In Which Our Hero Begins to Gather Steam…

You’ll never believe it but I got another job interview today. Seriously. It is a part-time, no benefits and slightly insulting pay rate job that just happens to be in my field and which sounds like more fun than I can handle. It is as a researcher for a local museum. I’ll find out more about it at the interview on the 4th which is the same week that I’ll find out about Virginia Union University. Uggggghhhh! I can’t wait! I’m starving!

In archival news, the Library of Virginia now has another cohab register to add to its growing list. What is that, you say? What is a cohab register? Well…the cohab registers are a set of awesome nineteenth century documents that we’re working on digitizing. The actual title of each one is Register of Colored Persons of _________ County Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife as of February 27, 1866 These documents were created by the Freedmen’s Bureau when it set up shop in Virginia after the Civil War. These documents were often the first time that a slave’s name appeared in an official record and the registers were used to legitimize marriages and children. Previous to this, slave families were considered….well, they weren’t considered at all! The supposition that black families were incidental led to later assumptions, enshrined in the well-meaning but misleading Moynihan Report that the perceived problems in black family life such as fatherlessness, desertion, etc. were the result of the hardships that slavery inflicted upon family life. Moynihan’s theory was that blacks in America would not be capable of attaining equality for a long time yet because of the enormous damage slavery had caused, in particular, damage to black families. Fairplay. I can understand that slavery put strains on family life that were not experienced by white families and that this would have repercussions for a significant amount of time as that race works for equality througout history, however Moynihan’s basic assumption was that slave families were transitory units. My reading of the evidence is different. My own admittedly rather elementary research during the time that I transcribed these registers has led me to a far different conclusion about the emotional lives of slave families. Maybe I should call it a hypothesis since, as I said, my research has been pretty basic so far. Anyway, these registers show that there was a remarkable resilience among slave families, some who were living very geographically separate lives. The registers show that many wives took the last name of their husbands, even when there was often no legitimizing ceremony which indicates that slave couples recognized the binding nature of marriage. Further, the registers are full of elderly couples who had been married for more than forty years! Some of these descriptions also contained the exact date of the marriage, even when it had occurred many, many years before. As a woman, I can formally testify that this likely shows that the couple felt an emotional bond. Would you remember the exact date that you just randomly decided to shack up with someone? No, I think desertion and casual babymaking was any more widespread as it was in white society as some scholars seem to have supposed. Furthermore, many of these babies were named after fathers or mothers, indicating yet another familial bond. Speaking of babies, another interesting piece of evidence is a set of companion registers that are often lumped together with the cohab registers. These are the “Register of Children of Colored Persons Whose Parents Have Ceased to Cohabit Which the Father Recognizes to be His”. This is pretty self-explanatory. It is a register of children from families broken by desertion, death, geographic separation, etc. It makes for sad reading but it makes a convincing case for the surprising number of intact families living in slavery. Some of the families mentioned in the records are in fact broken by desertion but it is a gratifyingly small number. The majority of parents in the record are no longer cohabiting because one of them is six feet under. Well, I do admit to being amused by one case in which the record mentions that the family in question is separated due to the “temper of wife” but most of the families no longer together were separated either by distance or earthly dimensions.

I had a fabulous time transcribing these bad boys and I really hope that someone will do a more thorough study using them. Especially since many of these registers have NOT been studied before. During the time that I was doing the transcription, I was reading one of the definitive studies of black family life during slavery, aptly titled The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 and in the notes, the author acknowledges the existence of four cohab registers. The LVA has, in fact, twenty-one; the newest being that for Smyth County which I just finished transcribing yesterday. This huge discrepancy is not an error on the author’s part but rather the result of having so many great historical documents hidden away in the various 95 county courthouses across the state. Many of these documents have just been unearthed, at least intellectually, and are now available to everyone online. What a country.

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