THE CLAIMS OF KINFOLK:
African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South
In The Claims of Kinfolk, Dylan C. Penningroth uncovers an extensive informal economy of property ownership among slaves and sheds new light on African American family and community life from the heyday of plantation slavery to the "freedom generation" of the 1870s. Combining concepts advanced in recent scholarship on the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa, this book proposes a new framework for analyzing the connection between people’s social relationships and their interests in property. Rather than assess African Americans’ claims to property as examples of cultural change or resistance, this book concentrates on those informal understandings and practices themselves: how they were created, how they worked, and how they changed between 1800 and 1880.
Property ownership was widespread among slaves across the antebellum South, as slaves seized the small opportunities for ownership permitted by their masters. While there was no legal framework to protect or even recognize slaves' property rights, an informal system of acknowledgment recognized by both blacks and whites enabled slaves to mark the boundaries of possession. In turn, property ownership--and the negotiations it entailed--influenced and shaped kinship and community ties. Enriching common notions of slave life, Penningroth reveals how property ownership engendered conflict as well as solidarity within black families and communities. Thus, ex-slaves’ efforts to “reunite” their families in 1865 were part of a long history of constant change in the claims of kinfolk. Through negotiations with one another and with white people, black people throughout the diaspora made the meaning of family over and over again.
Winner of the 2004 Civil War & Reconstruction Award, Organization of American Historians
PRAISE FOR "THE CLAIMS OF KINFOLK"
"Provides a provocative analysis of African-American property. . . . Breaks new ground and enlivens old debates. . . . Will require historians to rethink their assumptions about the social and economic history of the South and African Americans in the nineteenth century."
GEORGIA HISTORICAL QUARTERLY
"Penningroth applies an intellectual framework laden with insights gleaned from African Studies and anthropology, making this book an ambitious exercise in interdisciplinary scholarship and comparative history."
AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW
"An imaginative analysis that enables [Penningroth] to go beyond the existence of the informal economy to probe the ways it shaped black life during and after slavery. . . . An important volume, one that is unusually broad in scope and significant for a first book. It deserves wide readership."
"An important new look at the economic framework of slavery and the transition to freedom."
"Moving beyond the generalities that have plagued historians' understanding of both African societies and African American history, Dylan C. Penningroth crafts a significant contribution to the literature on nineteenth-century black life in the United States. Fusing an African Studies approach with an innovative method for understanding the complexities of black families, communities, and social relations, Penningroth's Claims of Kinfolk is an excellent model for social historians to follow."