Slavery, Land Ownership, and Black Women’s Community Networks

James Hopkinson’s Plantation, ca. 1862/63 (Photo: Henry P. Moore, Wikimedia Commons).

Delia Garlic, a former slave in Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana knew the worst of slavery, including violent punishment and forced separation from family members.1 In an interview with the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s, she offered an unsparing assessment of her enslavement saying “[them] days was hell…its bad to belong to folks [that] own you soul an’ body.”2 Delia Garlic provided a lucid narrative of her experiences as an enslaved woman. Her language suggests a bound and violently silenced Black body for whom ruthless exploitation was a fact of life, within an environment where disorder and human degradation were commonplace. Garlic’s narrative captures the imagination precisely because it is a nearly unimaginable horror.  While these conditions circumscribed much of day-to-day life, Black women found ways to carve out an alternate space for themselves that challenged scripts of race and gender.

The process by which women created networks and developed survival strategies after slavery ended provides important insights into gender, race, and class; and the process by which women, particularly women classified as head of household, pursued land ownership. These women struggled to give form and meaning to their lives through their participation in female benevolent societies which encouraged women to save and invest in land.  For single and widowed women, the ownership of land emerged as the focal point of their struggle. Most embraced the end of institutionalized slavery by locating loved ones and rebuilding their families. For many women, however, the prospects of seeing children and husbands who had been sold away during slavery were dim. The plight of Mary McGill, a freed woman who migrated to Savannah from South Carolina in 1866, underscores the painful circumstances that invaded the lives of many freed women. McGill’s husband, Joe, died shortly before the Civil War ended in 1865. During their marriage they had witnessed the death of four children at birth, and the sale of two daughters, Diana and Margaret.  Women like Mary endeavored to find a sense of community through networks that emphasized self-sufficiency and land ownership.

Freed women sought comfort from the personal pain slavery inflicted and the economic hardships they faced as a result of their gender and race through community networks that stemmed from the African American church. Through these networks, women developed a unique culture and community that provided support in times of crisis, and emotional closeness. Black women relied on extended kinship institutions such as the church and mutual aid and benevolent societies, which inculcated the doctrine of self-help and solidarity.

In the process of institution-building, nearly every African American community sought to secure title to land for church purposes. In the A.M.E. church, as well as in other churches, committees on deeds and homesteads were established for this reason. In this arena, women enhanced the material foundation of the church not only through fundraising, but in some instances by providing land. Selina Stewart, who inherited the $1,000 estate of her father James Stewart, sold a small parcel of her father’s land in Savannah, Georgia in 1870 to Mt. Zion C.M.E. church in order to “promote the welfare of the church.”

Female benevolent societies furthermore enabled African American women to form an independent power base within their communities. In Savannah-Chatham County, for example, women assumed leadership positions in most female benevolent societies. Based upon Elsa Barkley Brown’s paradigm of female leadership, African American women led and served as community influentials, community activists, and as elite leaders. Women categorized as community influentials held secondary positions within the associations such as secretary and treasurer. Community activists, on the other hand, were women who served as president and vice-president and who were chosen to lead at least twice. Similarly, the elite consisted of women elected to primary positions more than three times.3 Between 1865 and 1885, 922 persons served as officers in Savannah’s African American organizations. Women comprised twenty-eight percent of the officers. Ninety-six percent of the 922 officers were ex-slaves.

The balance of power in a number of associations was not always equal; however, all members played some role in constructing a vision of community. Members in associations such as the Sons and Daughters of Jerusalem, the Sons and Daughters of Mount Sinai, and the Sons and Daughters of Zion, coordinated their activities to achieve their objective of buying land. The Sons and Daughters of Mount Sinai, for instance, raised $200 to purchase a lot for the society. Likewise, both Jerusalem and Zion paid $75 in 1883 and $40 in 1888, respectively for small parcels of land. Through their involvement in more than 200 mutual aid and benevolent associations, African American women in Savannah played an instrumental role in building the material and spiritual foundation of Black institutions. Through these institutions, they formed intra-community networks through mutual aid and benevolent associations which provided support for self-reliant women seeking to build a land base.

