Poignant, disturbing object in The Kinsey Collection

The Illustrated London News (Sept. 27, 1856), vol. 29, p. 315. (Copy in Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library; also, Library of Congress, KC-USZ62-15398)

Many of you may know that the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is set to break ground in 2012 and is expected to be completed and opened in 2015. For more about the building’s design please click here.

At present until May 1, 2011, the National Museum of American History (NMAH) features selected artifacts from the Kinsey Collection. More about the exhibition can be found here.

On April 14th, a friend and I checked out the NMAH’s various exhibitions. This one with the Kinsey Collection was very interesting. Two documentary items were particularly fascinating to me. One was an 1854 letter and the other was an 1862 letter. The 1862 letter was written by a United States soldier explaining the particulars of how some enslaved people were murdered in the South. Sadly, I did not really get a chance to investigate the document up close because someone else was reading it. However the 1854 letter has struck me to the point that I have dreamt about the letter every night since Thursday and it is on my mind throughout the day.

The letter was written by “A M F Crawford” in the spring of 1854. The original has been scanned and is available here. However, I have transcribed the letter below for ease of your eyes for those not familiar with handwriting of the mid-nineteenth century:

Charlottesvill [sic] April the 3d 1854

Messers Dickenson & Hill

This will be handed you by my servant Frances. I am told that it is useless to give the capabilities of a servant, that it depends altogather [sic] on there [sic] personal appearance; be that as it may, I say positively that she is the finest chamber-maid I have ever seen in my life, she is a good washer, but at house cleaning she has perfect slight of hand [sic]. She is 17 teens years old the eleventh of this month.

She does not know that she is to be sold. I could not tell her; I own all her family, and the leave taking would be so distressing that I could not.Plese say to her that that was my reason, and that I was compelled to sell her to pay for the horses that I have baught [sic] and to build my stable. I believe I have said all that is necessary, but I am so nervous that i hardly know what I have writen [sic] Respectfully yours

A M F Crawford

Research I conducted through the 1850 U.S. Census free and enslaved schedules as well as a Public Family Tree points to the author of this letter being Amanda Melvina F. (nee Craven) Crawford, the wife of Malcolm F. Crawford.

Malcolm was born in Maine in 1794 but moved to Albemarle County, Virginia and became connected with the well-known ex-President Thomas Jefferson and worked on dormitories at the University of Virginia as well as assisting in the construction of Edgehill, home of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, one of Jefferson’s grandsons. His wife and the letter’s author, Amanda was born in Albemarle in 1808 and died in 1863. Malcolm according to information through the family tree found on Ancestry.com moved to Georgia after his wife’s death to live with a daughter of theirs and he died there in 1876. The 1850 slave schedule finds Malcolm Crawford as the owner of 22 enslaved people ranging in age from one year old to seventy years old. A fourteen year old black female appears as a part of his human property, undoubtedly Frances who within a few years would walk off the Crawford property headed to Richmond on an errand for her mistress probably not knowing she’d find herself in a dingy slave jail in Richmond and soon under a red flag and on a raised platform for buyers with brown, blue, green, hazel, and gray eyes to size her up.

However, this letter illustrates several points to me:

1. Amanda Crawford relied heavily upon Frances to make her and her husband’s bed and likely that of their children (they were the parents of 12 living children in 1850, eight of whom were still at home). Opening and closing windows and preparing water for bathing among Frances’ work habits. Frances would light fires in the bedroom and keep them stoked in the evenings likely meaning that she slept near Malcolm and Amanda if not in their very room. She also relied upon Frances to clean and polish furnishings, wash windows, sweep and dust, and clean ashes from the hearths in the Crawford’s home. Frances was particularly good at household cleaning as Mrs. Crawford said she was “slight of hand” (which should be sleight of hand). However, Frances was ALSO “good” at sorting, boiling, scrubbing, rinsing, and ironing the family’s clothes in her duties as laundress.

2. Often I have heard “Well, we cannot judge people in the past for holding people in bondage. It’s just how it was.” While being how it was may be true for the enslaved and the enslavers, Mrs. Crawford’s letter illustrates that she KNEW in 1854 that she was being deceptive for Frances and that she knew in her heart that she was wrong however for the sake of having her new “horses” and “stable” she sent Frances on an approximately 70 mile long journey to Richmond from Charlottesville. She clearly has known Frances from birth and knows her family just as well as Frances.

3. The probable illiteracy of Frances meant that she was carrying on this journey the note that would seal her fate to an extremely powerful slave trading firm. Dickinson & Hill were major slave traders in Richmond in the decade before the opening of the Civil War and in fact kept buying and selling people during the war. Records for the company’s business survive but sadly do not encompass the 1854 period in which Frances arrived unknowingly (probably) to her fate on the auction block.

This letter is just so powerful that I encourage everyone to go see if and the other items in this exhibit for yourself. I encourage those of us in the public history field to recognize that the moral compass of the slaveholders lived in an interesting house of close association developed (in many cases) over multiple generations of the black AND white families alongside physical and mental abuse, in conjunction with intellectual depravity through legal means to attempt to deny enslaved people educational opportunities (though more than a few people who were slaves knew how to read and write) all wrapped up by a cloud of lies and deceit and fear which enslaved people and enslavers constantly pulled like strings on puppets to try to overpower the other.

