By Shannon Roxborough
The Black family in America has a long, complicated and tragic history dating back to slavery. Uprooted from stable family life in Africa, slaves who arrived in what would become the United States were frequently separated from their families and other loved ones.
Although most slaves were sold in “family lots” consisting of a husband, wife and their children, other family members such grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were excluded from the definition. Making matters worse, many immediate families were separated when men, women and children were sold off individually. Even families that remained largely intact faced the ongoing threat of being torn apart — often permanently — by slave sales.
After the Civil War and abolition of slavery, marriage was one of the first civil rights granted to freed African-Americans in the South, and they would eventually exercise that right in great numbers — though many were initially reluctant to legalize their marriages, fearing potential consequences at a still very uncertain and challenging time.
The horrors of slavery left black people with a strong sense of commitment to family, and a desire to preserve and protect the sanctity of familial relationships at any cost.
Immediately after the Civil War, African-Americans were slow to leave the South, but by the time of World War I, blacks from southern states began a large-scale exodus north in what was known as the Great Migration. Eager to escape oppressive Jim Crow laws, which stripped them of their freedoms and property while spurring a campaign of violence against them, by the end of the 1960s, six million African-Americans had fled the south.
This Above-Ground Railroad of escapees from indignities, discrimination, lynchings and other forms of racial terrorism was, essentially, a wave of political asylum seekers in their own country.
Though some tie African-Americans’ current lower marriage rates than whites and likelihood of being single parents to that painful past, the truth is marriage was nearly universal among blacks in America by the turn of the 20th century — marriage rates among African-Americans remained higher than white Americans until the early 1960s.
This means that many of those who migrated to northern states in search of greener social and economic pastures were married or had an eye toward marriage, and either had or would have children. So, they brought with them a family-oriented mindset.
While major cities including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Kansas City were the primary places black southerners settled, many gravitated to smaller industrial cities like Rochester, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and others to find work in factories, packing houses and mills, and to start their own businesses.
This nearly three generations of black migrant families formed the nucleus of local communities, transforming the social fabric, cultural landscape and demographics of cities across America. (In 1910, almost 90 percent of the nation’s black population lived in southern states home, but by 1970, that number had fallen to 50 percent, with African-Americans finding their way to every state in the union.)
Black southern transplants Alexzina and Frank (their last name is being withheld to protect their privacy), met in Norfolk, Va., her hometown and site of the world’s largest naval base. In 1967, toward the end of the mass exodus, the couple migrated to Rochester so Frank could become a partner in the family businesses: a fish market and landscaping company.
“As a Navy man, I was able to travel and see the world. I traveled north with my family is because I knew in the North that I could shield them from some of the racism that existed in the South,” said Frank. “We put down roots here, building a strong family unit and the rest is history, as they say.”
Alexzina added: “Rochester in the North seemed as though it was a good place to raise a family, buy a home and secure a good job with a good income.”
Like so many other black Americans, they fled the South for a chance not only to work and pursue their dreams in a thriving urban economy, but to strengthen and preserve their family.
Although many historians and social scientists say the stable black family did not survive beyond the 1960’s and ’70’s, some argue that the truth is a bit more complicated.
Destiny Owens, a Minnesota-based community activist, racial justice advocate and life success coach whose family migrated north from Alabama and Mississippi, believes the black family is as resilient as ever, in spite of, and because of what what black people went through in the South.
“There is this stereotype that the black family no longer exists. Nothing could be further from the truth,” she pointed out. “Today, we have traditional, extended and single mom-led families that are just as stable as those in the past. The family dynamic has changed, so our modern definition of family is broader, but the bonds that tie us together remain tight and run deep.”
Born in Chicago, she lives with her husband and two children in Mankato, a small city roughly 80 miles south of Minneapolis, but maintains close ties to extended family in the Chicagoland area, as well as down south.
“Media coverage and popular images tend to denigrate black men and black women, while portraying the black family in a negative light, but the fact is we have very close-knit relationships,” she said. “It’s really important not to view the black family through the lens of cookie-cutter white standards. The black family is a nuclear family structure, it is a community family structure, it is a single parent family structure with the support other family members.”
The notion of the typical American family — black, white or otherwise — is more idealized than reality-based, since families are now more stylistically diverse than at any time in the history of this country.
The Great Migration from south to north ultimately reshaped the black family as much as it did every city and town new arrivals landed in.
“Every generation in today’s black families are products of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who fought for their family’s stability, unity and very survival,” said Smith. “We must not forget all the sacrifices those who came before us made to preserve the black family in all its forms.”
“No matter what shape it takes, the black family is a community of people who love, support, uplift and hold each other, whether good and bad, happy or sad.”
Shannon Roxborough has been a freelance writer and journalist for more than 30 years, with his writing, commentary and research published in GQ, Money, Barron’s and The New York Times, among many others.