This Day in History

April 19, 1866: Couple Receives Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Certificate

Time Periods: 1865
Themes: African American, Reconstruction, Laws & Citizen Rights, Racism & Racial Identity

We share here one of countless marriage certificates from the National Archives collection of Freedmen’s Bureau documents, and the description by African American genealogy specialist Reginald Washington that accompanies it.

On April 19, 1866, Benjamin Berry Manson and Sarah Ann Benton White, formerly enslaved in Tennessee, receive an official marriage certificate from the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Marriage certificate of Benjamin Manson and Sarah White, April 19, 1866 | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105. Source: National Archives

Although this couple had lived together as husband and wife for more than two decades, marriages of enslaved people were not recognized by Southern governments and offered no protections against abuses at the hands of enslavers.

For the Mansons — who had lived intermittently on separate farms — the marriage certificate issued by the Freedmen’s Bureau was more than a document “legally” sealing the sacred bonds of holy matrimony. Listing the names and ages of 9 of their 16 children, it was for them a symbol of freedom and the long-held hope that they and their children would one day live free as a family in the same household. Two Manson sons, John and Martin, had fought for freedom during the Civil War with the 14th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. . .

Benjamin and Sarah Manson were not alone in their quest to put their slave marriage on a legal footing. When freedom came, tens of thousands of former slave men and women — some seeking to marry for the first time and others attempting to solemnize long-standing relationships — sought help from Union Army clergy, provost marshals, northern missionaries, and the Freedmen’s Bureau. Continue reading “Sealing the Sacred Bonds of Holy Matrimony: Freedmen’s Bureau Marriage Records”.

Learn more in the Zinn Education Project national report, “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction,” and find teaching resources on Reconstruction below.