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Our Undying Past

A Mass Slave Sale, So Cut-and-Dried

An engraving of a Southern slave auction.

As fresh evidence of the bloodless manner enslaved black people were auctioned in antebellum America, the library system at the University of Pennsylvania has digitized a 1855 sales brochure that a brokerage firm issued to buyers at a New Orleans auction. It’s entitled “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves!” Entries describe the individual slaves and family groups, and payment options are spelled out. Very helpful and enticing--as long as the customers remained dead to human compassion.

The brochure hit home because one of the main figures in my research about the fugitive slave settlement in my hometown of Waverly, Pa., was a Maryland runaway who’d seen his master sell off his chattel wife and two youngsters to a slaver in the Carolinas in the early 1840s. The runaway, George Keys, fled north, resettled in Waverly, and later became a Union soldier during the Civil War. I’m writing a book about Waverly’s Underground Railroad era and its dozen unsung black men including Keys who enlisted and fought in the war. His heart must have ached for his vanished wife and children, who were among the thousands “sold down the river” to new plantations being developed in places like Louisiana. Might his chattel family have been r e-sold at the New Orleans auction? It’s possible.

As part of my research I’ve been following the fine Slate Academy podcast series, “The History of Slavery in America.” My wife has been listening to the series as well, and she sent me the Slate article about the 1855 brochure. In the article, historian and podcast host Rebecca Onion writes that the brochure’s sales terms “show how the financial structure around purchasing enslaved people had evolved by the middle of the 1850s.” Customers of the Beard & May sales firm “had to provide a down payment of one-third of the price, and could pay the remainder on credit; the seller would earn 8% interest ‘in case of non-payment at maturity.’ For buyers who weren't wealthy enough to buy people outright, an investment in enslaved property was a financial commitment.”

Louisiana, Onion notes, was one of the only slave states “that had laws against selling very young children separately from their mothers—as historian Heather Williams writes, ‘the vast majority of enslaved children [in the United States] belonged to people who had complete discretion to sell them or give them away at will.’ Even when an advertisement like this one stipulated that families were to be sold together, Williams writes, ‘the purchaser usually stood to make the final decision as to whether to take the whole group or only part.’ ”

It was a jolt to notice that many of the 178 slaves listed in the brochure were being sold off from someplace called The Waverly Plantation. What a horrible counterpart to the Waverly in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which not only assisted fugitives passing through but was so supportive that dozens of them decided to make their new homes there.

You can read the Slate article and see images of the brochure at this link: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2015/08/20/history_of_american_slave_auctions_advertisement_for_1855_auction_in_new.html

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