Racial Differences in Marriage and Childbearing: Oral History Evidence from the South in the Early Twentieth Century

by Deanna L. Pagnini, S. Philip Morgan
Racial Differences in Marriage and Childbearing: Oral History Evidence from the South in the Early Twentieth Century
Deanna L. Pagnini, S. Philip Morgan
The American Journal of Sociology
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Racial Differences in Marriage and Childbearing: Oral History Evidence from the South in the Early Twentieth Century1

Deanna L. Pagnini

Princeton University

S. Philip Morgan

University of Pennsylvania

Using oral histories collected in 1938 and 1939 in the Southern United States, this article examines how African-Americans and whites viewed marriage and nonmarital childbearing. The authors document distinct racial differences in family norms and the sanc- tions that supported those norms. Giving birth outside a marital relationship was clearly not the stigmatizing event for African- Americans that it was for whites. The authors also found that Afri- can-Americans were more likely than whites to end marriages under similar conditions. These results suggest that debates about contem- porary racial differences need to take into account the historical background, both cultural and demographic, of diverse groups.

In the contemporary United States, most debates over the causes of racial differences in the family focus on recent differences in urban areas. For instance, the arguments of Murray (1984), Wilson (1987), and Massey and Denton (1992) are all focused on recent periods or urban areas. The most strident debate centers on whether the current levels of nonmarital fertility and female headship are caused by a welfare system that has been accused of rewarding nonmarital fertility and discouraging marriage (i.e., Murray 1984, 1993). In contrast, we present evidence that suggests

' An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1994 meeting of the Social Science History Association, Atlanta. We would like to thank Pete Guest, Antonio McDaniel, Sam Preston, and the AJS reviewers for their helpful comments and sug- gestions. Direct correspondence to Deanna L. Pagnini, Office of Population Research, Princeton University, 21 Prospect Avenue, Princeton, New Jersey 08544. E-mail: deanna@opr.princeton.edu 

01996 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.


1694 AJS Volume 101 Number 6 (May 1996): 1694-1718

that African-American and white families differed in both their behavior

and in how such behavior was interpreted and rationalized in the late

19th century and the early 20th century in the rural South. Specifically,

we present evidence from a set of oral histories collected in 1938 and

1939 that sheds light on how African-Americans and whites viewed non-

marital childbearing and marital dissolution in the first third of this


We maintain that any discussion of contemporary race differences in the family must consider the historical context. How recent are these racial differences? Has their magnitude remained the same over time? If African-Americans and whites had different family norms as early as the late 19th and early 20th century, then the recent debates about whether these racial differences are a result of the welfare system, recent economic changes, or urban migration and segregation will have to be recast. Re- cent research (Gordon and McLanahan 1991; Morgan et al. 1993; Pres- ton, Lim, and Morgan 1992; Ruggles 1994) has revealed that blacks and whites behaved differently in terms of marriage and childbearing as early as the turn of the century, although the levels of nonmarital fertil- ity and female headship have increased for both races over the past 30 years.

While the information that race differences were present in the past is helpful in setting today's patterns in context, the question still remains: Why have whites and blacks organized their family lives so differently? Are there norms about family behavior that vary by race? Do the dispa- rate patterns reflect adaptations to differing social and economic condi- tions? In order to answer these kinds of questions, we need to move beyond purely quantitative analysis. Although census data can describe the family structures of African-Americans and whites at certain points in time, these data cannot tell us why the differences occur or how the people themselves felt about these differences. It is difficult to obtain information about attitudes and norms for historical populations, but such information provides an essential ingredient in theories about family differences.

Below we discuss explanations for race differences in family behavior, summarize the recent historical research on the nature and extent of behavioral differences in family patterns in the early 20th century, then present our evidence, which points toward clear racial differences in family norms and the sanctions that support them. African-American and white families differed not only with respect to observed behavior, but also with respect to how such behavior was interpreted and rational- ized within the two communities. These differences did not arise in urban settings or in a period in which welfare was available but were visible in the South in the late 19th and early 20th century.



Contemporary racial differences in family patterns have been well docu- mented. In the United States almost 70% of African-American babies are born to unmarried mothers, compared to 22% of white babies (Mor- gan 1994). Fewer African-American women marry than white women, and those who do get married tend to marry later and are more likely to divorce (Cherlin 1992; Espenshade 1985). As a consequence of these trends, African-American children are more likely to live in a single-parent household than are white children. Recent work on attitudes to- ward nonmarital fertility has also demonstrated that African-American women are more likely to be accepting of nonmarital fertility than are white women and that those differences have persisted since at least 1973 (Pagnini and Rindfuss 1993).

A divisive debate continues over how to account for racial differences in family patterns and to what extent "culture" is responsible for these differences. Part of the debate derives from different theoretical positions concerning the black family. If black and white families are different, are the black family patterns viewed as deviant? Or are they seen as rational adaptations to differences in social, economic, demographic, and cultural factors that vary by race? (See McDaniel 1994.) The initial de- bate emerged in the furor over the Moynihan report (1965), which as- serted that a weak black family would frustrate policies aimed at racial equality. In Moynihan's view, the "weak" black family-defined as feL~ale-headedin structure and matriarchal in power-was part of the "culture of poverty" that trapped African-Americans in disadvantaged economic circumstances and was directly related to the "legacy of slav- ery." From this perspective, culture was "blamed" for the economic performance of African-Americans. The nonnuclear family structure it- self was believed to be the cause of economic and social problems within the African-American community, as opposed to being caused by eco- nomic and social problems.

An angry response charged that the report was "blaming the victims" rather than acknowledging the structural factors (poverty, discrimina- tion, segregation) that disadvantaged African-Americans. Advocates of this approach argued that public policy and discussion should focus on the structural, not cultural, factors. In this environment, "culture" became synonymous with "culture of poverty," and both terms were associated with conservative political agendas. In the face of this controversy, seri- ous research attention to cultural differences or behavioral differences be- tween blacks and whites waned in the decade of the 1970s (Wilson 1987).

