Whether in a city slave market or on a plantation auction block, the "traffic in human flesh" was a grim scene recounted by many former slaves. They tell of being greased for display, stripped for meticulous examination, forced to dance to look healthy, rejected if too intelligent or too inclined to run away, beaten if they didn't "induce the spectators to buy them," and perhaps most painful, being separated forever from family. How does one retain a sense of self when standing on an auction block "for sale" as a commodity? How does one endure being separated from family members forever?
"Common as are slave-auctions in the southern states," writes Josiah Henson, ". . . the full misery of the event . . . is never understood till the actual experience comes." In this section we read first-hand accounts of this experience from twenty-one formerly enslaved men and women. In the first selection, Solomon Northup describes the New Orleans slave market where he witnessed the fruitless pleas of a mother to be purchased with her child. From five other antebellum narratives—those of William J. Anderson, Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, Josiah Henson, and Henry Watson—we encounter the deadly slave pens which held "human chattel" until auction time, the beatings inflicted to make slaves want to be sold, the callous and humiliating examinations by prospective buyers, the first views of new owners, and the last views of family and friends. Finally, we read a collection of brief excerpts from the narratives of former slaves compiled during the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The "full misery" of slave auctions is front-and-center in their memories—being sold twice as a child, threatening suicide on the block if purchased by a cruel bidder, crying in relief when bought with one's parents, giving one's earnings to a white man to bid on his son, being forced to run in freezing temperatures in order to keep warm, being kidnapped as a young girl and sold in New Orleans, and, finally, kidnapping one's family to save them from being sold and sent far away. "I remembers it," asserts Harriet Hill. "Course I do! I never could forget it." Compare these accounts with those of Jacob Stroyer, Jenny Proctor, and W. L. Bost in the previous section, #1: A Slave's Life. (15 pages.)
- What similarities do you find in these accounts of slave auctions and the experience of being sold?
- How do the accounts differ? What might explain the differences?
- How were enslaved people prepared for sale?
- What specific indignities did slaves endure when being sold and then transported to their new "homes"?
- How did slaves try to maintain selfhood while on the auction block? What risks did this involve?
- How did masters try to break slaves' resistance to being sold? Were they always successful?
- What were the consequences of failing to be sold or disappointing the seller in some way?
- Compare the masters described in these accounts. Why would some buy new slaves yet vow never to sell any of their own? Why would some physically harm slaves they intended to sell the next day?
- Compare the nineteenth-century and twentieth-century accounts. How would you interpret the varying tones of these accounts?
- Compare these experiences with accounts of capture in Africa (Theme I: FREEDOM). What underlying themes appear in all of these accounts?
||How did enslavement in America affect Africans and their descendants?|
||How did enslaved peoples maintain selfhood in the slave-master relationship?|
||What aspects of slavery did freed men and women emphasize when relating their experiences?|
||How did a person respond to being the slave of another?|
||What impact did slavery have on white people?||
|New Orleans slave market: || 3 (Northup narrative, 1853)
|Slave auctions: || 6 (19th-century narratives)
|On being sold: || 6 (20th-Century WPA narratives)
|TOTAL ||15 pages
On the sale of slaves, documents in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York)
On the sale of slaves, documents in Africans in America (PBS)
Slave narratives, 19th-century, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library)
North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), Introduction, Dr. William A. Andrews, UNC-Chapel Hill
- - William J. Anderson, Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, 1857
- - Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, 1849
- - William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, 1849
- - Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, 1849
- - Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, 1853
- - Henry Watson, Narrative of Henry Watson, A Fugitive Slave, 1848
WPA narratives, 1930s, full text as digital images, Library of Congress
An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman A. Yetman (Library of Congress)
"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)
Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)
General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865
- William Henry Hook, "Sale of estates, pictures, and slaves in the Rotunda, New Orleans," 1839, depicted date; engraving by J. M. Starling, published in William Armistead, Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro., 1853. Reproduced by permission of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
- "Slaves being sold at public auction," illustration in Thomas Lewis Johnson, Twenty-Eight Years a Slave, or The Story of My Life in Three Continents, 1909, p. 11. Reproduced by permission of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Library.
- Slave sale notice, "Negroes for sale," signed by Jacob August, 1859. Reproduced by permission of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library.
- Slave auction block, Green Hill plantation, Virginia, photograph, 1960. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey.
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