Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony
Freedmen's Bureau Marriage Records
By Reginald Washington
Slave marriages had neither legal standing nor protection from the
abuses and restrictions imposed on them by slave-owners. Slave husbands
and wives, without legal recourse, could be separated or sold at their
master's will. Couples who resided on different plantations were allowed
to visit only with the consent of their owners. Slaves often married
without the benefit of clergy, and as historian John Blassingame states,
"the marriage ceremony in most cases consisted of the slaves simply
getting the master's permission and moving into a cabin together."
Benjamin and Sarah Manson's marriage, however, had been graced with a
formal ceremony. Benjamin, who was brought to Tennessee from Virginia as
a young boy by his then-owner, Nancy Manson, later described the event
in a pension application he filed as the dependent of his deceased son
John: "We were married on Dr. L. W. White's farm 5 miles from Lebanon
[Tennessee]. . . . Rev Ben White [a black preacher] said the marriage
ceremony." The "wedding ceremony," he continued, "took place on the
porch of the owner of Sarah [Dr. White]. . . . It was with the knowledge
and consent of my master [Mr. Joseph L. Manson, son of Nancy Manson] and
Sarah's master that we were married." Shortly after their marriage,
Sarah's owner purchased Benjamin. "He [Dr. White] had me for a number of
years," Benjamin explained, "then Mr. Manson bought me back and owned me
till I was emancipated."
Wedding Picture from the
archives of "Antebellum Illustrations"
Formal marriage ceremonies for slave couples like Benjamin and Sarah
were generally reserved for house servants. In such cases, slave-owners
would have a white minister or a black plantation preacher perform the
ceremony, and a large feast and dance in the "quarters" would follow
honoring the slave couple. The ceremony could include the slave marriage
ritual of "jumping the broom," which
required slave couples to jump over a broomstick. The custom of jumping
the broom could vary from plantation
to plantation. On some farms, the slave bride and groom would place
separate brooms on the floor in front of each other. The couple would
then step across the brooms at the same time joining hands to signal
that they were truly married. On other farms, each slave partner was
required to jump backward over a broom
held a foot from the ground. If either partner failed to clear the
broom successfully, the other partner
would be declared the one who would rule or boss the household. If both
partners cleared the broom without
touching it, then there would be no "bossin."
While historians and scholars differ on the origin, exact meaning,
and the frequency of the "irregular" marriage ritual, most agree that
the act of "jumping the broom" was a
"binding force" in the slave couple's relationship and made them feel
on Sept. 20, 1937,
at his home, 1514 Druid Hill Ave., Baltimore.
"My name is James V. Deane, son of John and Jane Deane, born at Goose
Bay in Charles County, May 20, 1850. My mother was the daughter of
Vincent Harrison, I do not know about my father's people. I have two
sisters both of whom are living, Sarah and Elizabeth Ford.
"I was born in a log cabin, a typical Charles County log cabin, at
Goose Bay on the Potomac River. The plantation on which I was born
fronted more than three miles on the river. The cabin had two rooms, one
up and one down, very large with two windows, one in each room. There
were no porches, over the door was a wide board to keep the rain and
snow from beating over the top of the door, with a large log chimney on
the outside, plastered between the logs, in which was a fireplace with
an open grate to cook on and to put logs on the fire to heat.
"My choice food was fish and crabs cooked in all styles by mother.
You have asked about gardens, yes, some slaves had small garden patches
which they worked by moonlight.
"As for clothes, we all wore home-made clothes, the material woven on
the looms in the clothes house. In the winter we had woolen clothes and
in summer our clothes were made from cast-off clothes and Kentucky
jeans. Our shoes were brogans with brass tips. On Sunday we fed the
stock, after which we did what we wanted.
