Life in Black and White is an impressive example of the kind of local and regional history that for the last generation has transformed our understanding of the past. Brenda Stevenson has immersed herself so deeply in the private letters, diaries, school records, newspapers, and census schedules of Loudoun County, Virginia—and occasionally the records of some other Virginia counties—that she is able to bring to life a fascinating variety of Southern whites, black slaves, and free blacks while also providing a broad view of economic, demographic, and social change from the mid-eighteenth century to the Civil War. Stevenson also avoids the sentimentality and demonization that have characterized some of the best-known work on American slavery. As part of her major theme of racial differences between whites and blacks, she challenges prevailing beliefs regarding family life under slavery and thus contributes to the larger debate, which has taken many sharp turns during the past half-century, concerning the alleged weakness and pathology of the African-American family.

Loudoun County, stretching across rolling piedmont country east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and south of the Potomac, combined some of the characteristics of Virginia’s tidewater plantation country with the ethnic and social diversity of border states like Maryland. Settled in the early eighteenth century by Quakers, Germans, Welsh, and Scotch-Irish, as well as by black slaves, the region also attracted such eminent planter families as the Carters, Byrds, Harrisons, Lees, Masons, Peytons, Janneys, and Powells. Both James Monroe and Robert E. Lee owned Loudoun estates, though neighboring Fairfax County was much richer.

As in tidewater Virginia, tobacco soon became the staple crop and for the few large planters the means to great wealth. Many of the richest eighteenth-century planters were “absentee” landlords like John Mercer, who owned plantations in three Virginia counties as well as in Antigua, in the Caribbean. It was not uncommon for a Loudoun planter to own land not only in other Virginia counties but in Maryland, Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana. This diversification had a cruelly divisive effect on slave families and communities, since large planters commonly separated family members as they transferred workers from one farm to another in accordance with economic need. Multiple holdings also allowed owners to shift their resources away from northern Virginia when the profits from tobacco began to decline. Because eighteenth-century farmers showed little interest in fertilizers or crop rotation, a steady decline in soil fertility, reinforced by a drop in tobacco prices, led to fallow fields and to a long-term shift from tobacco to wheat, barley, corn, oats, and rye.

The total population of Loudoun County was remarkably stable from the late eighteenth century to the Civil War. During those six decades when the US population soared from 5,308,000 to 31,443,000, Loudoun County’s continued to hover between 20,431 and 22,796. But its slave population reached a peak of 6,078 in 1800 and declined by more than a thousand in the next decade. The increasing sale of slaves, especially young men, to the west and south removed what would otherwise have been an uneconomical “surplus” resulting from the rapid natural reproduction of the slaves. The 1810s and 1840s marked brief intervals of agricultural prosperity that stimulated a modest growth of both white and slave populations.

The most striking statistics, however, show that the population of free blacks nearly quadrupled in number from 1800 to 1840, but declined in the 1850s. As Stevenson documents in her most powerful chapter, the decline was caused by one of the most shameful episodes of mass persecution in American history, when it became “illegal for free African Americans to own many kinds of businesses, to perform as medical practitioners, preachers, teachers, or entertainers. It even was difficult for them to do skilled and manual labor as boatmen, barbers, peddlers, or vendors.” Virginia’s laws even denied free people of color the right to learn how to read and write.

In view of the stereotypes of Southern planter society, the most surprising characteristic of Loudoun County’s upper- and middle-class whites was their dedication to a kind of Puritan ethic. Many parents were eager to provide a broad, liberal education for their sons and even daughters, and some hoped that their sons would become doctors, lawyers, or engineers instead of planters. By the mid-1830s, with a declining white population of some fifteen thousand, the county could pride itself on twenty-one private academies or more advanced schools, including five that were for girls and seven that were coeducational. Leesburg, the county seat, had a library, hotel, churches, bank, general stores, artisan shops, and professional offices. According to Stevenson, fathers exhorted their sons to suppress their natural impulses, to “curb their appetite for frivolous spending,” and to learn how to keep to a budget.

