Slave Auctions in Richmond, VirginiaThe Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1075, pp. 138-40.
February 16, 1861
I Arrived in Richmond, the capital of Old Virginia, on a Sunday afternoon, and found the whole slave population in the streets. I was much struck with the general well-to-do look of these people, for I had imagined they would have wretched, down-trodden appearance showing marks of ill-usage, and be afraid to look up at strangers; instead of which I found them well dressed, well fed, and apparently happy and contented; but I was looking on the surface only, I suppose.
I had a letter of introduction to a gentleman in the city, which I lost no time in delivering, and explained to him that my object in visiting the capital of the Old Dominion was to see what I could of slave institutions, and more particularly a slave auction, with the intention of writing an account of it, and also making some sketches, if possible, to be published in an English newspaper. My friend said this was rather a serious matter, for the Southerners had been so grossly libelled and misrepresented by novelists and newspaper-writers that they had got into a bad habit of not thinking of them or treating them in a kindly spirit; on the contrary, they rather manifested a desire to tar and feather them. I begged of my friend to understand that if these very worthy people did object to my sketching and taking notes I would promise not to do anything of the kind, and I began to wish myself in the district of Columbia again, for a sensation of stickiness had come over me in consequence of his tar-and-feather allusions. However, he would consult, he said, with a gentlemen of influence in the place, let me know the result, and advise me how best to proceed.
During the time he was absent I walked round the city, which is well built, chiefly of red brick and stone. The James River runs through it, entering at one end, a noisy torrent, tumbling helterskelter over huge masses of rock, through a variety of channels, with beautiful picturesque islands between them, and running out at the other through quiet valleys and pasture lands. There are a dock and quay at the lower end, where small vessels lie, and a canal to connect the upper and lower navigations. Numbers of tall chimneys peer above the housetops, indicating the positions of the tobacco factories, which abound throughout the city.
Taking up a station on one of the great wooden bridges over the river, I had an excellent opportunity of observing the negroes of both sexes who were promenading along the road which passes over these structures: some thousands of them were out, all dressed in their best, in the height of fashion—negro fashion, of course. Scores of them passed and repassed during my stay there, all looking happy and contented. Some of the ladies were splendid in rainbow colours, wearing little pink or emerald-green silk bonnets hanging at the backs of their woolly heads, and bright orange-coloured shawls, which harmonised nicely with the skyblue satin ties with huge bows worn by the dark young gentlemen who were taking their "fair" ones out. But the great feature was crinoline; this was worn in quite an original manner, not as useful in expanding other draperies, but as a thing of beauty in itself. It was suspended loosely from the waist and was at least a foot from the ground, and, having scant drapery over it, it swayed to and fro in a truly graceful manner, at the same time exhibiting the beautiful feet of Dinah and the scarlet silk strings with which her shoes were fastened to them. One of the happy youths wore a white hat with a black crape band, his hat stuck on one side of his head in a jaunty manner, the black band put on as being ornamental; a blue dress-coat with gilt buttons, a yellow waistcoat, and pants covered with a large and ornamental pattern. Some wore the oldest and most threadbare of finery, but, however old, it was always something that had been fine, and was worn in that peculiar manner which indicates that the wearer believes himself or herself to be producing a very powerful effect.
On my return to the hotel I found my friend waiting for me; he had with him the influential person before alluded to, of whom I felt rather frightened at first, not forgetting what I had heard of these people's fondness for tarring and feathering. I liked him better, however, as our conversation progressed. He talked much like other people about slavery; thought it a very dreadful institution; but, having got it, and all their property embarked with it, it was not to be supposed they could give everything up at once at the bidding of New England parsons. He said that they were quite willing to discuss the thing in a statesmanlike and businesslike manner, and adopt such modifications in the system as would eventually place the negroes in a less degraded, and therefore better, position; but that the Northerners were continually threatening immediate abolition and proposing to use force to carry out their views; that they were determined to meet force by force, and that there was, in consequence, little chance of peace between them. He said they had been most foully slandered by Mrs. Beecher Stowe, that the incidents described by her as having all actually taken place were picked out of the events of fifty years, and yet made to appear as though they were every-day occurrences. He complained bitterly of the continual tampering with the negroes, abolitionist newspapers being conveyed secretly to such as could read, that they might read special articles to those who could not. All the persons present evidently thought that a rising of the slave population against the owners was quite possible in some of the cities, but that generally the blacks would stand by their masters. A gentlemen present from New Orleans said that he owned about a dozen negroes, chiefly household servants; that the young ones had been born in his family, and the old ones had known himself and his wife since childhood [sic] that their affection for his family was of the strongest possible kind, and they would all look upon leaving him as the greatest calamity that could befall them; he would be bound to carry them from New Orleans to Boston and back without losing one. Yet, said he, in spite of all this affection for my wife, my children, and myself, if a rising of the negro population took place I would not trust one of the them; they would murder us all in our beds if they could, and then howl in sorrow and misery over the bodies of their victims; they would blindly, and without reflection, follow others, doing what they did, and be deeply sorry for it afterwards.
As for myself, my new slaveholding friend offered to show me everything I liked, and guaranteed that I should without molestation make what notes and sketches I pleased, on condition that I pledged my word of honour to tell the truth about what I saw, and to state that fairly and without prejudice, not taking any statements from other people or attempting to judge of that which I had not an opportunity of seeing. I of course promised to do this to the best of my ability, it being both reasonable and proper.
A carriage having been procured we drove into the country, calling at one or two places to see the negroes in their quarters, and very comfortable quarters too—little cabins of[sic] cottages, several in a row. The interiors looked very tidy, and the women and children seemed quite happy. They brought me milk and fruit, which appeared to be abundant.
The next morning I went out to visit the tobacco manufactories, and saw the different methods pursued in preparing and packing the various qualities of tobacco to suit the several markets it is intended to supply. In all these establishments negroes of both sexes and all ages were working, and in some cases singing most merrily. I watched narrowly the manner of the negro when called and questioned by his master. I did not observe anything like fear on the negro's part: master and servant seemed to be on friendly terms with each other, and I do not believe, from what I saw, that these workpeople were badly treated, generally.
The auction-rooms for the sale of negroes are situated in the main streets, and are generally the ground floors of the building; the entrance-door opens straight into the street, and the sale-room is similar to any other auction-room. I observed that placards, advertisements, and notices as to the business carried on are dispensed with, the only indications of the trade being a small red flag hanging from the front door-post, and a piece of paper upon which is written with pen and ink this simple announcement—"Negroes for sale at auction this day at ten o'clock," or whatever other time the sale is fixed for. Besides this written notice and the heading to a sheet of letter-paper, I saw nothing in print or writing having reference to the sale of negroes—no catalogues nor descriptions of lots; nor could I find any advertisements in the local papers. My friend, having shown me the entrance to a room where negroes were about to be sold, told me to go in alone and sit down with the other persons there and look about. I accordingly did so, and put on a bold front. Being a little before the time fixed for the auction, I had a good opportunity to look at the crowd of men about me who dealt in human flesh, and I am bound to say that I saw nothing very dreadful in their appearance; they carried neither revolvers nor whips. They were not a gentlemanly-looking lot of men certainly, but seemed quiet, respectable, [sic] people, such as one might meet at a sale of books or old china in any part of London. At length a little bustle occurred at the back of the room, and a fine-looking coloured man was putforward [sic]. He walked straight up to the block, mounted it, and put himself in a most dignified attitude. The building in which this poor creature was about the be sold was built either for a mill or a granary; the ceiling was very low and of great strength, immense beams crossed it transversely, and the negro's black head stood out well against the great white beam at the back (for the whole interior was whitewashed) as he stood on the block evidently making the most of himself with a view of getting his owner as high a price as possible. He was a remarkably good-looking man, and although quite black had a finely-formed head; his forehead was broad and upright, and his features were all good, there being but little of the common negro type about him. I felt sure that a sculptor would have pronounced him by far the best-looking man in the room. A few steps lead to the top of the block (which is similar to those in common use in England for mounting horses), and upon one of these the auctioneer or crier, as he is called, stands, and a red-faced, impudent, vulgar-looking individual he was in this case. The crier, I believe, is not the auctioneer, but a man employed for the sake of volubility of tongue. To force the biddings, he described the negro as of such an age, such a height, sound in wind and limb, as being a good farm hand, could guide a plow, shoe a horse, and mend a hoe, but he was not a first-rate smith. Then the biddings commenced, and 800 dollars were offered. This sum was mentioned by the auctioneer, over and over again, as fast as he could utter it until a higher bid was made; he then took up the fresh bidding and repeated it in the same manner, hundreds of times, raising his voice each time until he had got to the top of it. At the same time he gesticulated violently, got himself red in the face, and became breathless. A higher bidding not coming forth, in spite of his exertions, he told the negro to get down and walk. He then stood aside to recover himself, and the negro paced up and down the room to show that he was sound on his legs. Some
Page 140of the buyers stopped him during his walk and asked him a variety of questions, as to last employment, state of his health, and so forth. Then they turned his head to the light, and lifted the corners of his eyes, to ascertain whether they were free from indications of disease; in the same way they examined his teeth. They did not do this in a harsh or brutal manner, but just the same as a doctor might examine a patient. I did not observe anything like unkindness, much less brutality, in the way in which the buyers treated the negroes. The auctioneer had a couple of negro attendants who waited upon the slaves to be bought and sold, and I observed that these fellows were much more harsh and overbearing in their manner than their masters.
The auctioneer having recovered himself, the negro remounted the block, and the bidding went on as before, the crier raising and lowering his voice and reiterating the bidding so rapidly that it was almost impossible to hear what he said, working himself up to a pitch of excitement most extraordinary, which was the more remarkable because the buyers were all sitting about, smoking and chatting to each other as quietly as though he were not present, and treating his excitement and oratorical exertions with the profoundest contempt. At last the time arrived when he thought he could get no more biddings. He said, "If you have all done," raising his hand in which was a paper. "Once, twice!" His hand did not, however, come down, for somebody bid, and away went his tongue like a mill, repeating the fresh bidding as rapidly as before until he again became exhausted. "Once, twice, gone!" The negro was sold for 1500 dols. Another lot was then brought forward.
This was the first human being I had ever seen sold, and during the time of the biddings I felt the greatest difficulty in preventing myself from fainting. A dreadful, indescribable sickness came over me, which defied all my efforts to conquer. I felt giddy, and believe I must have fainted outright had I not fortunately had a bundle of tobacco strip in my hand. By smelling these, and being able to get at some iced water, I got over this my first visit to a slave auction. I saw about fifty persons of both sexes and different ages sold afterwards in this and other sale-rooms.
Two or three other persons were sold in this place—among them a pretty little girl and a boy. Then the buyers proceeded to another sale-room, of much larger dimensions; and here scenes similar to those described before took place, the auctioneer endeavouring to raise the biddings in the same manner. Several lots were sold—one lot a man and his wife, the wife in bad health. Some conditions were attached to this lot—they were bound to be taken out of the State of Virginia. They were put up twice, and evidently there was considerable difficulty in disposing of them. After several negroes, both male and female, had been disposed of here, the party again adjourned to another sale-room adjoining. I observed here a small apartment at the end of the large room in which a number of buyers were collected. There being a window between it and the large room I was enabled to observe what was taking place there. I found that in that apartment the male negroes were stripped, and were being carefully examined by those who purposed buying. The negresses are examined by a female specially appointed for that purpose, and the negress is sold on the faith of her statement being correct.
The negroes having been examined, the sale commenced, and was conducted in the same manner as the others. One young man was described as being a good farm-labourer, quite sound, but had one breast larger than the other. This man was carefully examined by some persons sitting beside me, so that I had an opportunity of observing him closely. He seemed in no way to feel pain at being sold, but endeavoured to make himself out as fine a fellow as possible. On being asked how often he had the doctor his mouth opened with a grin from ear to ear, and he replied that he never had a day's illness in his life. He was very closely examined, as the buyers evidently suspected the swollen breast to be cancer. Another young man was described as having a switch-mark on his back. I examined this, but found it had been inflicted many years before. It was, however, looked upon as a blemish, and he fetched a considerable sum less in consequence.
A boy about twelve years old was then sold—I think one of the handsomest boys I ever saw, perfect in form, his skin not black, but a deep brown. He fetched 750 dollars. A little girl was sold previously for 488 dollars. A very fine, strong, young man called "Captain" was sold for 1450 dollars.
Two young women were also sold, sisters, one with her first child, the child nearly white. Both these young women were exceedingly good-looking, the eldest being about twenty years of age. They were put on the block like the others, and were made to walk up and down the room. The auctioneer pressed hard for higher biddings in this manner:—"I want to sell this girl if anybody will bid anything like a price. I wish particularly to draw your attention to this girl, gentlemen: she is young, very pretty, and has beautiful teeth." She was stopped occasionally, her teeth examined, and then made to take off her shoes and stockings that her feet might be seen. The girls laughed and were very merry over the proceedings, and there was no appearance of harshness in manner of the people towards these unfortunate creatures. It was an every-day occurrence, and thought nothing of by those who bought and as little of, seemingly, by those who were sold. But the scene was one never to be forgotten by me. These girls fetched about 1300 dollars each.
The last lot I saw sold was a young man about nineteen or twenty years of age, with straight hair, not black but merely dark, not darker than a Spaniard's: he was described as a good house servant. I watched this young man attentively, and thought I saw clearly in his face that he felt deeply the degradation he was subjected to. Negroes of courage and ability are by no means scarce in the Slave States; the position of the negro is often one of trust and importance, and this brings them in contact with white people of the better class; from these they naturally learn more than their masters intend they should know.
I was much struck with the quickness and intellect of a negro whom I met in Missouri. He was in charge of the bar of an hotel. I entered into conversation with him about the condition of the slaves. He did not charge their owners with treating them cruelly. He admitted they were well fed and clothed, and generally not overworked. I asked him if he was a slave? He stammered, hesitated, was confused; and I saw clearly that I had asked him an exceedingly rude question. I felt sorry that I had done so, as I saw he was hurt and felt the misery of his position. He said, "I am not exactly a slave." I knew he was, but he was ashamed to own it. I said to him, "Now, as you admit the slaves to be tolerably well off, and not to be badly treated generally, are they contented with their lot, or do they desire to be free?" On the bar-counter in front of us were some slops of wine and beer and crumbs of biscuits: a number of flies were feeding upon them when I asked him if the slaves were contented with their lot. He instantly turned a tumbler glass down upon the counter and two or three of the flies were imprisoned under it; there was fire in his eye, and his whole body was agitated as he pointed with his finger to the glass in which the captured flies were buzzing about. "Why," said he, "don't those flies continue to eat and drink as before? There is plenty there for them, enough to last them a week, but they will neither eat nor drink; they have lost their liberty, and without that nothing else is of value." He lifted the glass, the flies flew away. "Now," said he, "they are happy again and will eat and drink, and enjoy what they eat and drink." It would be as safe to cram the cellars of their houses with gunpowder and continue to live over them as to fill the State with men like these, for certainly they will strike for liberty when they have a chance.