African American Studies Interracial Marriage
Chinyere Osuji
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0129


The concept of interracial marriage, previously referred to as “miscegenation,” relies on the notion created in the 15th and 16th centuries in Inquisition-era Spain that human beings can be separated into different races. As they expelled non-Christians from Europe, Spaniards employed these meanings to marriage and family formation both at home and in the Americas as they conquered indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and built colonial settlements. In what became the United States, European colonizers and their White descendants shaped law and society to expand or contract the rights of interracial couples and their descendants. Notwithstanding, interracial couples and their descendants reacted to the racial status quo to form the partnerships and families they desired. One of the major social functions of marriage is to determine inheritance and property rights. Throughout history, formal or legal marriage was often reserved for elites within a given society. Although enslaved Africans and their descendants were able to marry at the discretion of their masters, these relationships were legally binding depending on how the law saw enslaved people. Within Anglo-America, enslaved people were seen as property and could not marry; in Spanish and French America, under the influence of the Catholic Church, the enslaved were seen as having souls and could indeed marry. Becoming incorporated as a slave state into the post-independence United States (i.e., Florida, Louisiana) meant that enslaved people lost this ability to marry. White men often sexually assaulted the Black women they enslaved and forced them to give birth to children who increased their wealth and were part of the property that could be inherited or passed down to heirs. For these reasons, master-slave intimacies lie outside the scope of a marital union. At the same time, throughout US history, White men also engaged in a variety of marital unions with free Black women. These included formal religious or state-sanctioned marriage, cohabitation, and even concubinage across racial lines. Jim Crow laws made formal intermarriage illegal. This review provides a starting point for those interested in interracial marriage in the United States and beyond, with discussion of its social and legal history, perspectives on their meaning in society, contemporary realities of people in and affected by interracial marriages, and future directions in examining interracial marriage.

Interracial Marriage in the Colonial Era

The first documented Christian marriage in what became the United States was interracial (Bennett 2000, Williams 2021). It took place in September of 1565, the year of the founding of St. Augustine, Florida, the first European settlement on the mainland of North America. While some European floridianos married African and Afro-descent women, many elite men simply cohabited with them or had them as plantation mistresses with whom they cultivated secondary mixed-race families in addition to their White families (Livesay 2015). Several decades later, the British successfully established a settlement further north in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. After bringing the first Africans to British America in 1619, many White colonizers, especially White indentured servants, engaged in interracial liaisons and marriages with enslaved and free Black populations (Kennedy 2003, Pascoe 2009). This occurred throughout the thirteen British colonies. As the colonies’ reliance on the labor of enslaved Africans and their descendants increased, British colonial authorities hardened racial distinctions between Whites and Blacks. In 1664, Maryland passed the first British colonial law banning marriage between White women (including White indentured servants) and Black men, whether free or enslaved. However, comingling often occurred, producing racially mixed children.

  • Bennett, H. L. “The Subject in the Plot: National Boundaries and the “History” of the Black Atlantic.” African Studies Review 43.1 (2000): 101–124.

    DOI: 10.2307/524723

    This study challenges scholars trying to understand the African diaspora to move beyond nation-state boundaries for a more effective understanding of history. It explains the first Christian marriage in what became the United States—the marriage of Luisa de Abrego, a free Black woman, and Miguel de Rodriguez, a White man. Several months into the marriage, de Abrego questioned whether she had inadvertently committed bigamy, leading her to face an Inquisition court. Although they dismissed the charges, the court forced them to separate.

  • Kennedy, R. Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. New York: Pantheon Press, 2003.

    This book outlines the history of anti-miscegenation laws from the British colonial era and their impacts on US society. It also discusses famous historical figures who intermarried or had second multiracial families, including Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass. This piece illuminates how issues of inheritance were central to the recognition of children from interracial marital unions, how they identify today, and the importance of cross-race adoptions for understanding these dynamics.

  • Landers, J. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

    Landers discusses how Africans and their descendants lived in Spanish Florida, focusing on the Black settlement of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. This book devotes significant effort to marriage and family formation in the Black population, including how the law, the church, and the community recognized and upheld the right of Black female partners to inherit alongside White families legitimated by the Church.

  • Livesay, D. “Emerging from the Shadows: New Developments in the History of Interracial Sex and Intermarriage in Colonial North America and the Caribbean.” History Compass 13.3 (2015): 122–133.

    DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12221

    Livesay provides a new understanding of North America by taking a more hemispheric approach. The article discusses how in the process of conquering Indigenous land and peoples, interracial relationships occurred between Black men and Native women due to the massacres of many Native men in warfare, as well as the lack of Black women in those areas.

  • Williams, S. D. Keynote Address: Why Black Catholic History Matters. Global Voices 2021 Conference, Critical Examination of Our Times, The State of Race on the University of Dayton Campus, Dayton, OH, 2021, March.

    This speech attempts to situate Blacks in the history of US Catholicism. The speaker gives more background information on Luisa de Abrego’s background, the circumstances of her marriage, and the trial surrounding bigamy in Mexico City. She identifies Abrego as being the first Christian marriage in what became the United States.

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