"I have seen many slave weddings, the master holding a
broom handle, the groom
jumping over it as a part of the
wedding ceremony. When a slave married
someone from another plantation, the master of the wife owned all the
children. For the wedding the groom wore ordinary clothes, sometimes you
could not tell the original outfit for the patches, and sometimes
Kentucky jeans. The bride's trousseau, she would wear the cast-off
clothes of the mistress, or, at other times the clothes made by other
"We went to the white Methodist church with slave gallery,
only white preachers. We sang with the white people. The Methodists were
christened and the Baptists were baptized. I have seen many colored
funerals with no service. A graveyard on the place, only a wooden post
to show where you were buried.
"No one was taught to read. We were taught the Lord's Prayer and
"When the slaves took sick Dr. Henry Mudd, the one who gave Booth
first aid, was our doctor. The slaves had herbs of their own, and made
their own salves. The only charms that were worn were made out of
Journal Article Excerpt
Jumping the Broom: On the Origin and Meaning of an African American Wedding Custom
by Alan Dundes, University of California, Berkeley
In antebellum times, slaves were married either by an ordained minister or simply by a ceremony called
"jumping the broom" or "jumping the broomstick." There are dozens of reports of the latter.
Millie Evans, of North Carolina, born in 1849, explains:
All Old Master's niggers was married by the white preacher, but he had a neighbor who would marry
his niggers hisself.
He would say to the man:
"Do you want this woman?" and to the girl: "Do you want this boy?"
Then he would call the Old Mistress to fetch the broom, and the Old Master would hold one end
and Old Mistress the other and tell the boy and girl to jump the broom, and he would say:
"That's your wife."
They called marrying like that jumping the broom. [ Botkin 1945 :65)
Ex-slave Mary Reynolds (p16) offers a similar description:
After while I was taken a notion to marry, and Massa and Missy marries us same as all the niggers.
They stands inside the house with a broom held crosswise of the door, and we stands outside.
Missy puts a li'l wreath on my head they kept there, and we steps over the broom into the the house.
Now, that's all
they was to the marryin'. After freedom I gits married and has it put in
the book by a preacher.
Life as Viewed by an Ex-Slave
JOHN F. VAN HOOK, Age 76, Newton Bridge Road, Athens, Georgia
Written by: Mrs. Sadie B. Hornsby, Area 6, Athens
Augusta, Ga., Dec. 1, 1938
"My father lived in Caswell County and he used to tell
us how hard it was for him to get up in the morning after being out most
of the night frolicking. He said their overseer couldn't talk plain, and
would call them long before crack of dawn, and it sounded like he was
saying, 'Ike and a bike, Ike and a bike.' What he meant was, 'Out and
about! Out and about!'
"Marriage in those days was looked upon as something
very solemn, and it was mighty seldom that anybody ever heard of a
married couple trying to get separated. Now it's different. When a
preacher married a couple, you didn't see any hard liquor around, but
just a little light wine to liven up the wedding feast. If they were
married by a justice of the peace, look out, there was plenty of wine
and," here his voice was almost awe-stricken, "even whiskey too."
Laney interrupted at this stage of the story with, "My
mother said they used to make up a new
and when the couple jumped over it, they was married. Then they gave the
broom to the couple to use keeping
house." John was evidently embarrassed. "Laney," he said, "that was
never confirmed. It was just hearsay, as far as you know, and I wouldn't
tell things like that.
"The first colored man I ever heard preach was old man
Johnny McDowell. He married Angeline Pennon and William Scruggs, uncle
to Ollie Scruggs, who lives in Athens now. After the wedding they were
all dancing around the yard having a big time and enjoying the wine and
feast, and old man McDowell, sitting there watching them, looked real
thoughtful and sad; suddenly he said: 'They don't behave like they knew
what's been done here today.
Two people have been joined together for
life. No matter what comes, or what happens, these two people must stand
by each other, through everything, as long as they both shall live.'
Never before had I had such thoughts at a wedding. They had always just
been times for big eats, dancing, frolicking, and lots of
jokes, and some of them pretty rough jokes, perhaps. What he said got me
to thinking, and I have never been careless minded at a wedding since
that day. Brother McDowell preached at Clarke's Chapel, about five miles
south of Franklin, North Ca'lina, on the road leading from England to
Georgia; that road ran right through the Van Hook place."
