Black Families Severed by Slavery


Efforts to memorialize slavery are largely absent across the world, especially in the United States. This sculpture, part of Memory of Slaves, stands in Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar in Tanzania. (Shutterstock)

After Congress banned the international slave trade in 1808, growing Southern demand for enslaved agricultural labor fueled the largest domestic slave trade in history. From 1790 to 1865, more than one million enslaved Black people were sold to traders in the Upper South, moved hundreds of miles to the Lower South by rail or boat, or forced to march on foot in chained coffles, and then sold again.

This physically brutal and inhumane enterprise devastated Black families. Roughly half of all enslaved people were separated from their spouses and parents; about one in four of those sold were children. Ads for the Thomas L. Frazer & Co. Slave Mart in Montgomery, Alabama, boasted that it had “constantly on hand a large and well selected stock” of Black boys and girls.

Slaveholders threatened separation to maintain control, forcing enslaved people to live with the constant fear of losing a loved one. Even those who were not traded across regions could be sold away from relatives at an owner’s whim, to divide an estate, settle a debt, or as punishment. In South Carolina, courts conducted half of all sales of enslaved people, who were divided up and sold individually. In Missouri, 30 percent of enslaved people sold by the court were younger than 15.

Freedom came to represent both individual liberty and the opportunity to protect — or restore — family bonds. After Emancipation, formerly enslaved people used newspaper ads, church bulletins, and word of mouth to search for family members lost through sale, sometimes decades earlier. Though often unsuccessful, their efforts illustrate the enduring bonds of family and the lasting pain of separation.

Roughly half of all enslaved people were separated from their spouses and parents; about 1 in 4 of those sold were children.