The Revolutionary period saw another metamorphosis of the black family as the Northern states abolished slavery, the South opened up to interstate slave trade, and planters moved West. While the newly free blacks of the North started laying the foundations for stable communities centered on the family, the life of the slave family in the South was destabilized. As the geographic center of the agricultural economy shifted, the devastation of slave families became more frequent.
Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves. Because of the high premium placed on male labor, throughout every period of American slavery, black men were the most likely to be parted from their families. For slave owners, who considered the basic family unit to be comprised of mother and child, husbands and fathers could be, and were, easily replaced. Many a slave woman was assigned a new husband by her master. Male children were also frequently taken from slave mothers. The bond between an enslaved mother and daughter was the least likely to be disturbed through sale. Yet this tie was also fragile. Owners could reap large returns by selling pretty girls, especially light-skinned ones, into prostitution or concubinage.
The possibility of separation was an ever-present threat to every member of a slave family. When a master died, his slaves might be indiscriminately distributed among his heirs or sold off to multiple buyers. When a planter’s child was born or married, he or she might receive the gift of a black attendant. Mothers were taken from their own children to nurse the offspring of their masters. And slave children were torn from mothers and brought into the house to be raised alongside the master’s sons and daughters.
The prevalence of single mothers and orphaned children on plantations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially, necessitated communal parenting, focused on maternal figures. On smaller farms and plantations, a mother might bring her children with her out into the fields when she worked. On larger plantations, however, children were left behind, often cared for by “aunts” or “grannies,” older women no longer useful as field hands.