Birthing a Slave: Reproduction and Inhumanity during America’s Slavery Era

Most people know of slavery, but we don’t know about slavery. Specifically, we don’t know how dehumanizing it was to be a slave.

We might understand what it’s like to be denied freedom or dignity at an intellectual level. But for many of us, we don’t have a grasp on how horrible the institution was, in the day to day life of an enslaved person. Most of us don’t “get” what it was about inhuman bondage that made it so inhuman.

For example: what was it like to be slave mother?

Some insights on this are given in the book Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South, by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. The book tells the history of a somewhat esoteric subject: the need of slaveholders, and the doctors they hired, to control and manage the bodies and reproductive lives of slave women.

But while the subject is esoteric, the details of how this played out in plantation life are chilling and disturbing.

The first chapter of the book, titled “Procreation,” has a gripping account of the stakes involved in the reproductive ability of slave women. I’ve provided some excerpts from that chapter below. Upon reading this, you will understand how lacking in humanity and dignity this peculiar institution was:

…an important aspect of slavery… has been all too often ignored: slaveholders expected to appropriate and exploit the reproductive lives of enslaved women. Control of one’s body was not a fundamental right of slaves. Emboldened by law and custom to do with human chattels as they wished, (slave) owners felt entitled to intervene in even the most intimate of matters. Women’s childbearing capacity became a commodity that could be traded on the open market.

During the antebellum era the expectation increased among members of the owning class that enslaved women would contribute to the economic success of the plantation not only through productive labor but also through procreation. The idea was at once both powerful and seductive and shaped the way women experienced enslavement, the way owners thought about the future of slavery, and the way doctors practiced medicine.

As of 1808, when Congress ended the nation’s participation in the international slave trade… the only practical way of increasing the number of slave laborers was through new births. 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.
***

Women entering their childbearing years-especially those who had proven their fertility through the birth of a baby-sold easily and for a high price. Former slave Boston Blackwell, who witnessed the sale of two women in Memphis, Tennessee, reported that a girl of fifteen who had no children sold for $800, but a breeding woman sold for $1,500.

Human reproduction was so important to the continuation of slavery that members of the South’s ruling class willed their heirs the unborn children of slaves as well as living people. Anna Matilda King of Georgia assured her daughter that she would inherit not only the slave Christiann but also “her child and future children.” This wish to benefit future generations of slaveholding families pressed owners to look for ways of ensuring that enslaved mothers bore plenty of children. “If it was not for my children I would not care what became of the negroes,” Elizabeth Scott Neblett wrote her absent husband during the Civil War… Neblett maintained that she would gladly do without slaves to save the bother of managing them, but for her children’s sake she could not let them go.

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