October 18, 2021

Antebellum Plantation Weddings Among Enslaved Women and Men

Reconsidering Celebrations at Sites of Enslavement, Part 4

Love recognizes no barriers.
It jumps hurdles, leaps fences,
penetrates walls to arrive at its
destination full of hope.
—Maya Angelou

Love, marriage, and weddings among enslaved African Americans may sound like an oxymoron, but despite slavery, love “recognized no barriers” among the enslaved within antebellum plantations spaces. In his signature short story, “The Wife of His Youth,” renowned African American writer Charles W. Chesnutt (1858-1932) gives us a vivid portrayal of an enslaved young woman’s dismay when she learns that her “husband” is going to be kidnapped from the plantation by the white slaveholder and sold “down the river” into the Deep South.

Gushing with the insufferable news about the planned kidnapping, another enslaved woman tells Liza Jane,

“Liza Jane, ole marse gwine sell yo' Sam down de ribber.”

"Go way from here … my husban's free!”

"Don’t make no difference. I heerd old marse tell ole miss he wuz gwine take yo' Sam 'way wid him tomorrow, fer he needed money, and he knowed whar he could git a thousan dollars fer Sam and no questions axed.” (Chesnutt)

Being sold down the river hardened further misery for enslaved women and men. It meant never seeing one’s spouse, children, and familial community again. Regardless, couples embraced the vow of holy matrimony and were deemed married within the enslaved community.

llustration showing an African American soldier at his wedding in Vicksburg, Mississippi from Harper's Weekly dated June 30, 1866.

photo by: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

"Marriage of a Colored Soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen’s Bureau.” Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1866. This illustration appeared in the June 30, 1866 edition of Harper's Weekly. The original drawing was made by the artist Alfred R. Waud (1828-1891).

Historically, enslaved women and men could be unequivocally removed from their marriage by sale, kidnapping, dowries, inheritance, or property transfers controlled exclusively by the slaveholder. As such, the vow bestowed upon enslaved couples at the threshold of the wedding ceremony, “till death do us part,” was a euphemism for “or till we are sold” away from each other—permanently. In some instances, Black preachers performing the wedding ceremony would intone “till distance do you part” or “till anyone is removed” as the illustrative reference to the prophetic reminder of the rule of slave law. Those phrases allayed the unforgiving reality of the enslaved’s marriage. Both marriage as the institution and wedding as the ceremony were among the myriad social contradictions that existed in chattel slavery.

Why were enslaved African Americans denied legal marriage? Antebellum jurisprudence reinforced the belief that slaves were chattel devoid of any civil or human rights. Enslaved people were considered property like farm animals and equipment. Thus marriage as a legal contract between an enslaved woman and man was incompatible with the absolute power of the slaveholder. Through benevolence, practicality, irony, or even mockery, slaveholders allowed enslaved women and men to be “married.”

How did jumping the broom become symbolic of the wedding celebration for enslaved African Americans and future generations?

From Besom Weddings to Jumping the Broom and Beyond

One hot summer day in 1937, 103-year-old Tempie Herndon Durham (1834-1938) sat in her small front yard in Durham, North Carolina, as she was being interviewed by Travis Jordan, a federal field worker for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) (later renamed the Work Projects Administration) who was collecting life stories of formerly enslaved people from the antebellum South. Born enslaved, Mrs. Durham was now a freedwoman, or “ex-slave,” and Jordon asked questions about her life before the Civil War.

In her memory-telling, Mrs. Durham speaks lovingly about life with her husband, Exeter Durham, whom she had married when enslaved. She recalls her wedding day on the plantation,

“Exeter done made me a weddin’ ring. He made it out of a big red button wid’ his pocket knife. He done cut it so roun' an' polished it so smooth dat it looked like a red satin ribbon tide roun’ my finger. Dat sho was a pretty ring. I wore it 'bout 50 years. … (Fraser)."

A man and a woman in wedding finery jump over a broom at a wedding located in California in November 2020.

photo by: © Alexandria Reyes Schroeder

Courtney and Alexandria Schroeder jumping the broom at their wedding in La Jolla, California, November 2020.

Jumping the broom wedding place card for a wedding.

photo by: © Alexandria Reyes Schroeder

The wedding place card designed by Mindy Homer features a broom for the Courtney and Alexandria Schroeder wedding.

Mrs. Durham appears to have a sharp memory, and she’s exceedingly proud of the polished red wedding ring and the festive occasion on the porch of the plantation manor, the “big house.” Not only does she remember that “Marse George and Miz Betsy” joined the festivities, but, more important for this discussion about plantation weddings, Mrs. Durham describes how there was a “Negro preacher” for the marriage ceremony, and that she and her husband also “jumped over the broomstick.”

