The Father’s Role in the Slave Quarter Family

The Father’s Role in the Slave Quarter Family

Excerpted from:
Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831–1865
By Thomas L. Webber 172–174

An important aspect of the father’s role in the quarter family was to be ready to assume the double role of father and mother if and when the need arose. Though most quarter fathers were given much assistance by a grandparent, an aunt, or an older child at the death or sale of their wives, the primary obligation of taking over mother’s role functions often was his. When (Charles) Ball’s mother was sold to a Georgia trader, Ball was raised mainly by his father and grandfather.85 When Roxy Pitts’ mother, who was part Indian, ran off, his father filled in and raised all the children.86 Sometimes, of course, father assumed much of the primary care of his children without mother’s death or sale. Lula Jackson says that her father raised not only all of his own children but those of his wife’s first husband as well.87 For three months every year Betty Guwn accompanied her mistress to the deep South while her husband “stayed at home to see after the family, and took them to the fields when too young to work under the task master, or overseer.”88

Far more important than the frequency of the contact between quarter children and their parents was the intensity and loving nature of those interactions they were able to have together. Irella Walker remembers how her father used to patiently rub her shoes with grease to make them more comfortable for her.89 Margaret Nickerson’s father tended to her beaten legs.90 Though he came to see them only on Sunday, the visit of Oscar Rogers’ father was the high point of the week for Oscar and his brothers and sisters. He came early and stay till bedtime. We all run to meet him. He kiss us all in bed wh4en he be leavin’.”91 Finally, by observing their father and his relationship with his wife, his own parents and brothers and sisters, and with them, the children of a quarter family learned the responsibilities and the value of membership in a strongly bound family. From their father they learned not only how to hunt, fish, grow crops, and “steal,”a but that it was expected of them to do likewise. From observing their father’s efforts to provide for, protect, and educate his family, they learned not only the means but also the idea that they were responsible for each other’s nurture, protection, and education.92

Some recollections show that not only the useful but the poetic clung to the mind. John Collins remembers how “Daddy used to play wid mammy just lak she was a child. He’d ketch her under de armpits and jump her up mighty nigh to the rafters of the little house us lived in.”93 Another ex-slave recalls how he loved his father:

My mother just rejoiced in him. Whenever he sat down to talk she just sat and looked and listened. She would never cross him for anything. If they went to church together she always waited for him to interpret what the preacher had said or what he thought was the will of God. I was small but I noticed all these things. I sometimes think that I learned more in my early childhood about how to live than I have learned since.94

The role of father was not necessarily played by a child’s biological father. Sometimes a grandfather accepted the duties of father towards his grandchildren. Sometimes an uncle or an older brother became the father of a child’s family. And sometimes, father was a member of the larger community who was completely unrelated by blood but who, nevertheless, was willing to accept the responsibility of being father to a fatherless child.95 From the time Mingo White was sold away from the rest of his family at age five, “the only carin’ that I had or ever known anything ’bout was give to me by a frien’ of my pappy. His name was John White. My pappy tol’ him to take care of me for him. John was a fiddler an’ many a night I woke up to find myse’f sleep ’sleep ‘twix’ his legs whilst he was playin’ for a dance for de white folks.”96 Although there seems to have been a substantial number of quarter children who lived in a household which did not contain both a biological mother and father, rarely did a quarter child lack a significant relationship with an older black man who felt and assumed responsibility to help nurture and protect him and who became instrumental in his education.

85Charles Ball, Fifty years in chains (New York: Published by the author, 1825) pp.16–23.
86Roxy Pits in George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972) Alabama, VI, p. 99.
87Fisk University, God Struck Me Dead: Religious Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Negro Ex-Slaves (Nashville, Tennessee: Social Science Institute, Fisk University, 1945), p. 162.
88Betty Guwn in Rawick, ed., Indiana, VI. P.99.
89Irella Walker in Rawick, ed., Texas, V (4), p. 123.
90Margaret Nickerson in Rawick, ed., Florida, XVII. P. 253.
91Oscar James Rogers in Rawick, ed., Arkansas, X (6), p. 70.
a(Excerpter note: Liberating/taking food from the master/mistress was not considered stealing by slaves.
92Laneb, pp.11–12. Aunt Sallyc, p.59. Campbelld, p. 29. Grandye, pp. 17–18. Orland Armstrongf, pp. 266–68. Fisk Collection, Unwritten History of Slavery; Autobiographical Account of Negro Ex-Slaves, pp. 2, 64, 285]. Bill Austin in Rawick, ed., Florida, XVII, pp. 22–23.
bLungford Lane, The Narrative of Lungsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, North Carolina (Boston: by the author, 1842),
cAunt Sally Aunt Sally; or, the Cross the Way to Freedom. A Narrative or, the Slave-Life and Purchase of the Mother of Reverend Isaac Williams of Detroit, Michigan (Cincinnati: American Track and Book Society, 1958).
dIsreal Campbell, Bond and Free: or, Yearning for Freedom from My Green Brair House. Being the Story of My Life in Bondage and My Life in Freedom (Philadelphia: by the author, 1861)
eMoses Grandy, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America (Boston: Oliver Johnson 1844)
fOld Massa’s People: The Old Slaves Tell Their Story (Indianapolis: Boobs-Merrill, 1931)
93John Collins in Rawick, ed., South Carolina, II (2), pp. 224–24.
94Fisk University, God …, p. 161.
95See Eugene D. Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Made (New York Pantheon Books, 1974), p. 493. Interestingly enough, the myth of the typical fatherless slave family seems to have originated in the black sources themselves; in the well read autobiographies of Frederick Douglassg, Henry Bibbh, and William wells Browni. “It is almost impossible,” writes Bibb, “for slaves to give a correct account of their mail parentage.” Bibb, p.14. Douglass writes: “A person of some consequence in civilized society, sometimes designated as father, was literally unknown to slave law and to slave practice.” Douglass, p. 27. Brown relates that he knew little of his father and only learned his name by being told it by his mother. W.W. Brown, p. 13. It seems more than coincidental that all three were the biological sons of white men.
gFrederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (New York: Collier Books. 1962). Reprinted from the revised edition of 1892.
hHenry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and adventures of Henry Bib, An American Slave (New York: published by the author, 1849).
iWilliam Wells Brown, Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1847).
96Mingo White in Rawick, ed., Alabama, VI. pp. 413–14.