Penn Press at AAIHS 2024

Black Elders

Black Elders

The Meaning of Age in American Slavery and Freedom

by Frederick Knight

10 b/w illus., 6 graphs, 2 tables

  • Hardcover
  • 9781512825664
  • Published: February 2024



Would there have been a Frederick Douglass if it were not for Betsy Bailey, the grandmother who raised him? Would Harriet Jacobs have written her renowned autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, if her grandmother, a free black woman named Molly Horniblow, had not enabled Jacobs’ escape from slavery?

In Black Elders, Frederick C. Knight explores the experiences of African Americans with aging and in old age during the eras of slavery and emancipation. Though slavery put a premium on young labor, elders worked as caregivers, domestics, cooks, or midwives and performed other tasks in the margins of Southern and Northern economies. Looking at black families, churches, mutual aid societies, and homes for the aged, Knight demonstrates the pivotal role of elders in the history of African American community formation through Reconstruction.

Drawing on a wide array of printed and archival sources, including slave narratives, plantation records, letters, diaries, meeting minutes, and state and federal archives, Knight also examines how blacks and whites, men and women, the young and the old developed competing ideas about age and aging, differences that shaped social relations in coastal West and West Central Africa, the Atlantic and domestic slave trades, colonial and antebellum Southern slave societies, and emancipation in the North and South.

Black Elders offers a unique window into the individual and collective lives of African Americans, the day-to-day struggles they waged around their experiences of aging, and how they drew upon these resources to define the meaning of family, community, and freedom.