Maternity at War
Maternal Grief in Black and White: Enslaved Mothers and Antislavery Literature on the Eve of War

Maternal Grief in Black and White: Enslaved Mothers and Antislavery Literature on the Eve of War

Cassandra Berman

Mrs. Tamor and her six children. Helen and her son, a child of “tender years.” Margaret Garner, an “affectionate mother” of four, also pregnant with a fifth child. An unnamed woman whose infant would soon be taken from her and “whose sufferings, on account of the separation from her child, seemed greater than for her own fate,” which was to return to slavery in the South. These four women appeared in the pages of the 1861 antislavery pamphlet The Fugitive Slave Law, and Its Victims, where their maternal anguish was on full display.[1] These were also just four of the countless women whose ability to mother their own children, already greatly circumscribed by slavery, was threatened by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This federal legislation required the capture, even in free states, of individuals who had escaped from slavery, and helped pave the way for the Civil War. The stories of mothers such as Mrs. Tamor, Helen, the unnamed woman, and Margaret Garner demonstrated how Black women – living under constant threat of state-sanctioned violence against themselves and their children – were in many ways already “at war.” And as the United States descended into literal war, Black mothers became central to winning support for the antislavery cause.

Since the 1830s, antislavery publications in the United States had featured stories of abuse and suffering among enslaved people in an effort to galvanize white Northerners to take a stand against slavery. Mothers proved to be an especially sympathetic subject: the paradoxical legal parameters of slavery meant that children inherited their unfree status from their mothers, enslaved women were prized for their reproductive potential, and enslaved parents had no legal claim to or authority over their own children. Enslaved women were vulnerable to sexual assault by their masters, who could then claim ownership of any child born due to rape. Families were in constant danger of being sold and separated.[2]

A black and white lithograph of depicted a white woman holding a cherubic white child. The mother looks longingly at her child.
White mother and child, circa 1854. (Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs)

The plight of enslaved mothers also contrasted sharply with the idealized version of white maternity that was increasingly celebrated in popular print in antebellum America. Magazines, newspapers, and advice manuals were full of highly sentimentalized depictions of middle-class mothers who were newly responsible for directing the moral and religious development of their young children within the home. As one publication summed it up, “Though her station is subordinate, yet in a great measure, a mother carries in her heart, and holds in her hand the destinies of the world.”[3]

Not so, of course, for enslaved Black women, whose subordination was far more extreme, and whose unfree status effectively made idealized motherhood – and even the ability to remain with their own children – unattainable. Antislavery publishers seized upon this disjunction. A single 1835 issue of the monthly publication The Anti-Slavery Record, for example, featured five reports of mothers bereft by the sale of their children. There were “two women with infants at the breast” whose children were sold away from them so that they would not “depreciate the value of the mothers,” and a mother whose “anguish was so great, that she sickened and died” when separated from her five-year-old child. One woman was made gravely ill from “breasts having risen, inflamed, and bursted” after being sold away from her three-month-old infant. And there was a slave driver who, unhappy with the pace kept by a mother slowed down by her child, “snatched it from her arms, and handing it over to a person who stood by, made him a present of it.”[4] Other texts drew upon the contrasting circumstances of white women and Black women explicitly. In one, titled “To Mothers in the Free States,” white women were asked to imagine that their own children were enslaved and to look upon the enslaved mother as if it was her own child who was abused or sold.[5]

These early, graphic, and heartrending descriptions of enslaved mothers were mostly of unnamed women, largely confined to the South. After 1850, however, this changed. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act made it clear that the problem of slavery could not be confined to the southern states, that Black people in the North were under siege by U.S. officials, and that the country was on the path to all-out war. As a result, the stories of enslaved people that appeared in many later antislavery publications became far more personal and considerably more complex. Vague notions of collective and geographically contained suffering were replaced by reports of individualized trauma that followed Black people into the nominally “free” North.