In reaction to the Moynihan report, researchers presented evidence to

show that black families were not disorganized after the Civil War, but

were very much like white families. When black and white family pat-

terns diverged during the 1960s and 1970s, theories stressing current

causes were needed to explain the divergence. Since black and white fami-

lies were thought to be alike before the 1950s, explanations for the differ-

ences had to focus on current situations: the effects of the welfare system,

economic discrimination, and the culture of poverty thus all became pos-

sible causes. But as we document below, more recent research has shown

that black and white family patterns did differ as early as the turn of the

century, which indicates the existence of long-term historical differences.

Over the past decade, and in a more favorable light, culture has re- emerged in public discussions of race and the family. Given the differen- tial experiences of Africans in America, how could they not have adapted central institutions to meet their needs and to overcome social obstacles? The notion of a "passive, reacting" African-American population (as opposed to an "active, adapting" one) has become unacceptable to many scholars (see, e.g., McDaniel 1994).


How different were African-American and white families in the past? Many have argued that past differences were small and that those that did exist were due to mortality as opposed to behavioral differences. For instance, in The Truly Disadvantaged, William Julius Wilson (1987, p. 64) states that Gutman's (1976) classic work, The Negro Family in Slavery and Freedom, and other historical research "demonstrates that nei- ther slavery, nor economic deprivation, nor the migration to urban areas affected black family structure by the first quarter of the twentieth cen- tury." But this is an incorrect reading of Gutman and does not fit with empirical findings from earlier or more recent work. For instance, Gut- man did state that African-American families were "strong and resilient" but this is not saying they were the same as white families. In fact, where Gutman (1976) examined whites and blacks he consistently found differences.

Recent studies of early 20th-century census materials document with greater precision the nature of racial differences. In their examination of 1910- census data for African-Americans, Preston et al. (1992) found that, while widowhood was very common, it was also seriously overreported. Many of the women reporting themselves as widows must have been separated, divorced, or never married. Analysis of own-children data indicates substantial nonmarital childbearing. Finally, women tended to report very short marital durations, suggesting that previous unions were omitted from the census reports. Given this information, Preston et al.

state that "apparently marriage among blacks was more fluid and more ambiguous than the [census] categories suggested. . . . Marital turnover was faster than implied even by the high percentage of women reported as remarried" (1992, p. 12). These findings are consistent with Frazier's (1939) account of more fluid and less formal marriage arrangements in the rural South at the turn of the century.

Looking at household composition by race from 1880 to 1980, Ruggles (1994) found that African-American households were more likely to be composed of primary individuals, single parents, or extended family members than were the households of whites. Looking at it from the perspective of children's living arrangements, he found that, through 1960, approximately 30% of all black children lived in households that contained neither parent. For white children, that number hovered around 10%.

Morgan et al. (1993) examined data from the 1910 census in detail and also found racial differences in several elements of family structure. Blacks were 1.4 times more likely to live in households with extended kin than were whites; they were also less likely to live in a household constructed solely around a nuclear family. They also found that young black children were more likely to live in a household that did not contain either parent. Finally, female headship was more common among Afri- can-Americans than among whites.

One of the limitations of these studies, however, is that even though cross-sectional patterns can be measured, the data cannot tell us how people got to that point. For example, if there was a nonmarital preg- nancy, how did people decide whether or not to marry? How did people decide whether or not to leave a marriage? If these decisions indeed differ by race, why? In order to understand these issues, we need to turn to more qualitative studies, which examine norms and values and how they affect family behaviors. We can turn to several studies conducted in the 1930s that focused on African-American life in the rural South and thus incorporate information about attitudes toward family behavior. In Shadow of the Plantation, Charles S. Johnson (1934) described rural life among African-Americans in Macon County Georgia in the early 1930s. The community had a set of moral values and imposed sanctions on those who violated them. But marriage was not a revered social institution and nonmarital childbearing was not severely sanctioned.

Although nonmarital pregnancy was common for both whites and Afri- can-Americans, what happened after the discovery of pregnancy differed. According to Johnson (1934),

When pregnancy follows, pressure is not strong enough to compel the father either to marry the mother or to support the child. The girl does not lose status perceptibly, nor are her chances for marrying seriously threatened. An incidental compensation for this lack of a censuring public opinion is the freedom for children thus born from warping social condemnation. There is, in a sense, no such thing as illegitimacy in this community. (P.


One family with two unmarried daughters, both of whom had several children, had very positive notions about what was respectable and what was not. The father stressed the responsibility of his family to the children of his daughters, discounting the value of marriage as such. (P. 80)

There is a strong current of approval of alliances, whether legal or not, which offer the highest chances of survival in the environment. . . . A common-sense view of marriage in this setting classifies it as a serious hazard. (Pp. 82, 83)

Anderson (1991) echoes these themes in a review article on African- American families. She asserts that "the combination of high marriage rates and high rates of female-headed families reflects a pattern of serial monogamy and the effects of a normative system that did not require marriage to legitimize pregnancies" (p. 267). E. Franklin Frazier's (1939) The Negro Family in the United States also contains descriptions of marriage and childbearing norms that are similar to those reported by Johnson.

The attitudes of these women indicate that they regard sex relations as normal behavior during courtship, which may or may not lead to marriage. When it results in the birth of a child, certain obligations are thereby imposed upon the mother. These obligations are the obligations which every mother should feel toward her offspring. The unmarried mother is as sensitive as the legally married mother to what is expected of the woman who is the mother. . . . Motherhood signifies maturity and the fulfillment of one's function as a woman. But marriage holds no place in the esteem of many of these women. (Pp. 94-95)

More recent work by Lemann (1991) likens the conditions in a pre- World War I1 Southern sharecropping area of Mississippi to contempo- rary urban ghettoes, both in terms of family structure and poverty: "It is clear that whatever the cause of its differentness, black sharecropper society on the eve of the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker was the equivalent of big-city ghetto society today in many ways. It was the national center of illegitimate childbearing and of the female-headed family. It had the worst public education system in the country, the one whose students were most likely to leave school before finishing and most likely to be illiterate even if they did finish" (p. 31).

