The archives of Duke, University of North Carolina and the Virginia Historical Society have been crucial to my research on enslaved wet nursing in the antebellum south, says Rosie King, recipient of the 2015 BAAS Abraham Lincoln Award.
As a British-based scholar of the United States, accessing archives is often challenging and always expensive. While the continued and expanding digitization of primary sources is making research on the U.S. more accessible than ever, the quantity of materials available online is incomparable to those manuscripts available at archives based in the United States. Consequently, for many
researchers of the United States, a period of study in American archives remains an essential part of doctoral research.
My own research focuses on the practice of enslaved wet nursing in the antebellum south, contextualised within a broader reinterpretation of white women’s roles on antebellum plantations and their relationships with the women they enslaved. Having examined digital sources such as the WPA narratives, which give insight into formerly enslaved women and men’s perspectives of the practice, and Early American Newspapers Online, which show the existence of wet nurses in slave-labour markets, exploring the wealth of sources authored by slave-holding women themselves was an essential aspect of my primary research. The BAAS Abraham Lincoln Award has enabled me to visit a number of archival collections in the U.S. to undertake this costly but crucial primary research.
Over the duration of my research in the United States, I was able to access collections at three different archives; Duke University’s Rubenstein Library collections, the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the Virginia Historical Society.
Firstly, through research of Duke University’s John Hope Franklin and Sallie Bingham collections I was able to examine a number of manuscripts that explored slave-holding women’s experiences of child-rearing and their relationships with enslaved women. In addition to this, Duke’s collection of prescriptive literature explores the aspirational ideals of women’s roles as wives and mothers, and medical texts give insight into physician’s views on pregnancy, childbirth, and infant-feeding, and consequently elucidates what may have influenced women’s approaches to mothering.
At the Southern Historical Collection, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was able to broaden and deepen my examination of white women’s experiences of motherhood and infant-feeding in their extensive collections of correspondence and diaries written by slave-holding women and their families. Though women did not always comment on their infant-feeding, the comments they did make give insight into the problematic nature of infant-feeding and the reasons that led women to procure wet nurses. This has helped me to better understand why and how slave-holders used black women in this exploitative practice.
I continued this research at the Virginia Historical Society. Family correspondence, diaries, and estate records at the VHS evidenced that white women, in their roles as mothers, were also economically-minded managers of the domestic economies of slavery.
The opportunity to study enslaved wet nursing through [predominantly] white women’s testimony revealed how the practice is one aspect of broader patterns of black women’s exploitation in the plantation house. It epitomises the interconnections of mothering practice and slave labour in the antebellum south; establishing a picture of white women’s continued and systematic utilisation of black women’s labour and mothering ‘skills’ in raising their own children. It also elucidates slave-holding women’s typical lack of consideration for how these enslaved women and their children were affected by their decisions. Though enslaved and slaveholding women’s relationships were characterised by spatial closeness, the emotional distance between them could hardly be clearer. Their relationships were determined by imbalances in racialized power, an inequality pronounced through the study of their infant-feeding practices.
Rosie Knight is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Reading. Her research focuses on slave-holding women’s exploitation of enslaved women’s mothering, through the practice of enslaved wet nursing. Her research trip was also supported by a Mellon Fellowship awarded by the Virginia Historical Society, and the British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) Peter Parish award.