Stevenson quotes some typical parental advice: “Order, method and punctuality whether applied to one’s finances, studies, recreation or physical needs is necessary for any type of accomplishments or success.” This is not the mentality usually associated with a slave society, and one wishes that Stevenson had done more to show how Loudoun County and northern Virginia in general can be seen as typical of the South. It should also be added that Loudoun’s white world was both hierarchical and patriarchal, and made virtually no effective provisions for the education or well-being of the poor.


Stevenson maintains that blacks and whites in antebellum Virginia led entirely different lives, especially with respect to their family structure, to the roles of men and women, and to the social relationships that helped to pass on distinctive African-American and European-American cultures. Accordingly, Stevenson devotes the first half of her book to the world of whites and the second half to the world of slaves and free blacks. If this organization tends to minimize the interaction between whites and blacks and occasionally gives the impression of two separate studies or even books, Stevenson, who is herself an African-American, succeeds not only in creating convincing white and black worlds but in viewing blacks through the eyes of whites and then whites through the eyes of blacks. She also points out, with respect to Loudoun County’s toleration of aggressive miscegenation, that “over half of Loudoun free ‘blacks’ were light-skinned enough to be considered ‘mulatto’ by 1860 census enumerators, as was more than a quarter of the local slave population.”

Stevenson describes the lives of well-to-do whites with much empathy, showing how, at a time when marriage meant the total dependency of a wife on a husband, a father would be anxious that his daughter choose a man who could earn a good living and would not beat or exploit her. We can appreciate the frustrations of Elizabeth Conrad, the wife of a wealthy state legislator, who has so many children, guests, slaves, and household tasks to manage that she has no time to answer her husband’s letters demanding she entertain his political supporters while he is away. Knowing what Elizabeth Conrad faces, we may find ourselves agreeing with Stevenson that “to his credit, Robert [her husband] did secure several house slaves to help Betty.”1 But when we later enter the minds of slave women, we see white women as “hell cats” or “devils” bent on “frequent scoldings and beatings, or [the] mishandling of slave children.” Black men tended to view white women far more charitably, but they would remember a young master who “used to say, ‘a man must be whipped, else he wouldn’t know he was a nigger.”‘ No less memorable were the masters who used sale or the threat of sale as a means of control:

“Boys git to cuttin’ up on Sundays an’ [dis]turbin’ ole Marsa,” one ex-slave explained. “[He] come… down to the quarters. Pick out de fam’ly dat got de most chillun an’ say, ‘Fo’ God, nigger, I’m goin’ to sell all dem chillun o’ your’n lessen you keep ’em quiet.’ Dat threat was worsen prospects of alickin’. Ev’ybody sho’ keep quiet arter dat.”

Stevenson quotes the historian Jacqueline Jones as summarizing the conventional wisdom of the past generation of scholars who have studied the slave family in America: “The two-parent, nuclear family was the typical form of slave cohabitation regardless of the location, size, or economy of a plantation, the nature of its ownership, or the age of its slave community.”2 Stevenson challenges this consensus on the ubiquity of two-parent slave families; it is a view, she suggests, that emerged in the 1970s as part of a sweeping reinterpretation that portrayed slaves as having succeeded despite formidable obstacles in creating their own cultural world. Stevenson strongly argues that the slaves created their own cultural world, but she provides striking evidence that most slave children in Loudoun County did not grow up in two-parent homes. She asserts, on the contrary, that in colonial and antebellum Virginia the slaves’ “most discernible ideal…was a malleable extended family that, when possible, provided its members with nurture, education, socialization, material support, and recreation in the face of the potential social chaos that the slaveholder imposed.”


To understand the significance of Stevenson’s evidence and arguments regarding the slave family we need, at least briefly, to review the kinds of historical revisionism and counter-revisionism which have figured in the debates over public policy toward blacks, from the defenses of racial segregation in the 1930s and 1940s to justifications for affirmative action some forty years later.