While these examples provide evidence of clear differences in white and African American families, the works are limited by small geographic areas and a concentration on African-Americans only. Our work expands upon these studies, as our data include members of both races and come from areas across the South. In spite of the differences in focus and sampling, the oral histories we examine would fit comfortably with the interviews conducted by Johnson and Frazier. This does not mean that we subscribe to the interpretation given to these data by these researchers or those who have used their data. We found no evidence that nonmarital childbearing or marital dissolution were the cause of poverty, crime, or illiteracy.


In order to examine attitudes and values surrounding the issues of non- marital childbearing and marriage, we turn to a set of oral histories. We present evidence from the original manuscripts of the Federal Writers' Project Life History Program for the Southeast, a New Deal program. The program was run under the auspices of the Works Progress Adminis- tration (WPA) and employed out-of-work writers to collect the life histo- ries of ordinary Southerners. There are almost 1,200 of these manuscripts stored in the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The writers interviewed blacks and whites, men and women, tenant farmers, farm owners, paid laborers, the elderly and the young, providing oral histories from a cross section of Southerners. The broad age range of those interviewed provides us with a view of life in the South from the Civil War through the Great Depressi~n.~

While not a formal survey, the writers worked from an outline of topics that were to be addressed in the interview. The major topics in- cluded family issues, education, income, occupation, religion, medical needs, and diet. Two collections of these manuscripts have been pub- lished (FWP [I9391 1975; Terrill and Hirsch 1978), but they are only a small fraction of those available. Jones (1988) used these published data in her historical examination of work and family for black women after slavery.

In his directions to the writers, W. T. Couch (the program's director in the Southeast and head of University of North Carolina Press) stated that "the purpose of this work is to secure material which will give an accurate, honest, interesting and fairly comprehensive view of the kind of life that is lived by the majority of the people in the South" (FWP 1975, p. 419). His idea was "to get life histories which are readable and

Quotes from these materials that appear here are marked by state name (NC, SC, GA, etc.) and also carry the name of the interviewer and date of interview, if known. The life histories were organized by state and number at the Southern Historical Collection. We have preserved these codings. For example, NC-1 refers to the first life history for North Carolina.

faithful representations of living persons, and which, taken together, will give a fair picture of the structure and working of society. . . . In writing the life histories the first principle has been to let the people tell their own stories" (FWP 1975, pp. ix-x).

Couch specifically chose to employ writers as opposed to sociologists for his project. Although he had close connections to Rupert Vance and Howard Odum, he argued against "the possible objection that only soci- ologists can get case histories worth getting. The fact is that when sociolo- gists get such material, they generally treat their subjects as abstractions" (quoted in Hirsch 1973, p. 65). By his own admission, however, Couch believed that these stories, once gathered, would compliment sociological research. "Only by permitting individuals to tell their own stories from their own points of view, Couch thought, could the statistical and socio- logical evidence already gathered be given meaning and context" (Terrill and Hirsch 1978, p. xx).

While the manuscripts give us a vast amount of information on the lives of ordinary Southerners, they are not without their limitations. This project did not use a rigorous sampling structure. The writers approached subjects they did not know "in a casual and random manner. . . . This friendliness, this sharing of a few minutes, as between neighbors, perhaps explains why, unlike much similar material, these life histories do not seem to have been cajoled from beleaguered and defenseless individuals, unsure of how to cope with people who wished to study them" (Terrill and Hirsch 1978, p. xx). The available oral histories focus mainly on working-class whites, although roughly one-quarter of the histories are from blacks. Given the racial climate of the period and the social distance between blacks and whites, the workers were sometimes reluctant to get the life histories of blacks. In fact, Couch repeatedly had to emphasize to his writers that the histories of blacks as well as whites were needed. The following comments by two of the writers suggest that we need to pay close attention to the effects of this social distance.

For example, a writer was interviewing a black preacher when "al- most suddenly the preacher recedes and Henry becomes just a plain colored man, with the usual racial inhibitions, with a hint of fear showing in his face."3 Another writer wrote that "John is emphatically a gentle- man of the old school, who knows what it is proper to discuss with a white lady. He has a decided personal dignity, which discourages prying and probing into his affairs, although, at the same time, it does not inhibit him from making, voluntarily, some surprising reflection^."^ One

NC-192; interviewer, Bernice Kelly Harris, December 6, 1938.
SC-37; interviewer, E. Fronde Kennedy, December 6, 1938.

woman, however, told the interviewer that "I don't know why it is 1's been talking so much to you. I don't usually say much around white folks, but I likes you, and it's pleasant to me to talk with you."' Couch did hire some black writers, but it is unclear how many.

What we have then are a group of histories that overrepresent poor whites, but which also includes a sizable proportion of blacks. While these could be termed limitations in that they do not statistically reflect the class, marriage, and geographical distribution of the Southern popu- lation, we would label them as strengths. So often in historical work we are not able to find materials about the working class or blacks; to have both is an advantage.

Although the writers were given detailed instructions and an outline of topics to cover, they still had great leeway in how they chose their subjects, what questions they asked, how they phrased those questions, and what they chose to emphasize in their stories. Couch specifically gave them that freedom because he believed it would yield better stories. We also see large variation in the stories because there were nearly 200 writers who contributed to the project.

Another concern when dealing with retrospective data is recall error: How accurate are these stories and reminiscences? We know that individ- uals' interpretations of the same event may differ; the passage of time may accentuate such differences. Thus, we must be aware that we are dealing with subjective perceptions and selected events. But, to para- phrase W. I. Thomas, what is perceived as real is real in its conse- quences. For those interviewed, we have memories and perceptions of what was important to these individuals and to their families. We stress that for our purposes this is what we seek-there are superior sources that simply record the events themselves. Our goal here is interpretive; we are not dating and sequencing events for statistical analysis.

The life histories used in this article are only from the Southeast. Other projects were done around the country (see Banks [I9911 for details). This group of histories is especially useful to us for several reasons. First, there was a consistent leader of the project who gave specific and consis- tent guidelines to the writers, and this included a focus on topics related to the family. Second, the project was designed to capture a large cross section of society, so that people from every walk of life would have their stories told. Finally, because we are focusing on racial differences, we need an area with a large concentration of blacks. We have chosen to use this collection of oral histories as opposed to the ex-slave narratives (i.e., Botkin 1945; Escott 1979) for two reasons. First, the ex-slave narra-

GA-82; interviewer, Grace McCune, n.d

tive project only interviewed African-Americans who had been alive dur-

ing slavery. Thus, only elderly African-Americans were included. The

second weakness of the ex-slave narratives for our purposes is that we

wanted to compare African-Americans and whites. By definition, only

African-Americans were included in the ex-slave narratives.