In 1856, white antislavery activist and Unitarian minister Samuel May published the first edition of The Fugitive Slave Law, and Its Victims. In it, he documented cases of individuals who had been harmed by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which he had discovered through a careful, wide reading of newspaper accounts. The pamphlet was “revised and enlarged” in 1861; war erupted in April of the same year.[6]

Printed writing on aged paper.
The Fugitive Slave Law, and Its Victims title page, 1856. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The pamphlet told the stories of free Blacks kidnapped and passed off as runaways, of families being violently separated, and of the tragic pursuit and capture of individuals fleeing horrific circumstances in the South. Among these was Mrs. Tamor, whose six children were born in Philadelphia. Authorities accused her of being a fugitive named Mahala, who they said had been living in the North since her escape in 1829. Helen, also living in Philadelphia, was visibly pregnant when she and her young child were detained; a judge ordered that she, her son, and her future child be turned over to an enslaver in Baltimore. Another woman was separated from her infant when it was determined that she and her husband were fugitives; their child, on the other hand, was recognized as free – “so the only alternative was to take it away from its mother.”[7]

In May’s pamphlet, it was the plight of one particular woman, however, that most graphically illustrated the ways in which Black mothers were both besieged by, and actively fighting against, the system of slavery. In 1856, a pregnant Margaret Garner and her family – including her four children – fled from Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. The pamphlet described Garner as a “mulatto” whose children were “almost white,” hinting at generations of sexual abuse by her family’s enslavers. When she was discovered, in hiding, by U.S. marshals, Garner slit the throat of her young daughter Mary. She later said that she had intended to do the same to her other children, and then to kill herself – thus sparing them all from a return to slavery. May did not condemn these actions. Instead, he offered a moral defense of Garner, centered entirely on her maternity: “A noble, womanly, amiable, affectionate mother… she was most tender and affectionate, and all her passion was that of a mother’s fondest love.” For May, Garner epitomized maternal love and sacrifice.

Rather than be tried for murder, Garner and her family were then sent back to her enslaver in Kentucky. On the return, however, their steamboat collided with another vessel. Garner and her youngest child were swept overboard, and by the time she was rescued, the infant had drowned. May reported that Garner “exhibited no other feeling than joy at the loss of her child.” She had thus succeeded in protecting two of her children from the torments of slavery. The pamphlet concluded by lamenting the “thousands of Rachels weeping for their children” – a reference to the biblical Rachel, who wept not only for her own children but also for the slaughter of the innocent infants of Bethlehem at the hands of a crazed king.[8]

By 1861, when the Civil War began and Samuel May’s pamphlet was republished, these “thousands of Rachels” had become mainstays in antislavery literature. Though their agency and autonomy were restricted in nearly every way imaginable, enslaved mothers’ grief was intimately entwined with the outbreak of war. And as with so many violent conflicts, the representation of this grief in the media became an important catalyst for political action. But the public display of this pain also required a tremendous amount from Black mothers. In the lead-up to war, it fell to Black mothers to both bear slavery’s burdens and expose its horrors.


  1. Samuel J. May, The Fugitive Slave Law, and Its Victims (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1856. Reprint 1861).
  2. Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
  3. Gardiner Spring, The Excellence and Influence of the Female Character (New York: F&R Lockwood, 1825), 24.
  4. “Separation of Families,” The Anti-Slavery Record 1, no. 5 (May 1835): 51–52.
  5. Eliza Lee Cabot Follen, To Mothers in the Free States (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1855).
  6. For more on Samuel May’s research on fugitives, see Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 540-41.
  7. May, The Fugitive Slave Law, and Its Victims, 10-11, 32.
  8. May, 37-48.

Featured image caption: Black mother being separated from her baby, 1862. (Courtesy New York Public Library)

Cassandra Berman is an archivist and historian specializing in the history of women and gender. She holds a PhD from Brandeis University and an MLS and MA from the University of Maryland. Her historical research focuses on maternity and print culture in colonial America and the early United States.