Again Laney interrupted her husband. "My mother said
they even had infare dinners the next day after the wedding. The infare
dinners were just for the families of the bride and groom, and the bride
had a special dress for that occasion that she called her infare dress.
The friends of both parties were there at the big feast on the wedding
day, but not at the infare dinner."
"And there was no such a thing as child marriages heard
of in those days," John was speaking again. "At least none of the brides
were under 15 or 16 years old. Now you can read about child brides not
more than 10 years old, 'most ever' time you pick up a paper.
Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
The significance of the broom to early African-Americans originates
in the present-day West African country of Ghana. During the
Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, most of Ghana in the 18th century was ruled
by the Asante of Ashanti Confederacy. Asante urban areas and roads were
kept conspicuously clean according to visiting British and Dutch traders
with the use of domestically made brooms. These same brooms were used by
wives or servants to clean the courtyards of palaces or homes. The broom
in Asante and other Akan cultures also held spiritual value and
symbolized sweeping away past wrongs or warding off evil spirits. This
is where the broom comes into play regarding marriage. Brooms were waved
over the heads of marrying couples to ward off spirits. The couple would
often but not always jump over the broom at the end of the ceremony.
Jumping over a broom as part of a wedding ceremony was also common in
pre-Christian European cultures. The custom survived the introduction of
Christianity and was practiced by both blacks and whites in the American
South prior to the Civil War.
Jumping over the broom symbolized two things. The first was the
wife's commitment or willingness to clean the courtyard of the new home
she had joined. Furthermore, it expressed her overall commitment to the
house. The second thing was the determination of who ran the household.
Whoever jumped highest over the broom was the decision maker of the
household (usually the man). The jumping of the broom does not
constitute taking a "leap of faith" as the practice of jumping the broom
pre-dates the phrase coined by Sřren Aabye Kierkegaard by one hundred
years if not more.
The practice of jumping the broom was largely discarded in Ghana
after the decline and eventual fall of the Ashanti Confederacy in 1897
and the imposition of British customs. The practice did however survive
in the Americas, especially in the United States, among slaves brought
from the Asante area. This particularly Akan practice of jumping the
broom was picked up by other African ethnic groups in the Americas and
used to solidify marriages during slavery among their communities.
Jumping the broom therefore did not arise out of slavery as some have
suggested, but is a part of African culture that survived the American
slavery like the Voodun religion of the Fon and Ewe ethnic groups or the
ring shout ceremony of the BaKongo and Mbundu ethnic groups.
After the end of American slavery, jumping the broom was seldom
practiced. It was not necessary once African-Americans could have
European-style marriages with rings and other identifiers. Jumping the
broom was always done before witnesses in order for members of the slave
community to know a couple was married. It had nothing to do with Whites
since no form of marriage was recognized for Blacks during slavery. Once
Blacks could have European style weddings with rings that were
recognizable by anyone as a symbol of marriage, the broom ceremony
Jumping the broom also fell out of practice due to the stigma it
carried, and in some cases still carries, among Black Americans wishing
to forget the horrors of slavery. Once slavery had ended, many Blacks
wanted nothing to do with anything associated with that era and
discarded the broom jumping practice altogether. The practice did
survive in some communities though, and made a resurgence after the
launch of Alex Haley's "Roots".
Sometimes African American couples who do not actually jump a broom
when they get married, may joke or recognize the phrase to be synonymous
with getting married in the same way that "tying the knot" is associated
with getting married.
Other Ethnic Groups
Broom jumping is also practiced by non-Black groups and different
religions around the world with some variation. Wiccans and Roma are
among the groups who developed their own style of a broom jumping
tradition. The Welsh also had a centuries-old custom called priodas coes
ysgub, or "broom-stick wedding."