The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

"Marriage Extraordinary": Lunch Talk Recap

This Wednesday (8 July), the MHS hosted a brown bag lunch talk, “Marriage Extraordinary: Interracial Marriage and the Politics of the Family in Antebellum Massachusetts,” given by Amber Moulton-Wiseman, a graduate student of African-American Studies at Harvard University and a short-term research fellow here at the MHS.  Amber spoke on the nineteenth-century battle to lift the ban on interracial marriage that had been in effect in Massachusetts since 1705, prohibiting legal marriages between whites and people of color (particularly those of African descent).  Amber gave a brief description of the six-year campaign to end the ban, which began in 1837 with a grassroots petitioning drive and ended during the 1843 legislative session when the Massachusetts legislature voted to lift the ban, wiping away what many at the time considered to be one of the “old stains of slavery.” The political campaign was seen by activists as the first in a series of battles to defeat segregation, closely tied to debates over segregation of railway cars and Massachusetts schools.

Amber highlighted some of the collections she has used here at the MHS, such as the Charles Francis Adams diaries and the Wigglesworth family papers, to establish the context of the interracial marriage debate here in Massachusetts, and to understand the diverse interest groups that eventually came together in order to bring about the repeal – from female reformers who organized petition drives, to high-profile anti-slavery activists such as William Lloyd Garrison, to everyday Massachusetts citizens who, otherwise uninterested in the issue of interracial marriage of the rights of African-Americans, saw repealing the ban as a way to establish a Northern identity distinct from the slave-holding South.

In conversation following Amber’s initial presentation, attendees posed questions about the concept of race identity during antebellum period, and the problem of identifying interracial marriages as such, since “race” is such a fluid concept.  Amber clarified that, for the purposes of her research, she believed it best to draw the “race line” according to how people were seen (or saw themselves) at the time, rather than attempt to impose our own conceptions of racial categories onto an historical situation.  We also talked at length about the way in which the benefits of interracial marriage were framed by its supporters: marriage, Amber argues, was usually held up as a question of security for children and mothers.  The moral question concerning those who sought to legalize interracial marriage was, as one attendee put it, “whether men were bound to support women they have sex with” and the children they have as a result of those sexual relationships.  The legitimacy and security of mothers and children, rather than the rights of women as sexually-active individuals, was the primary concern of the pro-marriage reformers – even as the specter of women having sex outside of marriage (and outside of their own race!) was never far from peoples’ minds.

Many thanks to Amber for an engaging introduction to her topic and we wish her the best as she begins drafting her dissertation!

permalink | Published: Friday, 10 July, 2009, 7:05 AM


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