Remembering and Interpreting the Slave Trade

There is a very good article about remembering and interpreting the trade in human beings in this country. You can read it here: . Some of you may know there has been a long debate in Richmond about interpreting the slave trade in Shockoe Bottom and some of that is captured in the aforementioned article.

A friend of mine asked me this morning if preserving places where people were bought and sold would be similar to preserving a death camp. Then the important follow up question was “Would some folks be upset by it?”

My response was that certainly some folks would be. I’ve routinely seen people upset by the fact there are museums and historic sites talking about plantation and urban slavery. Yet, this is something often preserved in plain site. Honestly, we think about the urban slave markets like in Richmond, Alexandria, Charleston, and New Orleans but really courthouses and nearby taverns and hotels were often ground zero for selling men, women, and children.

Furthermore, the selling of people was so integrated in American culture that almost no region of the colonial or antebellum America was completely clean of it. Nor many places in other areas of the world. When people say America was built on the backs of enslaved people, some folks get upset. But the truth is, there were cities, banks, railroads, and industry that were dependent on the products produced by enslaved people and some of them were dependent on participating in buying and selling the actual people too.

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Image hosted virtually through "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record" ( You can click directly on the image to go to the it URL.

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Image hosted virtually through “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record” ( You can click directly on the image to go to the it URL.


If you haven’t yet, you need to check out the Library of Virginia’s “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade” exhibition. This exhibition is open until Saturday, May 30, 2015.

My research has turned up that sales happened in front of my county’s courthouse, built in 1851. Have you ran across advertisements for slave sales at your courthouse? Found any court records denoting the sale of people at the courthouse? Are there any places in your city where you’ve found people were bought and sold? Are you aware of any effort to preserve and interpret those places?


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10 responses to “Remembering and Interpreting the Slave Trade

  1. Lindsey Brown

    The prevalence and evils of the slave trade demand a better telling of these stories from throughout our country. Shame is standing in the way of meaningful interpretation in so many places.

    Louisville, Georgia, has preserved its “slave market,” but I have not yet visited and don’t know about the quality of the interp. I’m feeling a field trip.

    • Please report back on what you find there! I am curious. I hope sometime to get to Charleston, South Carolina’s Old Slave Mart Museum. I met a lady who works there last summer.

  2. “Are there any places in your city where you’ve found people were bought and sold?”

    I’m working on a local account book that records the hiring of enslaved people. I presume this was done right in the slaveholder’s home (well, one of them, I don’t know which one), perhaps at a desk in her bedroom. As you say, there are few places that can be “completely clean” of it.

  3. I recently went to the exhibit on Brooklyn Abolitionists at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Instead of beginning with the Abolitionists, it began with slavery in Brooklyn and New York’s participation in the slave trade. Brooklyn had roughly the same proportion of slaves as Virginia in 1776.

    I think that sites connected with the slave trade exist in many parts of the United States and a representative sample should be marked as reminders.

  4. Hello–I just came across your blog and hope to find time to read it all! My ancestors were enslaved by the McLeans at Appomattox. See
    Linda White

  5. Jason Vitala

    Hi, I ran across your name while researching another subject. I enjoy reading your perspective. I have a question for you though. I was reading up on the slaughterhouse industry and how we get our beef, pork, poultry etc. It got me to thinking about how the average American perceives where their meat comes from. If you asked them, they most certainly would say, “I guess from a slaughterhouse, then the market.” I wonder, was that the same way average Americans viewed the slave trade 250 years ago? Enslaved people were treated as livestock. They were useless if not taken care of. When at market, they were presented in the best possible light to bring top dollar. As you stated, the slave trade was so entwined in American culture, that people thought nothing of it. All Americans saw was the end result. Just like today, we go to the market and grab our steaks for the weekend cookout without even thinking where and how it came from. In reality, conditions at slaughterhouses and feed farms are horrible. The animals are mistreated and kept in deplorable conditions all for the end result of bringing top dollar at market. The same was true for the slave trade. So many perished on the trip over from Africa. The conditions on the slave ships were no different than feed houses and slaughterhouses today, actually probably worse.
    My question is, do you feel that was the mindset, or perception, of Americans during the slave trade? Kind of an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. I hope I was able to convey what Im thinking. Ive never been a very good writer. -Jason

    • Well, I don’t want to debate the meat industry in the 21st century. 🙂

      However, for many Americans the slave trade was out of sight. If you lived in a good chunk of America after 1840, your interactions with enslaved people were pretty limited. In fact, your interactions with free blacks would be pretty limited in many places. So the buying and selling could be “out of sight and out of mind.” That is a big part of why the work of abolitionists and their written and visual references to the slave trade rose up in the 1830s. I’d suggest Maurie McInnis’ Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade for more on that subject.

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