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Excerpted From: Tamika Y. Nunley, Tera W. Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017). Pp. 416. $29.95 (Hardcover). Isbn 9780674045712, 59 American Journal of Legal History 143 (March, 2019)(Book Review) (Full Document)

In the spring of 1866, Congress enacted civil rights legislation that extended the right to contract to all formerly enslaved people. The implications of this measure reverberated well into the twentieth century. Indeed, nearly one hundred years later, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a report on the state of African American families, which reinvigorated racialized views of black marriage, and emphasized gendered pathologies of marital instability. In Bound In Wedlock, Tera W. Hunter joins a revisionist canon that directly challenges the Moynihan Report's conclusions. Her important study carefully probes the complexity of African American marriage, covering a breadth of transformations that occurred over the long nineteenth century. As she contends, American racism shaped the legal contours of black marriage in ways that forced the most intimate matters into the national spotlight. Nonetheless, African American marriages proved adaptable and supple, as husbands and wives navigated the realities of slavery and the discriminatory policies that shaped freedom.

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Bound in Wedlock uncovers the history of black marriage in order to provide a different perspective on the origins and trajectory of African American social and economic inequality. Hunter's research embraces a wide variety of sources, including court cases, slave narratives, correspondence, missionary reports, pension records, newspapers, and military documents. Her skillful management of these sources allows readers to see the various ways that the institution of marriage was embedded in America's social and political fabric. With a deft hand and incisive intuition, Hunter has written a book that captures the nuances of conjugal bond-making amidst the exigencies of American racism.