A love story that survived slavery

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Enslaved children were sold and shipped from Virginia to Louisiana with their families in the 1830s, away from the world they knew and the people they loved.

Her name was Eliza Randolph. His was Miles Green. They sailed at different times and on different ships, but both ended up on a plantation near the banks of the Mississippi River, not far from Donaldsonville, which is about 41 miles south of Baton Rouge. In their grief, they eventually found comfort in each other.

By 1840, more than two million blacks were enslaved in the United States. They experienced heartbreak and brutal treatment at the hands of slavers who broke up families for profit. Yet in the midst of trauma and hardship, love continued to flourish, a balm for people determined to resist and survive.

This Black History Month, I want to celebrate the love stories hidden in the archives of the 19th century and couples like Eliza and Miles who persevered, against the odds. I write about slavery and its legacy, and these stories sparkle like jewels in the rocky ground, highlighting the humanity that endures even in the darkest of times.

“It’s important because we need to understand the value African Americans placed on family relationships in general and marriage in particular and the sacrifices they made, often at great cost,” he said. Tera W. HunterPrinceton University historian and author “Bound in Marriage: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.”

Proponents of slavery often justified the practice of breaking up black families by arguing that blacks were unable to “form meaningful relationships the way white Americans did,” said Dr. Hunter. That argument, she pointed out, is denied by archival records.

“When you read the letters and stories of former slaves speaking in their own voices about what those relationships meant to them and what they were willing to do to protect those relationships and to maintain those relationships, it’s very powerful,” she said.

Eliza and Miles were married in the drawing room of their slaver’s home in the 1850s, archival records show. She then worked as a domestic servant, taking care of the white family who held them captive. He worked in the fields of a sugar plantation called Chatham.

Miles was one of 272 men, women and children sold by Catholic priests in 1838 to save the college now known as Georgetown University. Judy Riffel and Malissa Ruffnergenealogists who researched 272 for Georgetown Memory Project, independent non-profit organization, discovered the pension file and forwarded it to me.

“They were both young people at the time and it was the first time either of them had been married,” said Catherine Randolph, Eliza’s sister-in-law, whose words were recorded in an affidavit taken decades after the ceremony.

Sold as children, the bride and groom knew the dangers enslaved couples faced. But for several years they built a life together. They had a home in the slave quarters and soon had a baby girl, naming her Emily.

Their lives were destroyed by the son of their enslaver, pension records show. He wanted Eliza for himself and tried to break up her marriage. He forced Eliza out of his home and moved her to his plantation several miles away, where he reportedly raped her repeatedly. She would have several of his children.

Overton Randolph, a descendant of one of Eliza’s siblings.Credit…Gerald Brown

“My master would not allow Miles to come to me,” Eliza recounted years later.

Miles disobeyed that order. When darkness fell and his slaves retired to their beds, Miles crept out of his quarters. Enslaved people who left their plantations without permission were often imprisoned, flogged or sold. He knew the risks. But he was determined to see his wife.

“He would steal and come to see me two or three times a week,” said Eliza. “We did that until the war started.”

In 1862, the Union Army took control of New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy. Chatham and numerous plantations along the Mississippi River soon fell under federal control.

Several blacks on the plantation then decided that they would no longer tolerate a life of slavery. In the spring of 1863, enslaved people began to run away, leaving homesteads, finding their way to military camps, and enlisting in the Union Army.

Miles considered his circumstances and decided that he too would escape. By then he and his wife had several children.

“He came to see me first,” Eliza recalled, “and to say goodbye.”

Miles spent three years in the Union Army, military records show, and was promoted from corporal to sergeant. He also contracted smallpox. When freedom finally came, he was sick. He started from New Orleans back to the old plantation, looking for Eliza.

Across the South, newly freed people searched for their loved ones. The lucky ones celebrated in joyful gatherings. Some couples finally made the legal protections of marriage available to white Americans, moved to the wedding ceremony made during slavery and to legalize long-standing relationships. Others placed newspaper ads and relied on relatives and friends, but were never reunited with their loved ones.

Miles and Eliza found their way back to each other.

“As soon as the time was up, he came home and found me,” she said, “and we immediately went to live together.”

I recently shared the details of their story with Gerald Brown, a descendant of one of Eliza’s brothers, who has been researching the family for years. “In spite of all the adversity, they still come together and live together,” he said.

Life after the war was not easy. Miles was left weak after recovering from measles and could barely work. The couple lived apart from time to time, perhaps because Eliza had to live near the white families she worked for or perhaps because they needed time apart. We will never know their full story, but people who knew them said they remained united, despite the difficulties.

Sometime around 1881, Miles died on the plantation where he first met his sweetheart. Eliza was there, right next to him.

Credits for the documents of the State Archives: Eliza Green, Widow’s Pension Claim No. 637,236, Certificate no. 468,798; Service of Miles Green (Co F, 80th & 88th USCI, Civil War); Case files of approved pension applications, 1861-1934; Civil War and subsequent pension files; Department of Veterans Affairs, Records Group 15

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