Popular cultural sources indicate that jumping the broom was a wedding ritual practice that originated in Africa and was brought to the antebellum South via the transatlantic slave trade. Definitively, no jumping the broom practice existed in any marriage customs and rituals among pre-colonial societies of continental Africa (Reyes). Throughout pre-colonial African societies, marriages and wedding ceremonies were formalized sacred rites of passage representing a continental African cosmology that embraced the ancestral past, the extended community of the present, and the progeny or future of those waiting to be born.

Elaborate and prolonged ceremonies included oratory, feasting, music, dancing, and the exchange of impressive gifts. Those traditional marriage celebrations symbolized and sustained economic, social, and cultural “contracts” or allegiances involving entire families and communities. So how has the brevity and simplicity of jumping the broom become a wedding ritual that supposedly originated in Africa?

The transcultural practice of the “besom wedding” has its origins in Welsh, Celtic, and Roma cultural practices and was brought from the British Isles to the southern colonies by settlers and indentured servants. Besom (broom) weddings, or “nonchurch” or “irregular” weddings, were still performed during the 18th and 19th centuries and known about, if not practiced, throughout the British Isles. Because of this contact through familiarity, indentured servants exported contemporary cultural memories of a class-oriented wedding ritual. Therefore, besom traditions thriving on the plantations and settler farms in close proximity to newly enslaved Africans arriving via the transatlantic slave trade provided a unique cultural diffusion among multi-ethnic and racial groups in the American colonies as slavery was introduced and became the rule of law.

With its cross-cultural and class-oriented origins in Europe, jumping the broom transitioned into an African American wedding ritual on the antebellum plantation. Accordingly, there’s a fresh cohort of investigative scholars who are providing evidence of European cultural origins and correcting popular misinformation about the jumping the broom ritual in the Old South.

Refusing to surrender to the impermanence and denunciation of the slave’s marriage, enslaved communities endorsed and recognized their marriages as cultural, moral, and spiritual unions. With the determination of the heart and love for kinship through future generations, they carried their belief in matrimony into freedom and liberation. They unconsciously advanced a human rights precept that the freedom to marry is one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship and humanity’s capacity to love, regardless. We witness modern-day heterosexual, multi-cultural, same-sex, LGBTQ, and interracial couples who jump the broom at their wedding celebrations in order to honor the integrity of enslaved African Americans who jumped the broom on the antebellum plantations.

The next story in the series takes a look at tools and strategies for presenting the full story on digital platforms.

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Endnotes

Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Wife of His Youth,” in The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899; reprint, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968), 1–24. The dialect spelling herein has been modified for easier reading.

Rebecca J. Fraser, “A Red Satin Ribbon Tied around My Finger: The Meaning of the Wedding Ceremony,” in Courtship and Love among the Enslaved in North Carolina. (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 88-100. Fraser confirms, “Enslaved men and women from across the South recalled how they appropriated and altered the wedding attire of their masters and mistresses in order that they could use it for their own ceremony (88).” See also: Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 11, North Carolina, Part 1, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.111

Angelita D. Reyes, “A Teachable Moment with Legal Sources: Marriage Matters and Unruly African American Women,” Journal of Women’s History 22, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 157-61. In my research on marriage rituals throughout Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, I found no ceremonial marriage rituals involving brooms or jumping over broomsticks. I used the Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF World Cultures), a database with ethnographic cross-referencing and classifying systems containing social and cultural life of all societies of the world. See a definitive essay on the origins and transformations of jumping the broom: Tyler Perry, “The Holy Land of Matrimony: The Complex Legacy of the Broomstick Wedding in American History” in American Studies, Volume 55, Number 1, 2016, pp. 81-106. In addition to the WPA narratives, Tyler provides a list of excellent sources that reference the broom-stick wedding among enslaved African Americans.

Further Reading

Dundes, Alan. "'Jumping the Broom': On the Origin and Meaning of an African American Wedding Custom,” in The Journal of American Folklore 109: 433 (Summer, 1996): 324- 329.

Foster, Frances Smith. 'Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Gwynn, Gwenith (W. Rhys Jones). “‘Besom Wedding’ in the Ceiriog Valley,” in Folklore 39 (June, 1928): 154–155.

Library of Congress. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938.

Lyster, M. Eileen. “Marriage over the Broomstick,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 5 (1911– 1912): 200–201.

Angelita D. Reyes, PhD, is professor emerita in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She is the founder and president of Literacy InterActives, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia that focuses on historic preservation and social justice.

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