The Claims of Kinfolk

African American Property and Community in the Nineteenth-Century South

By Dylan C. Penningroth

320 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 22 illus., 1 figure, 3 maps, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5476-1
    Published: September 2003
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-7529-7
    Published: July 2004
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-0-8078-6213-1
    Published: July 2004

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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Awards & distinctions

2004 Avery O. Craven Award, Organization of American Historians

In The Claims of Kinfolk, Dylan Penningroth uncovers an extensive informal economy of property ownership among slaves and sheds new light on African American family and community life from the heyday of plantation slavery to the "freedom generation" of the 1870s. By focusing on relationships among blacks, as well as on the more familiar struggles between the races, Penningroth exposes a dynamic process of community and family definition. He also includes a comparative analysis of slavery and slave property ownership along the Gold Coast in West Africa, revealing significant differences between the African and American contexts.

Property ownership was widespread among slaves across the antebellum South, as slaves seized the small opportunities for ownership permitted by their masters. While there was no legal framework to protect or even recognize slaves' property rights, an informal system of acknowledgment recognized by both blacks and whites enabled slaves to mark the boundaries of possession. In turn, property ownership--and the negotiations it entailed--influenced and shaped kinship and community ties. Enriching common notions of slave life, Penningroth reveals how property ownership engendered conflict as well as solidarity within black families and communities. Moreover, he demonstrates that property had less to do with individual legal rights than with constantly negotiated, extralegal social ties.

About the Author

Dylan C. Penningroth is associate professor of history at Northwestern University. In 2012 he was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow.
For more information about Dylan C. Penningroth, visit the Author Page.


"Provides a provocative analysis of African-American property. . . . Breaks new ground and enlivens old debates. . . . Will require historians to rethink their assumptions about the social and economic history of the South and African Americans in the nineteenth century."--Georgia Historical Quarterly

"An original study that will have a significant influence on future scholarship."--Journal of American History

"An important new look at the economic framework of slavery and the transition to freedom."--Historian

"Penningroth applies an intellectual framework laden with insights gleaned from African Studies and anthropology, making this book an ambitious exercise in interdisciplinary scholarship and comparative history."--American Historical Review

"Moving beyond the generalities that have plagued historians' understanding of both African societies and African American history, Dylan C. Penningroth crafts a significant contribution to the literature on nineteenth-century black life in the United States. Fusing an African Studies approach with an innovative method for understanding the complexities of black families, communities, and social relations, Penningroth's Claims of Kinfolk is an excellent model for social historians to follow."--Journal of Social History

"An imaginative analysis that enables [Penningroth] to go beyond the existence of the informal economy to probe the ways it shaped black life during and after slavery. . . . An important volume, one that is unusually broad in scope and significant for a first book. It deserves wide readership."--Agricultural History

Multimedia & Links

Learn more about the award and Penningroth's work at the MacArthur Foundation website,

Watch: See the MacArthur Foundation's video about Penningroth and his work: