know, for example, that to become pregnant a woman must have sex during ovulation.

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Miscalculations such as these explain in part the efforts undertaken by some slaveholders to intervene directly in sexual relationships among slaves. They tried to orchestrate courting by insisting that couples obtain an owner’s approval before seeing each other. Some masters and mistresses went so far as to write love letters on behalf of slaves.8

Forced pairings were uncommon, but slaveholders attempted them from time to time. Some former slaves charged that owners forcefully bred slaves not only to enlarge their workforces but also to “improve” their “stock.” Henry H. Buttler claimed that his former masters would not approve matches unless they “considered it a proper mating,” and the only men and women who received permission were those the owner expected to produce offspring with “perfect physiques.”9 Other informants spoke of “stockmen” assigned the role of stud. One former slave testified that a stockman would be locked in a room with women of childbearing age overnight. In the morning, he would be quizzed about what had happened. If he did not engage in sex (the women might resist him), his owner would not be paid for his services. Emma Barr of Arkansas reported her mother’s allegation that one of her owners kept a “fine man” whose duty it was to impregnate the house women. The man performed no difficult labor, and the other slaves—both men and women—“hated him,” an indication that any man who cooperated with such a scheme was despised by other slaves. One Louisiana planter with sizable slaveholdings, William Maddox, allowed the majority of slaves to choose spouses to their liking, except for about 10 women, whom he bred with a large man. His goal was physically fit children who might be sold for a good price.10

Still, not many planters tried to breed slaves through forced pairings. Given the predisposition of slaves to become parents, they were needless. As one Mississippi slaveholder maintained, no studs were necessary, because slaves formed sexual relationships on their own. Yet slaveholders did nothing to dissuade slaves from believing that force might be used. This potential threat frightened slaves and helps explain why so many former slaves remembered stories about forced pairing on nearby plantations if not their own. The anxiety produced by the possibility of forced breeding was real and prevalent.11 More common than forced pairings among slaves were forced sexual encounters between white men and black women. Potential sexual partners of enslaved women included the master, his sons, neighboring planters, visitors of the slaveholding family, traveling salesmen, and hired workers.12

Although slaveholders intervened with human reproduction in the slave quarter in a variety of ways, they did not always find the results satisfactory. Time and again, their efforts were foiled by the determination of slaves to keep reproductive matters under their own control. Nancy and Tip managed to thwart their Louisiana master’s plan to pair them. When the master first decided that the two should mate, Tip was willing to go along. Nancy resisted, however, and received a whipping as a result. Feeling sorry for Nancy, Tip suggested that they live together without establishing a sexual relationship. After several months the master, frustrated at the lack of a visible pregnancy, agreed to let Nancy remarry, this time to a man of her own choosing.13

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To help achieve the goal of increasing the size of the slave population, some slaveholders turned to medical men. For their part, physicians argued that it behooved planters—some of whom attempted to treat slave health problems by consulting medical manuals published for home use—to seek advice from physicians skilled in midwifery. The subject of infertility led doctors to investigate issues of sex and sexuality, matters not generally discussed publicly. Research by W. Tyler Smith, for example, concluded that women reached orgasm during sex but that orgasm was not essential for conception.14 One doctor expressed a belief (opposite that of prevailing wisdom) that infertility occurred more commonly among black than white women.15

By the late antebellum years, slaveholders were regularly eliciting the assistance of physicians in treating slave women’s health problems. The involvement of doctors with enslaved women’s reproductive health represented an expansion of the slaveholder’s domain—an intrusion into an area of life that had once been under the purview of the slave.

From the standpoint of enslaved women, the slave owner’s foray into the scientific management of their bodies represented something beyond benevolence. It was an effort to decrease the importance of women’s community and to substitute the ways of white men for those of black women. The women struggled to assert their own customs. Rather than acquiescing in slaveholders’ demands that they bear as many children as possible, enslaved women attempted to regulate childbearing to accord with their own notions of the proper timing and frequency of motherhood. In resisting the dominion of white men in this regard, black women cast themselves as central actors in the unfolding drama that constituted slave life and culture in the antebellum South.

Excerpted from Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South by Marie Jenkins Schwartz, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2006 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1Thomas Affleck, “On the Hygiene of Cotton Plantations and the Management of Negro Slaves,” Southern Medical Reports 2 (1850): 434; S2, vol. 11: Mo., p. 215. On fertility rates among slaves, see Richard Sutch, “The Breeding of Slaves for Sale and the Westward Expansion of Slavery, 1850–1860,” in Race and Slavery in the Western Hemisphere: Quantitative Studies, ed. Stanley L. Engerman and Eugene D. Genovese (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), pp. 173–210.

