Tag Archives: slave trade

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: http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/02/americas-failure-to-preserve-historic-slave-markets/385367/ . 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" (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php). 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” (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php). 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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Twelve Years a Slave, One Year to Wait

I generally do NOT get excited about movies regarding historical subject matter; however, the subject of slavery, the true nitty-gritty aspects such as slave catchers stealing free blacks, whippings, sexual assault, rage of slaveholders and their wives, black women becoming what I like to call “common practice wife” (whereas it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry and yet it was not uncommon for white men to have an enslaved woman or women to have children with). The agricultural labors and in this case, the rarity of emancipation before the end of the American Civil War means that I am excited that a friend and coworker informed me today through her interest in  Benedict Cumberbatch (the new Sherlock Holmes TV series) that Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 will be turned into a full length film.

Northup was born free though his father had been enslaved in Rhode Island. He was looking for work when unfortunately he made a trip to Washington, D.C. in 1841 with two men who said they could find him work. Instead those men sold him to a slave trader and Northup ended up with a variety of slaveholders. Finally through a rare and unique way, he was able to communicate back to his family in the North and regain his non-slave status in 1853.

This image facing page 256 in Northup’s narrative illustrates what happened to an enslaved young woman named, Patsey.

Not much about the film yet but some details of who is playing who is here. The cast is composed of a mixture of veteran and well-known actors and actresses such as Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, and Alfre Woodard; and relatively new but good actors and actresses such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Chewetal Ejiofor (who will portray Solomon Northup). New to the scene in an American film is Lupita Nyong’o, who is a native of Kenya who has been involved with exploring the lives of young Kenyans through documentaries.

I am hoping  that Lupita’s portrayal of Patsey (read Northup’s memoir, it is a gripping account) will be as powerful as Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Trip in Glory (1989).

In the midst of the 150th anniversary of the end of legal slavery and the American Civil War, I truly hope that Hollywood will get this story right. They have the source and so do you if you didn’t know about this account before.


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Troublesome Charleston news

My friend Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory reports on his recent trip to Charleston. His tour guide was displaying some obvious dislike of Northerners and obvious inability to understand the positions of enslaved laborers. You can read the post here.

The problem with creating a tour where people are solely asked to identify with being a slaveholder looking to buy another person is that it does not create any sympathy, empathy or general understanding with the life of slaves who were kept in pens and put on display for men to gawk, grope, fondle, feel, and question men, women, and children sold in Charleston (among many other places).

This tour guide sounds like he is unfamiliar with the works of Walter Johnson’s  Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, Maurie D. McInnis’ Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade, and Michael Tadman’s Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. 

The tour guide appears to have missed the surviving information regarding Ziba Oakes’ account book. Oakes had the building known now as “The Old Slave Mart Museum” constructed in 1859. While there appears to be records only surviving from prior to 1859 at the Boston Public Library, there still is enough information to discuss antebellum Charleston’s slave trade and this specific trader.

I hope that this is not a sign of what is going on in Charleston generally for as usual, we owe it to the historical record and to the memory of those people sold and those people who bought to be honest about what happened to and with the people involved in slavery.

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