Ties Once Broken: Researching the Families of a Single Slave Auction
In March 1859, on two stormy days, 436 men, women, and children, including 30 babies, were put up for sale at the Ten Broeck Racetrack in Savannah, Georgia. Grouped together in families—married couples or women with young children—they were sold to buyers from the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. Lovers were separated from lovers, sisters from brothers, and elderly parents from children. The largest recorded slave auction in US history, the event came to be known as the “Weeping Time” because of the sorrows suffered by the enslaved and the rain that fell during those two fateful days. Today, the auction barely registers in the national consciousness, even though vehement debates over race and remembrance rage in the public sphere.
Now historian Anne C. Bailey (Binghamton Univ.) has written The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (Cambridge Univ. Press), the first book to chronicle the story of the auction, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath. The auction, which happened on the threshold of the Civil War, allows Bailey to tell the story of slavery’s deep entrenchment in the South and its economy prior to the war, and of the transition the enslaved made into freedom following Emancipation. Weaving together voices of enslavers, the enslaved, and their descendants, Bailey foregrounds the linked fates of African Americans and whites in the United States, as well as the continued resiliency of black families’ bonds despite efforts to sunder them.
Bailey opens the book on the first day of the auction. She told Perspectives that she wanted “to start with the very place that’s the most difficult for us to approach. The enslaved speak louder when you hear their voices and pleas on the auction block.” The 436 people to be sold belonged to one man: Pierce Mease Butler, grandson of Major Pierce Butler, one of the signers of the US Constitution. Also known for proposing the Fugitive Slave Clause during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Major Butler became rich from enslaved labor cultivating rice and Sea Island cotton on Georgia’s Butler Island and St. Simon’s Island, respectively.
Upon his death, Major Butler bequeathed his property, including close to 900 people, to his grandsons, Pierce Mease Butler and his brother. Unconcerned with the day-to-day operation of his plantations, Pierce Mease Butler lived lavishly in Philadelphia and amassed $700,000 in gambling debts—his entire fortune. The auction was meant to dissolve his financial assets, pay off his debts, and re-establish his financial stability.
“The enslaved speak louder when you hear their voices and pleas on the auction block.”
Much of what happened on the days of the auction comes from the account of a New York Tribune reporter named Mortimer Thompson, also known as “Doesticks,” who infiltrated the buyers and eventually published an abolitionist tract about the incident. His meticulous records allow Bailey to provide insights into the mindsets of the buyers and the people being sold. In one story, a young couple named Dembo and Frances found a minister to marry them the night before the auction, hoping that this would allow them to be sold together. (They were.) But Jeffrey and Dorcas, an unmarried couple, were separated, despite Jeffrey’s attempts to persuade his buyer to purchase Dorcas too, saying that she was one of the best “rice hands” on the plantation.
Bailey also pays attention to the indignities of the auction block: invasive bodily examinations, sexual humiliation, and blithe negotiations of the terms of sale. As the plantations’ families and friends took tearful leave of one another, Butler handed out small canvas bags holding $1 coins to all who had been sold: both a reward for generations of labor and a token acknowledging the pain of separation. The sale netted Butler over $300,000.
Bailey was drawn to writing about the Weeping Time when she read a short biography of Thomas Jefferson. She stumbled on a sentence about the slave auction that took place at Monticello after the former president’s death: “As for the rest of his slaves—140 men, women and children because Jefferson was heavily indebted, they were put up for auction.” The sentence affected Bailey in a way she hadn’t anticipated. “The word ‘auction’ just really struck me in a very profound way,” she told Perspectives. “There are times when you read something over and over and it doesn’t mean anything; you read it, but it’s in passing. And then there’s another time when you really feel the profound sense of loss, of displacement, and what that would have meant.” Bailey also realized that even though the auction was a common occurrence during slavery, historians haven’t successfully instilled it in public memory.
One reason for this, she surmised, is the emotional force of the slave auction. It might be easier to reckon with the history of labor and commodity production, for example, than what it felt like to be sold and separated from loved ones. Accounts of being sold or witnessing the sale of a family member are common in narratives written by the enslaved—Henry “Box” Brown, for example, famously shipped himself to freedom in a carton after the sale of his wife, Nancy, and their three children. But what happened to families after auctions? Bailey encourages historians to dig into the historical record to find out their fate and to learn more about auctions and auction houses, both great and small. (She cited Walter Johnson’s work in Soul by Soul as an example of the direction scholarship can take.)
A noteworthy source for Bailey’s story is a memoir written by the English actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble, Pierce Mease Butler’s ex-wife: Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation 1838–39. (They divorced before the auction.) Kemble married Butler without full knowledge of the source of his wealth. When she learned about his plantations in Georgia, she became desperate to visit them. Her resulting descriptions of plantation life were based on a six-month visit and weren’t published until well after her divorce and the auction. But for Bailey, Kemble’s memoirs were a valuable source, depicting what life was like for the enslaved on the Butler plantations. They helped Bailey understand the impact of the auction because of their detailed and sensitive portrait of the community bonds among the enslaved there.
Horrified by what she saw on the plantations, Kemble eventually separated from Butler. To Bailey, the disintegration of the Butler family ominously foreshadowed what would happen during the Weeping Time; the Butlers’ family crisis was intertwined with the fates of enslaved families. Family was a true casualty of slavery—for blacks and for whites, though not in the same ways or in equal measure. Bailey says that she found inspiration for her work in the long-standing sociological literature on black families and in scholarship in social history that has foregrounded the voices of the enslaved.
Modern descendants of the Weeping Time have reconstructed their lineage by mining the historical record.
Taking place just two years before the Civil War, the Weeping Time offered Bailey an opportunity to analyze “the restoration and reconstruction of black family life,” as she writes. Enslavement and auction were, of course, followed by Emancipation, and Bailey devotes a significant portion of The Weeping Time to documenting efforts of those who had been split apart by the auction to reunite after the war. Holding a strong sense of place, many returned to the Butler plantations, reconnected with family members, and negotiated new working arrangements with their former owners.
In a particularly moving section of the book, Bailey tells the stories of modern descendants who have reconstructed their lineage by mining the historical record. Their stories allow Bailey to recount the extraordinary measures that black families took to stay together and to rebuild their lives after Emancipation. One was Annette Holmes, a California resident who watched a documentary that mentioned the Butler plantations on the Georgia Sea Islands. Butler was her mother’s maiden name, so Holmes was able to find her family on the 1860 and 1870 censuses. Another descendant, Tiffany Shea Young, learned of her ancestry and became active in promoting the Gullah-Geechee culture that predominated on the Butler plantations and Georgia Sea Islands. In all, Bailey was able to document the subsequent lives of 59 people sold on the auction block at the Ten Broeck Racetrack in 1859.
Bailey’s work with descendants was especially fulfilling. “The people that I met were so thoughtful about their history,” she said. Using a word from her Jamaican background, Bailey called the descendants “conscious”: “It means that you’re awake to your history, you’re awake to your past, you’re awake to your present, and you’re awake to your future. And I knew we could say that about the descendants.”
The Ten Broeck Racetrack is long gone—the site now is bisected by a highway and hosts a plywood-manufacturing company, an elementary school, and a playground. A historical marker was installed near the site in 2008 after the niece of Savannah’s then-mayor heard about the sale, prompting a public research project on the site’s history. The modest marker, of course, is no match for the towering monuments to the Confederacy dotting Savannah’s city squares. Bailey hopes that The Weeping Time will spur deeper engagement with this history—for the sake of families of all kinds.
Kritika Agarwal is associate editor, publications, at the AHA. She tweets @kritikaldesi.
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