There are 1,170 life histories stored in the manuscript collection at the Southern Historical Collection (on microfiche and microfilm). For a proj- ect on fertility decline in the South, Pagnini (1995) read all 1,170 of the oral histories and collected sociodemographic information on each pri- mary respondent. Every time nonmarital childbearing was discussed, a verbatim transcript was taken. Sections focusing on marriage were also excerpted.

The authors did not examine or analyze the nonmarital childbearing and marriage excerpts until all 1,170 histories had been read, so that the collection and interpretation would not be biased. Without including any information on the people, except for an identification number, the au- thors then examined patterns of attitudes toward nonmarital childbearing and marriage behavior. Only after the excerpts had been grouped was identifying information (such as race) attached to the subject.

Appendix table A1 includes the sociodemographic information for the whole sample. Of the 1,170 life histories, approximately 200 were not usable. Those 200 included stories about towns (not people), were dupli- cates, or were simply unreadable. Three-quarters of those interviewed were white, which approximates the racial distribution at the time. The majority of the stories were collected in North Carolina, followed by South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Virginia. Ages ranged from 15 to people claiming to be over 100 years old. Approximately 91% had marital histories, with the majority either currently married or widowed.


Racial differences in nonmarital childbearing are not recent. Having a birth outside a marital relationship was clearly more prevalent among blacks than among whites in the early part of the 20th century, although the levels are much lower than in contemporary society. Not only did many people mention the racial differences in behavior, we can see them by examining statistics from vital registration data. The percentage of births to unmarried mothers for several years are presented in table 1. Because vital statistics were not recorded in all states in 1919 and 1927, we also calculated and included percentages for North Carolina, which did participate for all three years.

As the data show, the percentage of births in each year which were



Sample Area 1919 1927 1936

United States:



North Carolina:



NOTE.-Ratios were calculated from U.S. Census Bureau (1921, 1930, 1938). The states included in 1919 were California, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin. In 1927, Ala- bama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming were included. By 1936, all 48 states were included.

nonmarital was approximately 10 times higher for nonwhites than whites. Although the Census Bureau did not break these nonmarital birth statistics down by rural and urban areas, we can see that even in North Carolina (a predominantly rural state) nonmarital fertility followed the same pattern as for the United States as a whole.

While we can measure the differences in behavior with the vital regis- tration data, we cannot examine what people thought about them or how they reacted to that behavior with this data. When we turn to the oral histories, however, we do have information on how Southerners thought and reacted to nonmarital pregnancies and childbearing. The Federal Writers' Project Life History Program was designed to have the respon- dents discuss what was important in their lives, and fertility and family issues were clearly importanL6

One way to measure the strength of any norm is to examine the severity of sanctions for those who violate it. Evidence from the oral histories clearly suggests that the severity of the sanctions for nonmarital births differed by race. For whites, that children should be born within mar- riage was clearly a strong norm early in this century. "Shotgun wed- dings" were seldom mentioned by blacks, and nonmarital childbearing was clearly more readily accepted by African-Americans. For both blacks and whites we see a continuum of sanctions and acceptance of nonmarital childbearing, but differences by race are unmistakable. We also demon-

Of the 662 people in the life histories, there were 62 who discussed nonmarital fertility specifically. Of those 62 discussions, 40 were by whites and 22 by African- Americans. Approximately 14% of the African-Americans and 6% of the whites had had a nonmarital birth.

strate how these norms and values constrained the options open to un-

married pregnant women, and how those constraint~ differed by race.

Below, we examine the responses by race to three situations. If an

unmarried woman is pregnant, do the relatives or community try to force

a marriage? What happens if the man will not marry the pregnant

woman? And, finally, what happens to the children who are born outside

of a marital relationship-that is, how are these children treated by


The threat explicit in the "shotgun wedding" might be considered the ultimate sanction. It was not an idle threat. Below a writer recounts an incident told to him by Sam Cash and his wife, white farmers living in Alabama: "Their oldest son was shot and killed in the early 1930's by a neighbor who charged him with seducing and then refusing to marry (a 'mortal crime' on the mountain) his fifteen-year-old daughter. The wronged girl committed suicide and this, with the fact that all said 'the boy was a bad 'un an' got what he deserved,' hurt them greatly."'

While this was one of the few incidents in which the shotgun was really used, there were other descriptions of the effectiveness of the threat. These threats were often sufficient to initiate a marriage that "hid" a premarital pregnancy. Christine Blue, a 24-year-old white seam- stress from North Carolina, told the interviewer why she married her husband. "When I met him I was just sixteen and he was seventeen, and we were foolish. We had to get married before we had known each other a year. I'm afraid he didn't want much to marry me, but my mother's threats brought him ar~und."~

In these histories, the young pregnant woman in the Alabama story was not the only young, pregnant white woman who committed suicide when the man who impregnated her refused to marry her. The writer of this story described how and why Mary Scott's granddaughter, Sally, took her own life. "It was too bad, Mary had said, that she'd ever started courting Charlie Simpson. He was the kind of boy who thought nothing of ruining a girl and then deserting her. Of course, nobody could actually say why Sally had shot herself but it was plain for everyone to see that her body was thickening up."9

We have evidence that other young white pregnant women resorted to abortion.'' A well-off South Carolina girl nearly died as a result of

' AL-29; interviewer unknown, n.d.

NC-255; interviewer, Mary Hicks, July 14, 1939.

NC-377; interviewer, Ida L. Moore, December 20, 1938 10 There were 2 1 mentions or descriptions of abortion in the oral histories (see Pagnini 1995). Abortion was discussed by three African-Americans and 18 whites. Of the 13 discussions of actual abortions performed on white women (as opposed to general discussion), six of those women were unmarried. For the African-Americans, one of

attempts to abort a premarital pregnancy. Mrs. Remington was the nurse who helped to treat the girl. She recounted the incident as well as a bribery attempt by the girl's parents "to keep quiet."

