Slavery and African American Family Stability, 1860-1880

Deirdre Bloome, Harvard University
Christopher Muller, Harvard University

The origin of African Americans' relatively low marriage rate is often traced to conditions undermining family formation during slavery. We focus instead on transformations in African American marriage following abolition. Immediately following the Civil War, Southern legislatures rushed to recognize African American marriages. They reversed the legal status of African American unions --- from strictly forbidden to encouraged and even mandated for cohabiting couples in some jurisdictions --- to secure control over the new workforce via family labor contracts and to reduce rates of child dependency. We find evidence that reliance on slave labor bolstered African American marriage after emancipation. We estimate large, positive effects of Southern counties' involvement in slavery in 1860, instrumented by their territorial suitability for cotton production, on their African American marriage rates in 1880. These results are robust to comparisons with white marriage rates and are confirmed by analysis of microdata tracing individuals' marital transitions.

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Presented in Session 11: Family Change and Continuity