In this case…Frances and her family lose so Mrs. Crawford could spend  the last nine years of her life with new horses and a stable.

According to the cellphone tour stop in the museum, the Kinseys were able to find Frances in the 1870 census, freed-yes; but in Georgia…hundreds of miles away from whoever may have still been alive in Virginia that she was related to.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Poignant, disturbing object in The Kinsey Collection

  1. Drew Radtke

    At the Fredericksburg Area Museum, there is a letter tucked in the corner of an exhibit about the Rappahannock River. On a small pedestal between a large light-up map and an even bigger display case, it seems almost out of place. While I don’t have a word-for-word transcription available, the letter reads more or less as follows:

    “I wish to sell the man delivering this letter. I can’t decide upon a fair price for him. Your help would be appreciated.”

    It’s probably the size of a modern index card. But I think it speaks volumes about southern culture during the 1850’s. With illiteracy rates through the roof among slaves in Virginia at this time, one can pretty easily conclude that the slave didn’t know that he was carrying a letter that would determine his worth as a human being. Frances was worth some horses and a barn. I’m glad these stories are coming out, though, because I think they illustrate how far we’ve come as a society in a (relatively) short period.

    • Thank you Drew. I am going to have to get back to the Fredericksburg Area Museum to check out their exhibits including seeing the note you paraphrase.

  2. This letter is very powerful, and it does speak to some of the progress being made in interpretation. I think your interpretation efforts to identify the women involved in this letter, and to draw out a true picture of what jobs Frances did. I also think this letter is particularly powerful because of the connection and emotion that are recognized by the author.

    As an archivist and a person trained to privilege context in interpreting a document, I would be interested to see earlier letters from slave owners selling slaves predating Amanda Crawford to understand how early people were talking about their own enumerated wrongs of selling (and keeping) enslaved people. While people like to downplay the Compromise of 1850 and the abolitionist movement’s impact in general, I do think someone writing in the 1850’s might have had more evolved thought attached to their actions.

    I’m not by any means trying to say slave owners did not know it was wrong to keep people enslaved prior to the abolitionist movement (and I am aware this could easily be misinterpreted to be such an argument). And I hesitate to raise this interest for fear that it will be stated too poorly to be understood.

    What I am trying to say is that awareness can –and frequently does–evolve. Just as we once spoke about gay marriage or rape on the emotional level of “those poor people,” or a general negative impact on relationships and people “being together,” we now speak about tax rights or traumatic memory. My point is, the conversation evolves, even if it recognized wrong earlier, it recognizes wrong in more nuanced ways as the conversation continues.

    History needs context, and you have provided excellent context for this document. However, you have raised my curiosity about letters for enslaved people being sold in general. I wonder how nuanced the recognition of wrongs would be in a letter from another date, and if the concerns expressed would sound at all different in 1799 or 1809. The historical context is different, but yet in some ways similar. All letters would have the context of enslaved people being sold by the author. But would changing the context of time demonstrate any change in the author’s acknowledgment of guilt?

    That’s not to say people would be any less guilty, just that Amanda Crawford’s letter conveys recognition of many different arguments against slavery. Not only does she admit that she is valuing a stable and horses more than a person, but she recognizes the wrong in separating families, she acknowledges a great deal of work is done by Frances, and she implies an understanding that illiteracy is enabling her crimes. Many of these statements seem to tie to key abolitionist arguments. Would one have felt the need to acknowledge so many of these specific evils prior to the abolitionist movement making them part of open conversation? I don’t know. But I do think historical context is incredibly important, and I applaud you for providing some. I’d obviously be interested in learning more about how Amanda Crawford’s letter compares to other letters.

    I’d also be fascinated to know what archivists are saving from places like Dickenson & Hill, since slave auctions existed all over the country, I have to conclude historical records should exist on a broader scale of these auctions and the human rights violations they document (since records about human rights violations are so frequently destroyed).

  3. The abolitionist movement as I know you know Andrea (but for those readers who may not) is long and deep stretching back into the colonial era. Slavery is questioned by some as a result of the ideals of equality proposed by the Founding Fathers, many of whom we know were slaveowners themselves. However, it is in the nineteenth century particularly after 1825 that the abolitionist movement grows more vocal through press and because of that the movement goes beyond enslaved people’s agency in running away, leading, organizing or participating in insurrections or attempted insurrections.

    Perhaps that is food for another post in the future.

    The issue of selling people obviously comes up again and again in slavery (and it will again here on this blog) but I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s escapee, James Hubbard (b. 1743). Lucia C. Stanton’s Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello (2002) documents Hubbard’s two escapes. Jefferson sold James while he was a runaway to Reuben Perry. James had spent 1811 and part of 1812 living near Lexington, Virginia. When Jefferson found out he sent out a man to capture James who ran into the mountains of what is now West Virginia and he was returned to Monticello where he was whipped as an example in front of other slaves.

    Jefferson urged Perry to sell James “out of the state” because Jefferson believed that the nominal freedom James experienced would not make him suitable to “serve any man as a slave (p. 80-82 chronicles the second escape).”

  4. Also, I forgot the Dickinson & Hill Papers are held by the American Antiquarian Society. A finding aid can be found here: http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Findingaids/slavery_in_the_us.pdf

  5. Pingback: Why the Slaves Fled, Part 2 | Civil War Emancipation

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