Monday, January 21, 2013

Tending to Others' Children

Yesterday I posted about the book, On Slavery's Border by Diane Mutti Burke. The cover of the book showed an enslaved African American woman holding a white child. Inside the book it explains that the woman was named Louisa and the child was Harry E. Hayward. It was estimated that the picture was taken in 1858. That date was probably chosen as Louisa was purchased that year by George A. Hayward, "a St. Louis businessman  . . perhaps for the purpose of assisting his wife, Ellen, in caring for their young son." The caption in the book also explains that while the photograph "suggests the intimate relations that existed between slaveholding family members and their slaves. . .it also suggests their complex nature."

The image struck the same as was as it was described in the caption. Many times slaves, and after emancipation, freedwomen servants, were viewed as part of the Southern family household. However, racial undertones were in most cases probably not far from the surface, and certainly the white/black power dynamic was always understood and upheld.

In my various searches for historic images I often run across similar photographs. Some are from the antebellum and Civil War years, while others are from Reconstruction  and beyond - as the custom of black child caregivers lasted well into the twentieth century - and not only in the South, but also in the North. Some of these images are shared here. Most do not have identifications, and if they do, it is usually the white child rather than the African American woman who is identified. 

Unidentified and undated African American woman and white child. 

Only the white child, Ada Peters Brown, is identified in this image. The smiling African American woman is not named.

This photograph is identified as Mary Allen Watson, and dated as June 15, 1866, but it is not known if Mary Allen Watson is the child or woman. Most likely it was the child that was noted.

Unidentified African American woman with two white children.

Kate Marschall English (infant) and Violet (nurse).

Historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in her book Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South sums up the complicated nature of slaveholding women and the bondswomen in their homes: "The personal relations between house slaves and the white family could range from love to hatred, but whatever their emotional quality, they were more likely than not to include a high level of intimacy. Mistresses whipped slave women with whom they might have shared beds, whose children they might have delivered  or who might have delivered theirs, whose children they might have suckled and who frequently suckled theirs."

Top four images courtesy of the Library of Congress. Bottom image courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society.

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