For nearly fifty years after World War I, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, a Southerner who taught at the University of Michigan and then at Yale, dominated the thinking of professional historians on American slavery. Despite his undisguised belief in Negro inferiority, Phillips’s magisterial American Negro Slavery was still regarded as the authoritative work in its field when I was a graduate student at Harvard in the early 1950s. As late as 1967, when Eugene D. Genovese was a militant Marxist and an emerging authority on American slavery, he could boldly praise Phillips’s achievements while deploring the racism that “corroded his enormous talent, and kept him short of the greatness he approached.”3


No chapter or section in Phillips’s long book is devoted to the subject of slave families. The relevant information, always given from the perspective of how slaves were treated, appears within discussions of large plantations, plantation management and labor, and slave law. In Phillips’s presentation a kindly paternalism, combined with a concern for order, discipline, good health, and productivity, governed the planters’ rules for the treatment of slave children, pregnant and nursing slave mothers, and slave marital unions. Thus the reader is told about small slave children playing in plantation “nurseries” under the supervision of older children and kindly-looking, elderly Negro women. Nursing mothers come in from the fields three times a day, always resting for a “cooling off” period before feeding their infants (for twelve months they are expected to do only three fifths of the work of a full-time hand). At the fifth month pregnant women are put in a sucklers’ gang and prohibited from plowing or lifting. After giving birth they lie-in for a month, with a midwife giving constant care for the first week.

Slaves were said to increase “like rabbits,” and Phillips tells of a woman “in her forty-second year [who] has had forty-one children and at this time is pregnant.”4 But slave fathers and even families are absent from his discussion. Phillips does mention planters who humorously encourage and reward slave courtship, who celebrate weddings with dinners and dancing, who punish slave adultery, and who even plead with neighbors to purchase a spouse and thus unite a divided couple. But since slave marriages had no legal standing, Phillips makes it clear that everything depended on the character or whim of the owner.

In 1956 Kenneth M. Stampp, in his revolutionary book The Peculiar Institution, demolished Phillips’s portrait of benevolent paternalism and described the full horrors of human beings being owned in a laissez-faire society. In 1939 E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Family in the United Stateshad already argued that the Atlantic slave trade had severed American blacks from their African cultural heritage and that slavery, by depriving husbands and fathers of both authority and responsibility, had led to families headed by mothers, weak marital and parental ties, and a lack of restraint on individual impulses—marks of social disorganization which racism and poverty had perpetuated far into the twentieth century. Stampp confirmed this picture, at least with respect to slavery, and emphasized that because Southern laws never recognized slave marriages and endowed masters with total power, slaves were doomed to live “in a kind of cultural chaos.”5

Like Brenda Stevenson, Stampp stressed that “the slave woman was first a full-time worker for her owner, and only incidentally a wife, mother, and home-maker.” But this observation had quite different implications in the 1950s than it does today. Unlike Stevenson, Stampp could see no positive results from what has come to be termed a “matrifocal household,” with fathers and husbands either absent or living “abroad” on other plantations. For Stampp “the general instability of slave families,” accentuated by the frequent division and separate sale of family members, had certain logical but disastrous consequences: a “casual attitude” of many slaves toward marriage; “the indifference with which most fathers and even some mothers regarded their children”; and “widespread sexual promiscuity among both men and women,” typified by a Kentucky slave woman “who had each of her seven children by a different father.” Although Stampp was scrupulous in attributing such evils to slavery itself and not to African-American character or culture, and though he added that “the majority of slave women were devoted to their children, regardless of whether they had been sired by one or by several fathers,” he made it plain that slavery inflicted considerable social damage upon the slaves.6

Since the 1960s this issue of social impairment, which seemed so central for such writers as Frazier and Stanley Elkins, has virtually disappeared from discussions of slavery. For decades historians have shied away from Stampp’s evidence of “sexual promiscuity” and status-seeking among slaves. It is difficult to imagine the following words of Kenneth Stampp being written in the 1990s:

In a society of unequals—of privileged and inferior castes, of wealth and poverty—the need to find some group to feel superior to is given a desperate urgency. In some parts of Virginia even the field-hands who felt the contempt of the domestics could lavish their own contempt upon the “coal pit niggers” who were hired to work in the mines…. A thousand-dollar slave felt superior to an eight-hundred-dollar slave. 7