2S2, vol. 8: Ark., pt. 1, p. 47, and vol. 11: Ark., pt. 7, p. 245, and vol. 15: N.C., pt. 2, p. 274, and vol. 17: Fla., pp. 55, 223; SS1, vol. 7: Miss., pt. 2, pp. 600–601, and vol. 9: Miss., pt. 4, pp. 1453–54; SS2, vol. 1: Ala., Ariz., Ark., and Other Narratives, p. 255, and vol. 6: Tex., pt. 6, p. 2081; “Management of Slaves,” DeBow’s Review 13 (August 1852), in Advice among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in the Old South, ed. James O. Breeden (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1980), p. 242.

3Although slaves could not marry legally, most owners recognized certain slave unions as such and granted privileges for married couples, including in some cases a promise not to separate the couple through sale. I have discussed this issue at length in Born in Bondage, chap. 7.

4S2, vol. 15: N.C., pt. 2, p. 350; SS2, vol. 2: Tex., pt. 1, p. 168; Charles L. Perdue Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), p. 105; A. M. French (Mrs.), Slavery in South Carolina and the Ex-Slaves; or, The Port Royal Mission (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969), p. 93. See also Kate E. R. Pickard, The Kidnapped and the Ransomed: The Narrative of Peter and Vina Still after Forty Years of Slavery (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1970), p. 153.

5P. C. Weston, “Management of a Southern Plantation,” DeBow’s Review 22 (January 1859), in Breeden, Advice among Masters, p. 260. See also Bassett, Southern Plantation Overseer, p. 32; S2, vol. 8: Ark., pt. 2, p. 132, and vol. 17: Fla., pp. 242, 257, 342; SS1, vol. 7: Miss., pt. 2, pp. 440–441, 611.

6S2, vol. 14: N.C., pt. 1, p. 124; SS2, vol. 3: Tex., pt. 2, p. 587.


7S2, vol. 8: Ark., pt. 1, pp. 128–129, 299, and vol. 11: Mo., pp. 303–304.

8SS2, vol. 2: Tex., pt. 1, p. 26; Schwartz, Born in Bondage, chap. 7.

9S2, vol. 8: Ark., pt. 1, p. 211, and vol. 15: N.C., pt. 2, p. 434, and vol. 17: Fla., pp. 127–128, 167, 185; SS2, vol. 3: Tex., pt. 2, p. 555, and vol. 10: Tex., pt. 7, pp. 4121–23.

10S2, vol. 8: Ark., pt. 1, p. 119, and vol. 10: Ark., pt. 6, p. 223; SS2, vol. 10: Tex., pt. 9, p. 4158.

11S2, vol. 14: N.C., pt. 1, pp. 30–31; SS2, vol. 10: Tex., pt. 9, p. 4362. For an example of a slave woman who believed she had been born of a forced pairing, see Baker and Baker, WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives, pp. 140–141.

12William G. Craghead, “Case of Catamenial Retention from Imperforated Hyman,” The Stethoscope 5 (April 1855): 193; Steven M. Stowe, ed., A Southern Practice: The Diary and Autobiography of Charles A. Hentz, M.D. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), p. 541; Ronald L. Baker, comp., Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless: The WPA Interviews with Former Slaves Living in Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 117, 245; Perdue, Barden, and Phillips, Weevils in the Wheat, pp. 84, 117, 257; Baker and Baker, WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives, p. 506; S2, vol. 8: Ark., pt. 1, pp. 51, 250, and pt. 2, p. 35, and vol. 9: Ark., pt. 3, pp. 25, 218, 340; Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Though a Plenty’”: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,” Journal of Women’s History 1 (winter 1990): 60–66; Frederick Douglass, Narrative of Frederick Douglass (New York: Dover, 1995), p. 2.

13SS2, vol. 10: Tex., pt. 9, pp. 4295–96. On trickster tales, see Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), chap. 2.

14“Bibliographical,” Atlanta Journal of Medicine and Surgery 2 (November 1856): 185; W. Tyler Smith, “A Course of Lectures on the Theory and Practice of Obstetrics,” New Orleans Medical News and Hospital Gazette 3 (April 1856): 112.

15John R. Turner, “Plantation Hygiene,” Southern Cultivator 15 (May–June 1857), in Breeden, Advice among Masters, p. 195; “Sterility among Negroes: A Case from a Country Practitioner,” New Orleans Medical News and Hospital Gazette 3 (1 September 1856): 391–392.

Marie Jenkins Schwartz is an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island.