The Hidden History of Slavery That Surrounds Us


She told me that the auction block represented the end to life as enslaved people knew it. Family life was one bright spot in the long ordeal of slavery, she said, but auctions ripped families apart.

Yet Dr. Bailey and her researchers found fewer than 50 marked auction sites, while by some estimates there were 1.2 million slave sales between 1760 and 1860. Sites of African-American focus represent 2 percent of those registered on the National Register of Historic Places, she told me, and only a small portion of these are devoted to slavery. Here’s more from our conversation, which has been edited and condensed:

There is no central registry of these auction sites. My research assistants and I found less than 50 were marked and that was very surprising considering there were 1.2 million slave sales between 1760 and 1860. Each of those sales represented heartbreak for family members, for loved ones. Their experience and their contributions must also not be forgotten.

I say in my work that enslaved Africans were not just “hands,” as they would be called in auction catalogs. They brought with them extraordinary talents and gifts and technology — in the case of the Low Country Georgia slaves, the ones whose experience I document in the Weeping Time slave sale, for example, the technology of planting rice. This know-how, cultivated on the continent for hundreds of years, is what made these rice planters among the richest men in the country on the eve of the Civil War. I like to say they were like the tech giants of their day.

For the unmarked sites, there are many ways to look. We chose to look first at the slave narratives and the digitized archive of advertisements that slaves placed after the Civil War when they were looking for their relatives. In this way, we were assuming their perspective — what they recalled about where they were sold or where their loved one was sold; what fragments of information they had to go on when they were ardently searching the country for mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands.

Monday is the 161st anniversary of the Weeping Time slave auction, which took place on the eve of the Civil War. Four hundred and thirty-six men, women and children — including 30 babies — were put on the auction block in Savannah, Ga., in what became known as the largest slave sale in American history.

There is a marker in what is now West Savannah near where the Ten Broeck Race Course once stood, which was the actual location of the auction. The enslaved were kept in the sheds meant for horses as they awaited sale. They endured the horror of being separated from family and loved ones as though they were sold in “family lots.” Family was narrowly defined: mother, father, children. No grandparents, no cousins, no aunts and uncles. And for those who were engaged but not married, they would be separated, perhaps permanently.

It was an awful two days in which it rained without respite until the end. The slaves called this time “the weeping time.” I like to think that if they could do nothing else, they named their experience so that people like you and me would one day remember. Remember their hurt and their pain; but also remember their contribution.

I am happy to see that many are just as intrigued as I have been. They are concerned about the erasure of the experience of these men, women and children. Those who have contacted me or who read the article, or my book, seem eager to do that. They don’t see this as something to be hidden away but rather as something to resurrect and recover from our history.

There may be some healing there. It certainly is the case for me. I often think about the fact that we can’t do anything about the past, but it is what we do now that matters.

If in 2020, we agree that all lives matter, then all lives mattered then, too, so we should find a way to demonstrate that. One way is to democratize our landscape. At present, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are over 1,800 Confederate monuments and memorials; at the same time, we have found less than 50 marked auction sites.

If we are a nation committed to justice and a sense of fairness, this should bother us. We ought to balance the scales and acknowledge what these people endured yet still contributed to this country.

[Read Dr. Bailey’s article, with photographs by Dannielle Bowman, here.]

The New York Times has left many remarkable black men and women out of its obituary pages over the years. We continued to tell their stories this month with Overlooked, a history project. Here are a few of the stories:

Valaida Snow (1904-56) was a talented performer and musician known as the “queen of the trumpet,” but she was given fewer opportunities in the world of jazz because she was a woman.

Andreé Blouin (1921-86) fought alongside some of Africa’s most powerful leaders in securing independence from French colonists after her son’s death politicized her in a way nothing else could.

Joseph Bartholomew (1888-1971) worked his way up from a caddy to a designer of some of the best golf courses in Louisiana, but because he was black he was never allowed to play a round.

Homer Plessy (1863-1925) stood up for civil rights when he sat down on a train, leading to one of the most notorious Supreme Court rulings in history.

Together these obits tell a story of resilience and determination amid struggle. None of these people allowed societal restrictions to get in their way; they all went on to achieve success.

Amy Padnani, creator of Overlooked

Democrats are fighting for the crucial black vote in South Carolina today. Churches have long played the primary role in mobilizing black support there, but some activists are pushing for change. Explore the diversity of the black electorate in this interactive article.

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