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The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

Author(s):Penningroth, Dylan C.
Reviewer(s):Irwin, James R.

Published by EH.NET (April 2005)

Dylan C. Penningroth, The Claims of Kinfolk: African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. x + 310 pp. $49.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8078-2797-5; $19.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8078-5476-x.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James R. Irwin, Department of Economics, Central Michigan University.

The Claims of Kinfolk is a volume in the John Hope Franklin Series in American History and Culture and the winner of the Organization of American Historians’ Avery O. Craven Prize. It is a well-written and well-researched work of non-quantitative history and it should help to inform future research on African American and southern history. The central issue of the book is presented in the introduction: the question of “how people who were legally considered to be property were able to earn and own property” (p. 6). The introduction also presents Penningroth’s interpretative innovation: looking at nineteenth-century African American property and family through the “prism of African studies” (p. 9). That approach helps Penningroth to view slave property and slave family (or community) as intertwined, each serving to define the other.

Chapter 1, “One of the Family? Abolition and Social Claims to Property in the Gold Coast, West Africa, 1868-1930,” is a “case study” (p. 41). It examines the aftermath of emancipation in the Fante region to highlight the intertwined meanings of kinship and property and slavery in Africa. To my untrained eye, the central point of the chapter is that in Africa slaves had been both the property and the kin of the master. The key lesson for Americanists is that a similar “kinship ideology … played a crucial role in relationships among American slaves” (but not in relationships between slaves and masters in the U.S.). The bulk of the chapter is descriptions and discussion of a wide range of legal cases and issues in the aftermath of the British government’s formal abolition of slavery in the Fante region. But the chapter closes with a comparative perspective on the Gold Coast and the nineteenth-century U.S. As Penningroth puts it, the Gold Coast case study “helps make clear the assumptions that anchor the rest of the book” (p. 41).

Chapter 2, “Slavery’s Other Economy,” makes the case for slave ownership of property (e.g. clothing, livestock, household goods, and money) as a general feature of nineteenth-century American slavery. Penningroth presents a wide range of examples of American slaves as property owners (but “very poor” ones, and not “budding capitalists” (pp. 76-77)). Penningroth’s view (not so baldly stated) is that the typical American slave was able “to earn, own, and trade property” (p. 55), even though the master was the formal legal owner of a slave’s possessions. As he explains it, slave property generally served to firm up rather than undermine the institution of slavery (although it may have increased the stakes in the contest between master and slave over how slaves spent their time). Although Penningroth presents a plausible case, it lacks a firm empirical basis. He provides many, many examples of slaves who had property, but it remains to be seen whether they were typical of the many millions of slaves who lived in the antebellum South. Penningroth relies heavily on one systematic data source, the records of the Southern Claims Commission (charged with compensating loyal southerners for wartime property confiscated by the Union army). He identifies 498 ex-slaves among the 5004 successful claimants, he relies on their claim records to offer “a glimpse of the scale and character of property ownership among southern slaves at one specific moment — the moment they grasped their freedom” (p. 70). While sensitive to some of the limitations of the evidence, Penningroth nonetheless treats the property described in claims as representative of slave property under slavery. My guess is the balance of power tilted at least a little toward the slave during the Civil War, especially when the Union Army was near. If so, the “glimpse” offered from the early 1860 in areas where the Union Army foraged may overstate the phenomena of slave property holding in the antebellum South. In sum, the basic empirical claim of the book, that “property ownership was generic among slaves” (p. 77) is plausible but unsubstantiated.

Chapter 3, “Family and Property in Southern Slavery,” explores kin and property relationships among slaves. It emphasizes the importance of the family for accumulating property, and the necessity of community recognition of and support for slave ownership (as well as the acquiescence of masters and local whites). Penningroth includes interesting discussions here of children as laborers for the slave parents, and of the likely complications of dual-residence marriages and property ownership. Further, he explores a variety of ways that slaves secured their claims to property. For example, practices of display in the quarters ensured that the community recognized and enforced slaves’ ownership rights. Lacking a legal identity, slaves’ claims to property existed only in the context of their social relationships, requiring varying degrees of tacit or explicit acknowledgment from other slaves and the master. Slave ownership of property was less an individual right than a social process. Penningroth closes the chapter by connecting the discussion back to the case of the Fante region of the Gold Coast, where notions of family and kin were central to the definition of property generally and slavery in particular.

Chapter 4, “In and Out of Court,” turns to the period of Reconstruction, when “for the first time in American history ex-slaves had legal rights and could defend their property and family ties in court” (p. 111). Penningroth shows the importance of formal legal rights to the ex-slaves, while emphasizing that “extralegal systems” developed under slavery had a powerful continuing role. Even as ex-slaves used their new access to legal institutions “to defend their property and family ties in court,” they continued to rely on the informal institutions that had underpinned their property and familial rights under slavery. Penningroth draws on many examples from the records of military courts, the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Southern Claims Commission to delineate the freedmen’s easy back and forth between formal and informal institutions and arrangements to work out disputes over property and/or family. Sounding a recurrent note, Penningroth reminds that family and community was marked by conflict as well as solidarity, providing evidence of “disagreement and even violence among ex-slaves” (p. 123). Perhaps not surprisingly, the most common disputes seem to have been over property and children when couples split up.

