In “Help Me to Find My People,” historian and professor Heather Andrea Williams writes about John, a slave boy in Virginia, who has been sold away from his mother to a slave-trader in Georgia. At his goodbye, John’s mother is grief-stricken. This is a final parting. A Greek chorus of tearful slave mothers watch the familiar, harrowing scene. A sinister legacy is passed from adult to child: loved ones may be sold away at any moment, for any reason.
The experiences of today’s migrants and slaves of American history are disparate. Yet, the separations of their families began in policies and laws whose pretexts are to protect citizens.
Partus sequitur ventrem (“partus”) — the 17th century legislation that defined slavery in America — ensured that the slave status of a child followed the mother, regardless of whether the father was free and white. The immediate advantage to slave-owning Englishmen in the 1600s is inescapable: The slave population would be replenished without burdening Englishmen with responsibility for these offspring. The doctrine of partus is at the heart of slavery. It separated slave from free, segregated black from white, shattered slave families and shrouded family histories for future generations of all races.
Partus is manifest in my own genealogical records.
My white ancestors are easily traced in an unbroken family line, from the Netherlands and England, across the Atlantic Ocean and into the Midwest by the 1700s. I have compiled a trove of information about them, documenting generations back to Elburg, Netherlands, in the 14th century and even earlier for my British family in Yorkshire. Among the spoils of my research is a deed signed by Peter Stuyvesant, granting land to my ninth grandfather in what is now Brooklyn.
Conversely, it was decades before I unearthed my slave history through North Carolina’s Cohabitation Records. In 1866, two sets of my great-great grandparents presented themselves to their respective County Clerk’s office to verify their unions. (Slaves had no legal right to marry.) The record states, in part, that my paternal great-great grandparents were “lately slaves, but now emancipated, and acknowledged that they do cohabitate together as man and wife.” Both couples had cohabited since the 1850s, and, astonishingly, both families were intact after slavery and war. In the 1870 census, family members were individually enumerated, including children born during cohabitation. These comprise the earliest records in which I can identify my slave ancestors. Previously, they were tabulated anonymously on slave schedules.
Documents also reveal sobering gaps. Death certificates for some ancestors born during slavery (or soon after emancipation), record only mothers’ names. Fathers were listed as “unknown.” Many of these ancestors were identified as “mulattoes.” Were they the biological children of white fathers? Were their mothers victims of rape? Were they separated through sale before knowing the names of their fathers?
Although some of my free black ancestors in the Midwest are documentable as early as the American Revolution, the history of my free black ancestors in the South is no less challenging to reconstruct than that of slaves. The major difference is that I located free blacks who were individually enumerated back to 1850, but earlier ancestors remain a mystery (so far).
Other loose ends persist. I discovered relatives who deny or are unaware of their black heredity. I found family in North Carolina from whom I had been separated through my grandparents’ migration to Pennsylvania in the early 1900s. I learned that my surname is “a clue,” as Professor Williams suggests, connecting me to my family’s past on a plantation. As far as I know, I am not related to the slave owners from whom my paternal ancestors took their name.
These two separate and unequal lines of my black and white ancestry are cast in the long shadow of partus. Its evolution proved catastrophic for both individuals and for the country. The system of slavery it reinforced ultimately incited the Civil War, fomented racial violence, and actuated the long battle for civil rights and racial equality.
Partus was the flashpoint for disrupting black families. The woe it generated endures. I grieve most for my past that I will never recover. My African relatives — along with millions of other Africans — went to their graves never knowing the fates of loved ones who vanished into the slave trade. Did they die in the monstrous passage to the Western Hemisphere? Or survive to serve their lifetimes in bondage?
What laws put asunder, people often cannot restore. Families belong together.
Anita Henderson is a senior fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.