I recall, in particular, a case I had of this kind. The girl was of high school age, daughter of one of C-'s most prominent couples. The mother apparently was too obsessed with her innumerable social obligations to give her daughter the attention she needed. The father, a prominent bro- ker, provided the one thing that most fathers provide-money. But the companionship and guidance so sorely needed was absent. The girl became involved with a college boy of very undesirable character with the usual tragic results. The girl attempted to hide her condition from her teachers and her parents, finally resorting to drugs in a last frantic attempt to remedy her mistake. It wasn't until she was forced to bed, deathly ill and bleeding profusely, that the whole sordid story was revealed. . . . I refused a comfortable sum from her father, "to please keep this quietn-explaining that my salary covered that feature. To-day that girl is married, with a splendid husband, and two lovely children. The secret rests with me, the physician, and the parties concerned."

In the passage below, Charlie Hark, a white, never-married North Carolina farmer who took care of his brother's widow and her five chil- dren, describes what happened when his niece became pregnant. The final outcome was much less tragic than the previous examples, and the community eventually accepted the young mother and her daughter. Note, however, the shame and hurt expressed. Also note that the man's niece "stayed in" (did not go out in public) for two years and was sent away to have the baby at an expense great enough to require a mortgage on her mother's land.

Alma-you know about her [his niece, whom he helped to raise]. It nearly killed Miss Lizzie [her mother], and looked like I couldn't stand it at first. We got to thinkin' a lot of the child though, and after Alma had stayed in two years we took her and little Rener to church, and folks was right forgivin' and soon treated her about like other folks. They decided, I reckon, to do like we done: give her another chance. Miss Lizzie, though, had had to borry some money to send Alma away, and the land was put under a mortgage again.'*

The shame associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing is also part of Clara Pitkin's life story. Pitkin was a 59-year-old white widow and the mother of five surviving children who sent her unmarried daughter Sarah away when she became pregnant. "Anyhow, it was in early spring when

the abortions was performed on a single woman, but it was not sought in response to

the man refusing to marry her.
" S-SC-17; interviewer, F. Donald Atwell, January 20, 1939.
" NC 164; interviewer, Bernice Kelly Harris, n.d.

I found out that she [her daughter Sarah] was going to have a baby. . . . She came back when her boy was three months old. . . . I tried to make the best of it but the disgrace was almost more than I could bear."13

When we move to examining instances of nonmarital childbearing among African-Americans, we notice that the tone of the stories is very different. While there are sometimes mentions of regret or resignation, there are rarely mentions of shame or disgrace.14 White observers of the time noted different standards of behavior in the black and white communities. Susie Black was a 60-year-old black, married woman who was a midwife. Note the writer's comments in describing Susie Black's family.

She has had this grandchild, now a boy of fourteen, since he was born. He is the child of one of her sons and "he was on the way," Susie ex- plained, before the son and the child's mother decided to marry. This fact, which a white woman would consider too embarrassing to mention, Susie and the rest of her race regard merely as one of the bald facts of life. Most Negro girls of this section are mothers before they are brides. Indeed, many of them are mothers before parents consider them old enough even to be married! ''

Acknowledgment of different standards was expressed in the comments of blacks as well. In the quote below, Mabry Shaw, a black saw- mill worker, acknowledges different codes of behavior among blacks and whites, and chides his parents for "try[ing] to be like white folks."

You see, Mama didn't want me to marry her because she had a little boy when I married her. Mama wouldn't have nothing to do with her because she thought she was common, and now Mama has come to live with us . . . I left and married her, in spite of all they could say about it. I loved her and I reckon I did a good day's work the day I married her. Her folks was tickled, and I don't see why mine won't because having the baby won't against her so far as the other Negroes was concerned. My folks had to try to be like white folks, though.16

We do not claim that nonmarriage and nonmarital childbearing were preferred among African-Americans. Instead, we are arguing that mari- tal childbearing norms were much weaker, as evidenced by sanctions that were much less severe. Contrast the pain that "almost killed Miss Lizzie" to the resigned "It sure is a pity none of us wasn't never mar-

l3 NC-259; interviewer, Mary A. Hicks, February 9, 1939.
14 We coded the excerpts as to whether or not shame or regret was expressed and

found that it was mentioned in only 14% of the African-American stories as compared
to 78% of the white stories concerning nonmarital births.
l5 SC-44; interviewer, Chlotilde R. Martin, January 27, 1939.
l6 NC-244; interviewer, Mary A. Hicks, n.d.

ried" that Myrtle, a 42-year-old black cook, uses to describe her unmar- ried childbearing.

I have three girls but I've never been married. I hardly know how it all happened. I guess I was just misled not havin' anybody to really take care of me and tell me what to do. I worked hard and no one cared anything about me, so when I got to goin' with the boys I guess I sort of lost myself and believed the things they told me. But I was so frightened when I found out about myself the first time I didn't know what to do. I didn't know to go to my sister or my aunt so that they could at least ask the boy to marry me. I just kept it a secret as long as I could. . . . All my girls has children and none o' them's been married. . . . It sure is a pity none of us wasn't never married. l7

The following conversation between Hart Thomas, a 79-year-old black sharecropper, his daughter, and the writer again suggests that there was much less stigma attached to an out-of-wedlock child among blacks:

[Thomas's 23 year-old daughter] "Them children is mine and Helen's. We got four between us. Naw'm, we never been married . . ."