Church-affiliated societies such as mutual and benevolent associations played a pivotal role in the economic arena of women’s lives. In the process of working together to enhance the institutional structure of the community, women, particularly those who were widowed, benefited from the various means by which these institutions inculcated  saving to buy land.  Women, like men, maintained deep-seated aspirations to invest in land. Land was a tangible manifestation of their independence as well as an asset that might strengthen kinship and family ties. However, single and widowed women, particularly in rural areas, found it difficult to purchase land because of low wages and familial responsibilities. In spite of economic hardships, African American women in Savannah-Chatham County became landowners. By 1876, 117 African American women in Chatham County, most of whom were ex-slaves, owned land.

The number of landowning African American women is significant. Savannah’s rural-urban economy and the coterminous development of a plantation and industrial economy, placed African American men and women in a comparatively good position to accumulate real estate and personal property.  In 1870, their total value of land and personal property amounted to $425, 013.  By 1900, this amount totaled $914,320, an increase of fifty-four percent. African American women emerged as landowners during this period through inheritance and through individual and collective efforts.  Many of the women functioned as the head of the household due to the death of a spouse or because of voluntary separation.  Some landowners, moreover, were single women who sought to establish security for themselves. In 1870 and 1880, women headed one-fourth of the African-American families in Savannah.  

Kinship played an instrumental role in the community network of African American women. In some instances, landed kin helped landless family members acquire land. Illustrative of this is the Sheftall family who helped family members acquire land by selling them portions of their property. Susan Sheftall and Eve Johnson each secured land from the estate of Margaret Sheftall, their grandmother, for $10. Susan Sheftall, who worked as a laundress, had accumulated real property valued at $2,000 in 1870. In most cases, women who purchased land secured modest acreage which averaged between five and ten acres. Their holdings which were large enough to build a home and maintain a garden represented an economic investment in a family estate. As such, some women often took great care to include their children as co-owners of land. For instance, the premises of Kate Brown’s deed stated “this indenture made November 4, 1882 between William Burroughs, Ann Burroughs, and Joseph and Alethea Burroughs, parties of the first part, and Kate Brown and her children (emphasis added) parties of the second part.”

In other instances, women purchased land for their children. Illustrative of this is Nancy Singleton who on behalf of her children paid $100 for five acres of land in Burroughs, Georgia. Affinal relations also governed rights to land. Plenty Ancrum, for instance, “in consideration for the natural love and affection” and the sum of $5.00 conveyed one and one-half acre of his twenty-three acres to Tenah Murray in 1883. All deeds must contain words of conveyance. Whether or not Tenah actually paid five dollars did not affect the validity of the deed.

Therefore, through an “internal land trade,” women gained access to small parcels of land which they equated with economic and personal independence. Delia Garlic’s life during slavery and the efforts of Black women in freedom to own land illuminate important vistas in the African American experience such as resilience and self-determination.   Research that expands and deepens our understanding of land ownership by Black women after the Civil War can further elucidate their lived social reality.

  1. This post is drawn from my larger work: Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth-Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018).
  2. Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven Miller eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation (New York: New Press, 1998) 8-11; 90-91.
  3. Elsa Barkley Brown, “‘Not Alone to Build This Pile of Bricks’: Institution Building and Community in Richmond, Virginia,” Paper presented at “The Age of Booker T. Washington” conference, University of Maryland, College Park, May 3, 1990.
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Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is the Wilson H. Elkins Endowed Professor of History at Bowie State University. She is the author of Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018); Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and Southern Black Women and Their Struggle for Freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press, 2023). She is Founding Director of the BSU Du Bois Center for the Study of the Black Experience at Bowie State University. Follow her on Twitter at @kbphd08 and at the BSU Du Bois Cenetr @BSUDuBoisCenter

Comments on “Slavery, Land Ownership, and Black Women’s Community Networks

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    It would have been a bit more informative if the narrative of Delia Garlic was made available.

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      Ernest, you can find Delia Garlic’s narrative in Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven Miller eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation (New York: New Press, 1998) 8-11; 90-91. I am limited to 1500 words in the article.

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