The turning point came in 1965 with the beginning of an explosive and still unresolved controversy over Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s The Negro Family in America: The Case for National Action, a report aimed at changing public policy which drew on the work of Frazier and a recent, influential book by Stanley M. Elkins.8 Since Moynihan was criticized by liberals and leftists and by African-American leaders, it is easy to forget that he was trying to dramatize the centuries of racial tyranny and abuse American blacks had suffered in order to justify an extensive national program of remedial action. If Herbert Gutman and Brenda Stevenson are correct when they suggest in different ways that the slaves’ sexual values and family structures were actually healthier than those of contemporary Southern whites, it becomes more difficult to find a historical basis for affirmative action and other remedial programs. But Moynihan’s emphasis on “deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American,” leading to a “tangle of pathology” emanating from successive generations of the “fatherless matrifocal (mother-centered) family,” infuriated a new generation that was skeptical of bourgeois sexual norms and eager to celebrate and romanticize a rebellious “Afro-American” past.

Herbert G. Gutman acknowledged that his major work, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, published in 1976, had been con-ceived and written as a rebuttal to Moynihan. Gutman also criticized Frazier, Stampp, Elkins, and Genovese, among others, for not appreciating the extraordinary “adaptive capacities” of American slaves. For Gutman slavery was simply “an oppressive circumstance,” analogous to the burdens and exploitations faced by lower-class immigrants and day laborers. While his book was by no means the first to shift historians’ attention from the injustice of slave treatment to the strength of slave culture and resistance, Gutman’s impressive research established the foundation for the consensus on the two-parent slave household described by Jacqueline Jones in the quotation cited earlier.

Gutman claimed that in all parts of the South, on plantations large and small, most slaves lived in households headed by two parents, although this did not mean that they had a system of “nuclear” families. The slaves’ practices in naming children, Gutman argued, provided evidence that they were strongly conscious of grandparents and linkages among generations. Though slaves, in Gutman’s view, showed a healthy tolerance of premarital sex and childbirth, they then settled into long-lasting marriages despite the constant threat of separation by sale. In Gutman’s often informative pages there are no emasculated males, no Sambos, no white preachers marrying slaves or exhorting them on the responsibilities of family life.9 Indeed there are few whites at all. And according to this cheerful account, the black family remained strong and vigorous through much of the Jim Crow era and even after the first large migrations to the cities of the North.

In his desire to refute the traditional image of slaves as passive victims, Gutman overreacted to the point of denying the realities of power—not only physical power of a sort that immigrants seldom felt, but the subtle cultural and psychological influences that emanate from superior power when it is exercised with conviction for any length of time. Gutman’s extremely influential book reflected the rigid, idealistic, and romantic dichotomies of the 1960s, when, for a moment, power hardly seemed to matter. A central question is the degree to which slave family life, far from being a wholly autonomous force as Gutman maintained, became subject to rules which whites pragmatically chose to ensure the stability and profitability of the slave system.

I still think that the most convincing attempt to engage this question is Eugene D. Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, published two years before Gutman’s The Black Family. In many ways the two books point to similar conclusions. Genovese addressed “the ill-fated Moynihan Report” and “the conventional wisdom according to which slavery had emasculated black men, created a matriarchy, and prevented the emergence of a strong sense of family.” Genovese’s slaves courageously create a “world of their own” built on the “life-affirming” and earthy perspective of African religions, a world which rejects the white sin-obsessed standards of premarital chastity but which takes “a stern view of postmarital philandering.”

But if Genovese indulges at times in 1960s romanticism, his strong slave families emerge from constant testing and negotiation within a complex situation of white paternalism. The masters, according to Genovese, “understood the strength of the marital and family ties among their slaves well enough to see in them a powerful means of social control.” And Genovese also acknowledges that “the pressures on the family” documented by Frazier, Stampp, Elkins, and others “were extraordinary and took a terrible toll.” The legends of matriarchy, of emasculated but brutal males and fatherless children, Genovese writes, “rest on unquestionable evidence, which, being partial, has misled its interpreters.” He eloquently concludes that

the wonder is not that many slaves slipped into the insensitive and even brutal patterns of life they were being pushed toward by a demoralizing social system, but that so many others, possibly a commanding majority, fought for human ground on which to live even as slaves.10

