Stephanie Jones-Rogers, assistant professor of history at U.C. Berkeley, describes it as an “intimate labor.” In her 2017 article in the journal Slavery and Abolition, Jones-Rogers highlights a common scene on the streets of Charleston during the time of slavery and gives a brief account of how enslaved wet nurses rose to the status of a valuable commodity in the American South. Spotting a “good natured, healthy looking Negro woman … with an infant in her arms,” as she was described in an undated letter uncovered in the archives of the South Carolina Historical Society, a woman by the name of Mrs. Girardeau asked the enslaved woman if she knew of a wet nurse to be hired.
According to the letter, Girardeau was informed by the woman that “she was one herself and was in the hands of a broker for hire.” Jones-Rogers writes that Girardeau quickly contacted her friend, a new mother, and the family’s agents were soon successful in purchasing the enslaved mother and her child. While Girardeau’s story is one of many such accounts of white families relying on slaves for the purpose of breastfeeding their children, historians seem to disagree on just how common this practice was in America.
“Because the extent of wet-nursing under slavery is hard to quantify, historians have tended to define its use in the South as fairly unusual and to maintain that its significance is hard to evaluate. The practice has yet to receive systematic analysis from historians of U.S. slavery, and few studies specifically speak to enslaved women’s concerns about their infant feeding practices,” write University of Reading researchers Emily West and R.J. Knight in a 2017 article in the Journal of Southern History.
Research by Sally McMillen, professor of history and department chair at Davidson College, estimates that one-fifth of slave owners relied on enslaved wet nurses to care for their children in the Antebellum South. Attempting to provide a more absolute number, West and Knight project that there could have been as many as 70,000 wet nurses across the region based on population counts of slave owners in 1850. Facing these enslaved women was a harsh life of trading the care of their own children in an effort to meet the requirements of their daily duties.
“Slaveholders forced enslaved women to wean their own infants early (from around six months), so they could return to their labors; yet, ironically, wet nurses had to feed white children until they were about two years old,” write West and Knight, hinting at the physical toll that prolonged nursing would have on enslaved women.
According to the two researchers, this denigration of black motherhood, with slaves forced to dedicate most of their time to caring for their owner’s children, led to a more communal form of mothering among enslaved women where “the biological process of giving birth could be less significant than cooperating with each other to care for and nurture needy infants.”
Other evidence of the prevalence of the market for enslaved wet nurses comes from the number of advertisements in Southern newspapers during the 19th century. According to Jones-Rogers, a review of 57 Southern newspapers across the Carolinas, Alabama, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee revealed more than 1,300 advertisements for wet nurses between 1800 and 1865. Several examples of these sales showcase the market in Charleston.
“Offer at private sale, a young and healthy wet nurse. For particulars, apply at our office, South Side Adgers’ Wharf,” reads an add from slave trading firm Capers and Heyward that ran in the Charleston Mercury on June 7, 1865.
A May 10, 1842 advertisement from Theodore Whitney, a slave broker and auctioneer, invited prospective buyers to his home at 24 Horlbeck Alley off King Street to inspect a potential slave.
“Wet nurse, seamstress, washer, ironer, and house servant to hire — A young healthy woman with her child about six weeks old, and a boy to attend to it,” read Whitney’s listing placed in the Southern Patriot. “She will be hired as either a wet nurse or either of the above capacities.”
Looking further back into the economy in Charleston surrounding enslaved wet nurses shows the cold efficiency with which potential buyers approached searching for a slave to nurse their children. A Beaufain Street resident by the name of Mrs. Dawson placed a newspaper ad in 1795, specifically requesting to purchase a “healthy black wet nurse, without a child.” This likely indicates that Dawson was hoping to find a slave who had recently lost her child, either through death or separation.
Another Charleston advertisement uncovered by Jones-Rogers from November 1800 shows that enslaved women who became pregnant could find themselves thrust into this new market even before they began lactating.
“This person informed prospective hirers that the enslaved woman was ‘used to attend[ing] in the house,’ but that she would also ‘answer as [a] wet nurse in a few weeks,’ thereby suggesting that she was pregnant and had not yet delivered her child at the time when they placed the ad,” writes Jones-Rogers. “While a number of advertisements often mentioned enslaved women’s lactation in passing and often at the end, ads such as these prioritized their capacity to serve as wet nurses before noting their skill in performing others kinds of labor. Thus, the order in which individuals itemized the kind of work these enslaved women were equipped to do suggests that wet nursing was not simply an added bonus for potential buyers and hirers: It was an important form of labor that these women could reasonably perform for white families.”