Professor Tera Hunter Publishes the First Comprehensive History of African American Marriage in the Nineteenth Century

Thursday, May 25, 2017
by AAS21

Uncovering the experiences of African American spouses in plantation records, legal and court documents, and pension files, Tera W. Hunter reveals the myriad ways couples adopted, adapted, revised, and rejected white Christian ideas of marriage. Setting their own standards for conjugal relationships, enslaved husbands and wives were creative and, of necessity, practical in starting and supporting families under conditions of uncertainty and cruelty

Tera W. Hunter, Professor of History and African American Studies, recently published her second major book, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century. 

The publisher writes:

“Americans have long viewed marriage between a white man and a white woman as a sacred union. But marriages between African Americans have seldom been treated with the same reverence. This discriminatory legacy traces back to centuries of slavery, when the overwhelming majority of black married couples were bound in servitude as well as wedlock. Though their unions were not legally recognized, slaves commonly married, fully aware that their marital bonds would be sustained or nullified according to the whims of white masters.

Bound in Wedlock is the first comprehensive history of African American marriage in the nineteenth century. Uncovering the experiences of African American spouses in plantation records, legal and court documents, and pension files, Tera W. Hunter reveals the myriad ways couples adopted, adapted, revised, and rejected white Christian ideas of marriage. Setting their own standards for conjugal relationships, enslaved husbands and wives were creative and, of necessity, practical in starting and supporting families under conditions of uncertainty and cruelty.”

Bound in Wedlock is published by Harvard University Press. 

The highly anticipated book is quickly gaining strong reviews. 

Recent Reviews:

Black Marriage Unshackled: An Interview with Tera W. Hunter – Tanisha Ford, The Feminist Wire

‘Bound in Wedlock’ Review – Thomas McClung, New York Journal of Books


“An important and comprehensive work that is worth reading by all, especially those interested in the affects of slavery on society today.”—Amy Lewontin, Library Journal (starred review)

“In this extraordinary book, Tera Hunter builds on vast research to discern the resilient marriage forms that African Americans devised during the nineteenth century to cope with the havoc of bondage, the fleeting promise of emancipation, and the fresh compulsions that came with freedom. Written with eloquence, teeming with evidence, comprehensive in its sweep, challenging in its conclusions, Bound in Wedlock is a momentous achievement.”—Sydney Nathans, author of A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland

“Tera Hunter’s fascinating and intensive assessment of slave and free marriages in the nineteenth century details powerfully both the supreme importance of kinship relations and the complex ways that the persistence of post–Civil War white supremacy vexed and hampered African American family integrity even more directly than legacies of slavery did.”—Nancy F. Cott, author of Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation

“Bound in Wedlock is a groundbreaking history that challenges the belief that the crisis of black marital and familial relations can be traced directly to slavery. With a vast arsenal of archival evidence, Hunter illuminates the complex and flexible character of black intimacy and kinship and the precariousness of marriage in the context of racial and economic inequality. It is a brilliant book and one destined to invite vigorous debate.”—Saidiya Hartman, author of Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

“Bound in Wedlock demonstrates that the history of African American marriage is far more than a legacy of slavery. Instead, it is a story at once rooted in a distinctive collective experience, intensely personal, and at the same time bound up in the legal, social, and cultural transformations that re-made marriage for all Americans. Wide-ranging, learned, and deeply researched, it is a splendid accomplishment.”—Dylan C. Penningroth, University of California, Berkeley, and the American Bar Foundation

Recent News

Lincoln signed a bill in 1862 that paid up to $300 for every enslaved person freed.
Princeton University junior Nathan Poland has been awarded a 2019 Truman Scholarship, which provides up to $30,000 toward graduate school and the...

Editor’s Note: This article represents the views and opinions of the author only and does not necessarily represent the views of The...

Over the spring break, we set out for London in search of the archives and traveling histories of some of the itinerant and exiled thinkers we were...