After Slavery: Educator Resources

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4. A Freedwoman's Civil and Domestic Expectations

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Seven: Gender and the Politics of Freedom in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

As the realities of the free-labor system shifted the terrain under black women's feet, many responded by turning to their nearest kin for support. In doing so, they called into being new understandings among former slaves about what it meant to be a good husband, a good wife, and a good child. We find evidence of these new gender ideals and expectations in the emergence of family-based labor contracts, particularly those brokered by black men (see below, Document 5). We find evidence in single mothers' heavy reliance on the earning power of older children, a dependency that sparked often violent child custody battles in the early years of freedom. We also find evidence in the charges aggrieved wives brought against philandering husbands. As Chloe Gay made clear to the Freedmen's Bureau agent at Wilmington, North Carolina, abandonment was a deadly serious business, one that threatened women and children's very survival.

A Freedwoman's Civil and Domestic Expectations

Decr 13th [1866]

Lieutenant A Freedwoman named Chloe Gay, who was sent from this City with her children, at Government expense to join her husband at Jackson Northampton County: writes me, that her husband has taken up with another woman, and refuses to support her, and that he is trying by threats to force her to leave Jackson and return to this City. If Northhampton County is included in your District, will you please see what can be done for the woman. If not in your District will you please refer to the officer in charge of said County.

[signed] Allan Rutherford

Source: Lieut. Allan Rutherford to Lieut. John M. Foote, Dec. 13, [1866], M1909 (Records of the Field Offices for the State of North Carolina, 1865-1872), RG 105: Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands


Questions to Consider

  1. What concerns Chloe Gay the most about her husband's abandonment? What is she afraid of losing?

  2. What does it mean that Chloe seeks assistance from an official with the Freedmen's Bureau? How does that decision help us understand Chloe's ideas about women's civil and legal rights in the post-slavery nation? Are these ideas that the editor of the Raleigh Semi-Weekly Standard would support? (See Unit 7, Document 9) Why or why not?

  3. One of the questions that has puzzled historians of family life concerns the boundary between "public" and "private," and where it is located. If you were to ask Chloe where to draw that line, could she? And if so, where would it lie? What would Chloe's "response" tell us about her relationship to the state: the uses to which women might put it, and the kind of role it should play in black people's lives?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Seven