[Mr. Thomas] "I've been daddy to nine chil'en, you jes' well's to say thirteen; dem grandchil'en yonder at de house ain't never had no father; dey's on me to take care of. Helen and Lena May wa'n't never married." The father echoes the nonchalant announcement of Lena May without apology or shame. l8

The third way we explore the strength of social sanctions against non- marital childbearing is to focus on how children born outside marriage were treated and what they were called. We came across several phrases that African-Americans used to describe children born out of wedlock, including "off-child" and "outside child." Tom Pugh, a 49-year-old black tenant farmer, described the circumstances surrounding his birth. "I was what they calls a off-child-my mother wasn't married to my father. She gave me to her daddy to raise, then she took off up Nawth. I ain't heerd of her since. I don' know if she's livin' or dead. The man who was my father got ma'ied."19

The phrase "off-child" is interesting because it recognizes the distinc- tion between the children born inside a marital relationship and those born outside, but it is a much "softer" term than "illegitimate" or "bas- tard." Contrast Mr. Pugh's story with that of Carrie Black, a 42-year-old white woman, who recounted the ridicule she had to endure because her mother was unmarried.

I' NC-2 1; interviewer, Cora Bennett, May 9, 1939. l8 NC-162; interviewer, Bernice Kelly Harris, November 30, 1938. NC-226; interviewer, William S. Harrison, November 11, 1938.

I had a good mother but she made a mistake. It's cost me a plenty, too. She wasn't married to my daddy, but she never done anybody wrong. The biggest mistake she ever made was when she wouldn't marry my daddy when I were five year old. He wrote and begged and offered to come and take us away. But my mother said, "I couldn't. I will never stop loving him, but he deserted me when I needed him most. After all I suffered for five years I jist couldn't trust him, nohow." . . . I started to school when I was six . . . but them wasn't no bright and happy school days. Not by no means! The other children picked on me all the time. They'd heard their folks talk, of course. One hateful boy used to set behind me and punch me and say I was a snotty little bastard.20

David Perry, a justice of the peace, told the writer of a recent incident involving a socially prominent young couple from Virginia: "The girl was in the family way-four months gone. They had tried to hide it until too late. They pleaded with me to marry them and date their marriage certificate back so they could face their relatives and friends and spare their child the shame of having been conceived out of ~edlock."~'

We found no such comments from African-Americans who acknowledged that they had been born out of wedlock.

In summary, we are not arguing that blacks preferred to have children outside marital relationships. Rather, what we have shown is that there were relatively few sanctions for those involved: the pregnant woman, the father, or the child. Clearly, African-Americans felt they had the option simply to have the baby without worrying about stigma from the community. The effects of such norms are shown in that we found no instances of young black women committing suicide if the baby's father refused to legitimate the birth, nor of unmarried black women getting abortions for the same reason.


Behavioral data from the 1910 census indicates that marriage was over- reported for blacks, and that marriage was a more "fluid" state for African-Americans than it was for whites (Preston et al. 1992). In the oral histories, is there evidence of more unions of a less formal nature for blacks than for whites? Were blacks less reluctant to end a marriage than were whites?" We find racial differences when we examine attitudes

20 TN-15; interviewer, Ruth Clark, October 17, 1938.
'' NC-454; interviewer, W. 0. Saunders, July 24, 1939.
'' The marital status distributions for the oral histories were calculated by race.

Whites-10% never married; 69% currently married; 3% separated; 2% divorced; 15% widowed (N = 667). African-Americans-7% never married, 62% currently married; 8% separated; 2% divorced; 21% widowed (N = 202).

toward marriage in general, and what happens when there is a "bad" situation (i.e., abuse, infidelity). The oral histories we examine suggest that blacks were less likely to value the stability of a marriage at all costs than were whites, which fits in with previous research (Anderson 1991; Johnson 1934).

According to one writer, the views of Mary Hines, a black mother of five surviving children, on men and marriage were typical of many black women: "Like many of her race and sex it is plain that she seems not to put any dependence in any boy or man."23 This sentiment may be tied to the strong economic discrimination black men faced after Emancipa- tion. Due to the racism of individual business owners as well as laws discouraging the mixing of races at work, it was nearly impossible for black men to find work in industrial factories, with the exception of low-paying maintenance jobs. When Ruby Childs, a 35-year-old black woman who had married at 14 and whose husband later left her, was asked about her marital history and plans for the future, she vehemently replied, "No, God! I ain't got no husband. And what's more, I don't want one. I had one o'them things once. But I sho' ain't lookin' for no

Alice Kee, a 73-year-old black sharecropper, described why she got married and then divorced.

I never wanted to git married, never aimed to if my mother had lived. But Miss Jennie was so crabby to us dat fin'ly I decided marryin' couldn't be no wus dan what I was gwine th'ugh. So when Abram Kee asked me to, I married him. If I had knowed how he was, I never would. He was rough to me all my married life-drinkin', cussin', runnin' round-but I kep' tryin' hard to talk him into doin' better. . . . All dese years me and de little chil'en done every kind o' hard work, hired out here and yonder, and Abram collected de money. . . . Abram wouldn't work no mo' when de chil'len hot big enough to take holt [She finally kicked him out after he beat her, with the help of the landlord].2s

As we saw in the previous section, the families of white pregnant girls were more likely to try to force a marriage. This white Tennessee woman told the interviewer how the community forced her parents to get mar- ried. Even though her parents may not have considered it important that they be married, the larger community obviously did view it as impor- tant. We do not know whether it was the cohabitation itself or the fact that they had children together without being married which was the deciding factor forcing the community to act.

"AL-2a; interviewer, Annie L. Bowman, n.d.
"SS-C-50; interviewer, Verner Lea, March 2, 1939.
*' NC-195; interviewer, Bernice Kelly Harris, May 6, 1939.

Well, my mammy growed up there with my daddy and they jist lived together. They didn't git married at first no more than granny and grandpa. About three of their children was borned before they ever made them marry. Some of the neighbors come around and told them they was doing wrong. Said they ought to git married, and they'd better, too, if they knowed what was good for them. So they did when they found out they had to do it.26


Preston et al. (1992) found that there was more disruption of African- American marriages than of white marriages, differences which were not fully accounted for by mortality. By examining whether African-Americans and whites were equally likely to end a marriage (either in separation or divorce) under similar conditions, we can see whether there were different benefits or costs to remaining in a bad marriage. If a marriage is characterized by domestic violence or infidelity, does one of the spouses leave? We found a large racial difference in the reaction to these problems. African-Americans in "bad" marriages were more likely to end their marriages either through formal divorce or just leaving, while whites were more likely to stay.27 While not every white woman stayed in an abusive relationship, and not every African-American woman left one, the racial differences in reaction are striking. The evi- dence suggests that white women bore greater social and economic costs for ending a marriage than did black women.

