When Julia Hughes died in 1902, a lengthy obituary in the Akron Daily Democrat described her as a “Typical Southern Mammy” and recalled her life in slavery and in freedom. Some information was accurate and easily verified, like the fact that she was from Alexandria and had been owned by a family named McCrea (well, actually Macrae). But other details I questioned and could have easily dismissed.
The obit stated that Julia, “the belle of the plantation,” had her wedding in the “big house” and wore “a white gown and orange flowers.” What a beautiful scene! How I would love to imagine that this cherished servant at Volusia would have been permitted to celebrate her wedding in the same manner as those who owned her. But the skeptical historian in me thought she knew better and I initially discounted it as a post-slavery attempt to sanitize the readers’ memories.
But simply writing off this part of Julia’s obituary was unfair of me and unfair to Julia. While I might not be able to confirm Julia’s exact experience, I wondered if it was even realistic. I consulted the first person accounts in the WPA Slave Narratives for clues, and also Eugene Genovese’s chapter on weddings in Roll, Jordan, Roll.
What I discovered, after reading more than thirty narratives that had details and descriptions of weddings, was that weddings of enslaved people were generally held on the property where they lived and, as Genovese also found, some were married in the big house.
The celebration of a slave wedding in the yard of a Franklin County, Virginia, plantation. Courtesy of Wilma A. Dunaway. "Slavery and Emancipation in the Mountain South: Sources, Evidence and Methods," Virginia Tech, Online Archives, Illustration, 11.1.
According to the narratives, Ida Rigley’s free father and enslaved mother married in the dining room of her mother’s master, and Nancy Washington was married in her master’s yard. Tom Singleton, who grew up near Athens, Georgia, said that if the weather was bad, a wedding would be held in the hall of the house, but if it was a nice day, the ceremony was held in the yard.
Wedding day attire varied but at least two brides – Nancy Washington and one in Georgia who Ellen Campbell recalled – wore white dresses. Genovese included Judith Page Rives’ account of a wedding of Pauline, her family’s slave in Albemarle County, Virginia, in which she described the bride wearing a veil and a “wreath of orange blossoms.”
So while I can’t be sure that Julia wore a white dress and orange flowers or even married in the big house, I can no longer discount it.