Survivor Stories: Margaret Garner
Margaret Garner’s story was not illuminated until it was remembered in relationship to the fictional account of her story in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved in 1987.Toni Morrison reimagined the details of Garner’s reality to bring a level of humanity and agency to a controversial historical figure.
Margaret’s story is a prime example of Black women’s determination to escape sexual and physical abuse and resist enslavement. Leon James Bynum offers an account of the abuse Garner suffered while in bondage, which included being raped by her master Archibald K. (Edward) Gaines in the summer of 1858 shortly after the birth of her first child with her husband Robert.
Margaret had been subject to sexual abuse from Edward for years, with her youngest children as the physical evidence of repeated rape and Edward’s paternity. When news of Margaret’s family escape spread, the newspapers and census reports described her children as “mulatto,” “bright mulatto,” and "almost white.” Margaret may have been the daughter of John Pollard Gaines, the older brother of (Edward), meaning that she herself was the product of the rape of her mother and was raped by her white uncle/slave master.
The most known details of Margaret’s story are her family’s escape and her resolve to end the lives of her children so that they would not be returned to slavery. Garner’s narrative reveals that many Black women were forced to kill their children in order to save them from the intergenerational traumas of forced breeding, rape, and violation, in addition to enslavement.
Having extensively studied the life and case of Margaret Garner, Steven Weisenburger posits that being sexually abused by Edward motivated Margaret to run away and commit infanticide so that her daughter wouldn’t suffer the same fate.