Cindy Goodman, an ex-slave, was married three times. All three of her marriages ended. Here the writer details why Goodman left her first husband (although she did keep his name).

She met and married Joe Goodman, a worker in a cottage brokerage ware- house. Cindy and Joe didn't get along so well. "Dat scound'el was de mos' wu'thless scamp I ever seed. We hadn't bin hitched 2 days when he up an' quit his job at de warehouse, an' commenced loafin' 'round de house, wid me payin' all de bills an' doin' all de work. . . . I packed up my duds and lef' dat man. . . . [She got married again, her husband cheated on her so she left him; she also ended her third marriage because of her husband's infidelity.]28

Divorce could be costly in economic as well as social terms. Even though a system of public relief was being introduced during the New

26 TN-31; interviewer, Nellie Gray Toler, n.d. " Of those in the sample who had ever married (187 African-Americans and 398 whites), 7% of the African-Americans and 4.5% of the whites mentioned instances of abuse or infidelity. Of those who reported such issues, 77% of the African-Americans left their spouses, compared with 19% of whites. NC-84; interviewer, Clalee Dunnagan, n.d.

Deal, most people did not have access to it. Mary Simpson, a 63-year-old black farmer, divorced her second husband, but described how much she lost by taking that action. "I decided to get married. I was only fifteen when I married the first time. I married Henry McKenzie. My life was shocked by a mob who lynched him. . . . He [her second hus- band] treated me so bad that I just went to court and asked for a divorce. Well the court gave him everything, even the forty acres of land we worked together and bought. I did have forty acres of land my father left for me. But I did not have a mule or nothing to start my farm on the following year. "29

Patience Flutcher, a 44-year-old black domestic, was married twice. After a pattern of domestic violence, each marriage ended not in divorce but separation.

I had a white man to tell me when I was married to Thomas to leave him. At that time he was so cruel to me. He said if I stayed I wouldn't be fit for any one else while I was young. I later married George Flutcher in Manatee. I have been separated from him about fourteen years. I didn't do any better with him. Men back during them times had a habit of beating up women. They used to say'y u have to beat them to make them love you. But I was the wrong woman for that. You don't have to beat me to make me love you. Since that time I have tried to make it myself through life.30

As described in note 2 7, not all marriages (or even a majority of them) contained domestic violence or infidelity. People seemed very forthright about their private lives, but of course we cannot know what people did not report. Our data show that African-American women were much more likely to leave a marriage in the case of violence or infidelity. Why did white women stay? Catherine Jones, a white housewife, describes how her husband treats her, and why she stays with him.

I married a sorry man but I loved him. I still love him but I let him treat me like dirt under his feet. He gets drunk every week end and I'm afraid to even stay around him. I can show you a hole in my mattress where he started to shoot me and if I hadn't dodged it I wouldn't be living to tell about it now. Maybe you wonder why I try to live with him. We have one little girl, Orlenda, and neither one of us would be willing to live without her. . . . Sometimes I care more for my husband than anything in the world but every time he gets drunk he cusses me and beats me till I'd rather be dead than living.31

When Dorothy Walters, a 45-year-old white housewife and mother of

29 S-AL-3; interviewer, R. L. Perry, August 24, 1939. 30 S-FL-31; interviewer, Paul Diggs, February 24, 1939. '' NC-494; interviewer, Mary P. Wilson, June 16, 1939.

10 children described her life and her relationship with her husband, the interviewer asked her point-blank why she stayed with him.

After I was married, she said, I worked at anything I could get to do. My husband didn't have a regular trade, or business, and couldn't keep any job long, on account of his drinking. It was up to me to support us, because most of what little money he had went for likker. I took in washing and ironing, and did sewing. I worked day and night. "Why didn't you leave him-divorce him?" I asked. They tried to get me to, she replied, but I don't believe in that. I married him because I loved him, and I was bound to stick to him. Besides, I thought I could get him to quit drinking and join the church.32

George Carter, a 62-year-old white logger whose first and second wives died, told the interviewer without shame about how he treated his wife after she accused him of infidelity. "I beat her 'ti1 she was down on her knees hollerin' for God's love, an' I teached her and she didn't ever fergit. She never did carry no more tales on me. She never did say nothin', neither, when I got me up a woman that I wanted to fun with, an' I got me up a-~lenty."~~

After her husband contracted a venereal disease (and passed it on to her), Mayselle Sweat Green, a 22-year-old white cigar factory worker divorced her husband. However, she later remarried him.

He kept on stepping out on me until he contracted a serious venereal disease. He didn't tell me about him being sick and I didn't know until I saw him taking medicine and treatment and even then he didn't tell me what was wrong with him. . . . The doctor sent off a specimen to see if I had become infected. I'll never forget the day the report came back. It said positive, and it was my birthday. I didn't think I could bear it.34

Again, not every African-American woman who was in an unhappy marriage left. Martha Howard was a black woman who worked as a maid. She married her husband James after her first husband left her. She told the interviewer why she would like to leave her husand. She stayed with him, however: "'I wish I could leave James,' she began. 'Maybe it's sinful fer me to talk thataway cause he's my lawful husband, but I'se just plumb wore out with him. He's the slowest, laziest, trifling- est pusson in the whole world. . . . And he jest won't work."'35

Just as not every African-American divorced or left a bad marriage, not every white person stayed in a marriage. According to Mrs. Cook, a 40-year-old white textile worker, "Me and my husband, we been sepa-

32 NC-472; interviewer, Anne W. Stevens, February 28, 1939.
33 AL-37; interviewer, Jack Kytle, n.d.
34 FL-33a; interviewer, Lillian Steadman, February 20, 1939.
35 GA-93; interviewer, Anne A. Rose, February 28, 1939.

rated now fourteen year. I tell you . . . I don't care nothin' about married life. No sir-ree, no married life for me when a man is all the time a- suckin' a bottle instead o'bringing home some thing to eat. When that happens I'm ready to quit. Some women will hang onto them for years, talkin', coaxin' and beggin' them to However, the fact that some white women left their husbands, and other African-American women stayed with theirs does not discount our results that black women seemed to find it easier to leave.


Most contemporary arguments regarding racial differences in the family focus on the recent period and on the situation in urban areas. In fact, racial differences in family structure are virtually synonymous with dis- cussions of the "urban underclass." Other research has demonstrated persistent racial differences in family behavior by examining quantitative data from the early part of this century in both rural and urban areas. Our work shows that ordinary citizens recognized racial differences in behavior and attitudes. Why is such a finding important? It suggests that contemporary racial differences are not simply a response to contempo- rary circumstances but reflect the different historical experiences of Afri- can-Americans and whites. As stated elsewhere:

Those explaining contemporary differences need to recognize that these may be rooted in long-standing differences in family and household pro- cesses, differences that are nurtured by enduring traditions of racial separa- tion and exclusion. Each generation does not invent its own family struc- ture anew, but adapts, in the light of current conditions, the traditions and practices it has inherited from the past. The cultural, social, and economic history of African-Americans is radically different from that of white Americans. It should not be surprising that their family structures have persistently reflected some measure of these differences throughout the 20th century. (Morgan et al. 1993, p. 824)

We found that bearing a child outside a marital relationship was clearly not the stigmatizing event for African-Americans that it was for whites. This was illustrated by people of both races talking about their own experiences with it (or that of other family members), as well as by the comments of the interviewers and others about how they expected people of both races to behave. Several writers mentioned that African-Americans were not ashamed or embarrassed by a child born outside marriage, while expecting that whites would be shamed by such an event. The discussion of these expectations and consequences for behavior illus- trates how differently the two races thought about nonmarital fertility.

36 NC-79; interviewer, Ethel Deal, July 19, 1939

Although the oral histories were not subjected to the same rigorous sampling methods used today, the findings that African-Americans were much more accepting of nonmarital fertility early in the century parallel the findings of Pagnini and Rindfuss (1993) for more recent periods. We also found evidence that African-Americans were more likely to end a marriage than were whites under similar conditions. These findings, cou- pled with the recent quantitative work on racial differences in family structure, show that we need to take into account the historical perspec- tive when discussing current racial differences in both attitudes and be- havior.

While we have demonstrated that there were different value structures surrounding the acceptability of a nonmarital birth and fluid marriage patterns, we cannot, based on our data, determine why those differences exist. Did African-Americans find nonmarital childbearing more accept- able because of differences in cultural heritage, or was it simply a rational response to social and economic conditions? Was there no social cost to having a birth outside marriage or dissolving a marriage because African- Americans had less to lose socially? We found evidence consistent with both cultural and economic explanations. African-Americans described many instances of racial discrimination in employment, wages, and treat- ment by landowners, the people of both races detailed the different ways in which they expected African-Americans and whites to think and behave.

When we examine contemporary family patterns, it is important to remember that neither current marriage nor current childbearing patterns are "new" for either race. Our explanations for why African-Americans and whites organize their families in different manners must take into account past behaviors and values. We must also remember that, since behavior and values differed in a rural setting before massive migration, urbanization, and welfare, these three factors cannot be the sole explana- tions for contemporary racial differences.





Characteristic % N

Alabama ...................................................
Florida ......................................................
Georgia .....................................................
Louisiana ...................................................
North Carolina ..........................................
South Carolina ............................................
Tennessee ..................................................
Virginia ................................................


1939 .........................................................

Race: Black ........................................................ White .................................................. Other .......................................................

Sex: Female ......................................................

Marital status:
Never married ............................................
Currently married ........................................
Separated ...........................................
Divorced ..............................................
Widowed ...................................................

Residence: Farm ........................................................

Age: 15-19 .................................................... 20-29 .......................................................

40-49 .......................................................
50-59 ......................................................
60-64 .......................................................
65 2 .........................................................

Children ever born:


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Hirsch, Jerrold. 1973. "Culture on Relief: The Federal Writers' Project in North Carolina, 1935-1942." Master's thesis. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Department of Sociology.

Johnson, Charles S. 1934. Shadow of the Plantation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jones, Jacqueline. 1988. "Tore Up and A-Movin: Perspectives on the Work of Poor Black and Poor White Women in the Rural South, 1865-1940." Pp. 15-34 in Women and Farming: Changing Roles, Changing Structures, edited by W. G. Haney and J. B. Knowles. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.

Lemann, Nicholas. 1991. The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. New York: Vintage. Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. McDaniel, Antonio. 1994. "Historical Racial Differences in Living Arrangements of Children." Journal of Family History 19:57-77.

Morgan, S. Phi!ip. 1994. "Characteristic Features of Modern American Fertility: A Description of Late 20th Century U.S. Fertility Trends and Differentials." Paper presented at the Workshop on Expanding Frameworks for Fertility Research in Industrialized Countries, Woods Hole, September 22 -23.

Morgan, S. Philip, Antonio McDaniel, Andrew Miller, and Samuel H. Preston. 1993. "Racial Differences in Household and Family Structure at the Turn of the Cen- tury." American Journal of Sociology 98: 798-828.

Moynihan, Daniel P. 1965. The Negro Family: A Case for National Action. Washing,ton, D.C.: Department of Labor. l\Jlurray, Charles. 1984. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. New York: Basic Books. . 1993. "Welfare and the Family: The U.S. Experience." Journal of Labor Economics 11 (1): 224-62. Pagnini, Deanna L. 1995. "Southern Fertility in Transition: Rural Family Building

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Ruggles, Steven. 1994. "The Origins of African-American Family Structure." American Sociological Review 59: 136-5 1. Terrill, Tom E., and Jerrold Hirsch. 1978. Such as Us: Southern Voices of the Thir- ties. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

U.S. Census Bureau. 1921. Birth Statistics for the Birth Registration Area of the United States: 1919. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. . 1930. Birth, Stillbirth, and Infant Mortality Statistics for the Birth Registra- tion Area of the United States: 1927. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. . 1938. Birth, Stillbirth, and Infant Mortality Statistics for the Continental United States, the Tewitory of Hawaii, the Virgin Islands: 1936. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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