Brenda Stevenson’s intensive study of Loudoun County, reinforced by research on other parts of the state, appears to refute both Genovese and Gutman on the matter of two-parent slave families. In addition to analyzing numerous slave lists and registers as well as the results of the federal census, Stevenson draws on recorded interviews with elderly former slaves from Virginia. At first glance, she seems to make a case for the matriarchal, “father-absent” household and “disorganized” family structure described by Frazier, Elkins, and Moynihan. Yet according to Stevenson, Virginia’s slaves ended up in matrifocal or father-absent households not only because of the consistent practice of selling young males to the cotton-producing regions of the Deep South, or because large absentee planters like George Washington shifted individual slaves from one farm to another without much regard for family unity, but also because the slaves themselves wanted it that way. One must quickly add that Stevenson’s evidence for the predominance of matrifocal households and extended families is much stronger than her evidence for the preferences and ideals of slaves. But if the pendulum of historical studies is swinging back toward an emphasis on matriarchy, we now discover in Stevenson’s book that matriarchy can be a good thing. After reading in the first half of the book about the debasement of white women and the strains and pressures of white marriage and child-rearing, one sees certain attractions in the slaves’ extended and surrogate families, which, Stevenson suggests, may have owed something to African tribal traditions.

On the other hand, Stevenson presents a far too sanguine picture of black child-rearing and cooperation. While she argues that the increasing sale and export of young women in the 1850s tended to undermine even the matrifocal slave families, she for the most part ignores whether slavery impaired the social relations and psychological capacities of many slaves. The same criticisms Bertram Wyatt-Brown made with respect to Gutman’s book can be applied to Stevenson’s own account. She largely fails, as Wyatt-Brown wrote of Gutman,

to deal directly with the social ills that so often play a role in family disorganization: venereal disease, desertions, violence inside and outside the home, child abuse and neglect, criminal examples in neighborhood and street, sexual rivalries and infidelities, abusive racial language (demeaning another as well as oneself), card gambling and numbers, drinking and other forms of self-destructive activity. 11

Moreover, we have very little evidence regarding the marital preferences and ideals of slaves. Stevenson shows quite conclusively that free blacks in Virginia preferred monogamous marriage and two-parent households, a fact that casts considerable doubt on her thesis about slave preference. Once slaves were manumitted, their choices must have reflected, for the most part, the desires they could not fulfill as slaves. Even the experience of typical slave households is open to quite different interpretations. For example, Genovese and Gutman tend to include “abroad marriages”—i.e., marriages with slaves on other plantations—in the category of two-parent families, whereas Stevenson does not. Genovese says that slaves often preferred to marry off the plantation since this would allow them a much greater variety of choice of mates, and visiting their wives would enable them to get away regularly from a prison-like environment. By living apart, moreover, they would “not have to witness the beatings and humiliations their loved ones took.”12 Gutman adds that slaves strongly desired marriages outside their own local groups as a result of African traditions regarding incest. Although there is much overlap between Stevenson’s and her predecessors’ pictures of abroad marriages, of the devastation of slave sales, and of the crucial importance of slave grandparents and other kin or surrogate parents, Stevenson has drawn a much sharper line between the worlds of blacks and whites than either Genovese or Gutman did.

I wish she had gone much further in showing how this sharp racial divide affected the behavior and social norms of both blacks and whites. For example, Stevenson presents some fascinating examples of white adultery and divorce, and in one passage suggests how the presence of blacks in the South altered the perception of a white wife’s infidelity:

To put it crudely but aptly, whites married, blacks copulated. Whites did not just marry, they stayed married. Blacks moved promiscuously from one partner to the next, or so the racialized mythology of the day went. In the American South, therefore, where notions of racial difference shaped social hierarchy and expectations so profoundly, marriage and divorce in European American communities took on incredible significance, privately and publicly.

Does this mean that the great racial divide helps to explain the point Alexis de Tocqueville made when he wrote that Americans considered nothing “de plus précieux que l’honneur de la femme“? Perhaps one can argue that as market forces and democratic ideals eroded one traditional boundary after another, the preservation of female sexual purity, particularly that of wives, became a crucial aspect of whiteness, of maintaining a safe distance from what whites perceived as the world of African sexual power and menace. In retrospect, may it be more than a coincidence that the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s arrived at the same time as the movement for black civil rights?

This Issue

February 20, 1997