Divorce Case of Former Slaves Reveals Family History

Arry Fort Pitt 1836-1918

Arry Fort Pitt 1836-1918

Today divorce is very common, but in 1800s and early 1900s it was rarely heard of, especially among African Americans.  In my research I found this extraordinary divorce case of two former slaves in Robertson County, Tennessee which detailed the history of their family.

Alford Pitt 1830-1900 and his wife Arry Fort Pitt 1836-1918 were married during slavery and had eleven children.   Alford was a carpenter and later accumulated more than 500 acres of land.  He had African American and white sharecroppers working his land.

In 1900, Arry filed for divorce from Alford stating that he had an affair with two black women and one white one.  She stated that she had worked hard to help him amass everything they owned and she was entitled to half.  Alford claimed that she had not helped him accumulate his wealth and felt since they married during slavery and never married after they were emancipated that she was not legally his wife and therefore not entitled to any of his property.

The divorce case put a great strain on the Pitt family, their friends and neighbors.  Arry had more than fifty witnesses to prove her claims and Alford had nearly as many to support his.  Half the children sided with their mother and the others their father.

Arry was represented in court by a family member of her former owners.  In 1866, a law was passed in Tennessee which made all former slave marriages legal if the couple continued to live as man and wife.

The courts ordered Alford to give Arry 100 acres of land, $1,000, a horse and buggy and other livestock.  Shortly after the verdict Alford died from complications of a cold that he caught from walking to court in bad weather. 

Some of the Pitt property is still owned by their direct descendants.  A street that runs through the property bears the family name.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Responses to “Divorce Case of Former Slaves Reveals Family History”

  1. Robyn says:

    Hi John,
    This is so amazing. One of the classes I teach is on Using Court Records to Uncover the Lives of Slaves, and I talk about things like this, especially divorces. I love your example & I felt happy that Arry at least got something! Did the files save the actual depositions from all those witnesses?
    Sorry I didn’t make it to IGBS, I heard it was great.

  2. John Baker says:


    The files did have some depositions from neighbors, family members and friends. It was very interesting. I know descendants of most of the people involved in the case. IGBS was great, sorry you did not get to attend.


  3. interesting post indeed =)

  4. Kenneth Williams says:


    You may not recall but we spoke by phone in early 2000 while I was reseaching my family history
    and our relationship to the Blow family “Tower Hill Plantation” Virginia and you generously shared your
    research rregarding your family and the Washingtons etc. and you gave me vital information and terrific leads regarding my research in Southhampton Virginia… apparently the research on your family ancestors led you to Southampton County.. I applaud you on your results and your book


  5. John Baker says:


    I remember you. How did your research turn out?


  6. Jacqueline Ellis says:

    John how nice to see my Great Great Granny made the cut (Lol) Also the pictures of Rachel & Wiley Fannie & Wes Williams., how nice Good work!!!

Leave a Reply