African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: Learning Resources Center—Further Reading

Low Country African Families

Among the Cordes plantations, inheritance strategies and sales apparently influenced the formation of African family, kin, and community. Analysis of the wills and inventories of the Cordes family members over a twenty-year period, augmented by estate account books and bills of sale offer a microcosmic view of how planter practices influenced African family and kin network stability. Friedlander found that the inheritance practices of the Cordes tended to keep African families together. Relatively few people were separated from their families through division of “slave property” following the death of a Cordes, 92.8% of “slave property” passed from generation to generation of the Cordes family. Heirs appeared not to have sold the slaves they inherited (Freidlander 1985:229). The Cordes’ localism and kinship conventions, including attempts to be economically self-sufficient, combined with the numerical majority of African peoples resulted in an African world of relative independence. The Africans could and did form family, kinship, and community facilitated by their ability to travel about between plantations and communicate freely among them.

Based on an analysis of naming patterns among slaves, e.g. Old Harry, Big Harry, and Little Harry presumed to represent three generations of men in one family of enslaved Africans, Friedlander concluded, that the Cordes recognized and respected African family organization to a great extent. However, family organization was not respected entirely. The Cordes put the needs of the plantation for labor first. For example, during division of property by inheritance, a grandchild might remain with its grandparents but separated from the father or, more rarely, the mother. Thus, the pattern of division was conducive to the preservation of an extended African family structure. Furthermore, since the Cordes extended family lived in close geographical proximity to one another, any dislocation of enslaved peoples as a result of estate settlements was not as drastic as it might have been (Freidlander 1985:230).

Polygamous marriage may have been one African custom that survived the Middle passage, according to Wood. Based upon observation in slave sales or estate division records, of one man grouped with several women and children Wood speculated that some concession to the West African custom of polygamy might have been occurring. Some instances of polygamy must have prompted one Anglican clergyman to warn each African man he baptized that: “The Christian Religion does not allow plurality of wives, nor any changing of them (Wood 1974:140–141).

In contrast to the earlier Caribbean provenance of enslaved people, the increase in the numbers of enslaved Africans that occurred throughout the Low Country beginning in the 1750s resulted mostly from direct importation of people from Africa. When new people from African entered this social milieu, they brought a constant fresh influence of African customs, social conventions, and systems of meaning to second and third generation Carolina-born African peoples. The practice of pairing children with their grandparents in family units further perpetuated the cross-generation reproduction of Gullah-Geechee African-derived beliefs, speech patterns, language, religious ceremonies, funerary and burial customs, and other cultural traditions.

Over time economic practices such as working out for hire, participating in an internal slave market economy, working in service occupations, as domestics and as artisans enslaved people from rural and in urban settings interacting more with Europeans. These factors and events surrounding the Revolutionary War, that brought the Low country African peoples increasingly in contact with Euro-American culture, over time contributed to development of social class differentiation based on income, color, and acculturation.