Chapter 5, “Remaking Property,” explores how emancipation changed African American property relations. Penningroth examines three sets of “negotiations.” First, he explores ex-slave dealings with the “northern bureaucrats” of the Southern Claims Commission. The formalistic northerners started with the belief that “anything a slave may have possessed actually belonged to the master” (p. 137). But by the 1870s they recognized that slaves had owned property and they granted some ex-slaves compensation for wartime confiscation. As in the previous chapter, Penningroth emphasizes the continuing importance of display practices, and the community more generally, in defining property rights. He also emphasizes tensions in differing views of the meaning and nature of “property and ownership.” For Northern officials, ownership was an individual right rooted in formal law; for ex-slaves (and ex-masters) ownership was rooted in social networks. Typically, “each piece of property embodied the interests of several people, including the master.” The second set of negotiations was between ex-slaves and ex-masters, over the remaking of the southern economy on a free labor basis. Penningroth offers some new perspectives on the ex-slaves’ escape from the plantation system. For example, he shows that “although ex-slaves broke up the slave quarters” and escaped centralized living arrangements, they “resettled in small clusters of families” and maintained social networks. The final part of the chapter looks at “black-black” negotiations over property during reconstruction. Here Penningroth finds considerable continuity from slavery times, with property continuing to be “embedded in social networks” and “secured through informal practices of display and acknowledgment” (p. 154).

Chapter 6, “Remaking Kinship and Community,” “draws on over 500 cases in the civil and military courts” to explore “how African Americans’ understandings of marriage, family, and community changed during the years after emancipation” (p. 164). While textbooks focus only on joyous reunions of families fragmented by slavery, Penningroth’s discussion is a more nuanced view that recognizes that some relationships made sense under slavery but not afterward. Perhaps refreshingly, he starts the chapter with a story of divorce, remarriage, and property dispute in the late 1860s. He continues with attention to uneasy issues, for “as African Americans claimed children’s labor from their old masters” some “leaned heavily on children” in the struggle to make a living. Although Penningroth does not address the issue directly, one wonders whether children worked more or less during slavery or reconstruction. Similarly, Penningroth’s discussion of ex-slave migrations and refugees points out that family and kinship ties could serve to exclude nonmembers and to foster divisions among African Americans. Finally, Penningroth’s unsentimental discussion of marriage points to a shift in the gender balance of power for African Americans with emancipation, as legal “authority” over black women was transferred from masters to husbands and fathers. Presenting a wide variety of family disputes, Penningroth reminds that family relations feature both contest and comfort. A brief “Conclusion” closes the book. Here Penningroth points out that “there is much more to being black than the struggle against white oppression.” As he explains, “it was black people’s relationships with one another, as much as their struggles with whites, that shaped their experiences during the years of slavery and Reconstruction.” This perspective informs Penningroth’s decision to draw from African studies, and the “long tradition” there “of analyzing conflict and connection among black people” (p. 189). As he closes, Penningroth alludes to the role of slave family and slave property in perpetuating slavery rather than undermining it, but that is not his focus. Rather he ends by reemphasizing that causality ran from property to kinship and vice versa: ownership “claims” helped to define kin relations, kinship “claims” helped to define ownership, and kinfolk cooperated to produce property.

Although a deservedly prize-winning work of history, The Claims of Kinfolk will be of limited professional interest to economic historians of the nineteenth-century U.S. It is a very thoughtful and thorough and interesting book, and it enriches our understanding of history. But in terms of interpretive framework, issues explored, and evidence presented, it is a work unlikely to show up on a reading list for graduate study in African American or southern economic history. The book provides a huge set of interesting examples about slave and ex-slave life from the nineteenth-century U.S. and (to a lesser extent) the Gold Coast of Africa. But there is little in the way of systematic evidence that could inform quantitative analysis (pp. 70-73 does offer summary data from the records of the Southern Claims Commission).

In closing, I would offer a note of caution. Penningroth’s central empirical proposition, that “property ownership was generic among slaves” (p. 77), is likely to be repeated and cited and to emerge as a “fact” of antebellum slavery. That is unfortunate because although plausible, it is unsubstantiated. Piling up even thousands of examples of slaves who owned property would leave open the question of whether they were typical of the millions of people who were slaves in the antebellum South. Many will view the proposition as a plausible and predictable implication of studies of the ‘informal economy’ of southern slaves. In that case, Penningroth’s intriguing and wide-ranging discussion offers new insights into how antebellum slavery may have worked (as a socioeconomic system), and some fascinating hints at the life-experience of the enslaved and the newly freed.

James R. Irwin has published articles on the economic history of slavery and emancipation in Virginia and the rest of the South. His current research builds on his paper “Wealth Accumulation in Virginia in the Century before the Civil War,” Chapter 9 of Slavery in the Development of the Americas, edited by David Eltis, Frank D. Lewis, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Subject(s):Servitude and Slavery
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century