In a year when a candidate for Senate looked back fondly at the era of slavery in the United States because “families were united,” historian Anne C. Bailey’s new book describes how a slave auction wrenched families apart.
“The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History” chronicles the sale of 436 men, women and children from the Butler Plantation of Georgia’s Sea Islands in 1859. Ironically, before this auction, “Butler Plantation slaves were generally not sold on the open market before; many lived their entire lives on Butler’s estates,” writes Bailey, an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University-State University of New York.
Pierce Mease Butler, who spent more time living in Philadelphia than in Georgia, had to sell the slaves because he’d gambled away much of his fortune on the stock market. The auction netted $303,850, an astonishing amount of money in 1859.
In one heart-rending vignette, a 23-year-old field hand named Jeffrey, sold for $1,310, begs his new master to also purchase Dorcas, the fellow slave he loves. Seeing the master unmoved by his protestation of love for Dorcas, the desperate Jeffrey tries to sell the man on her quality as a worker, calling her one of the “best rice hands” on the plantation.
Unfortunately, the auctioneer grouped Dorcas with a man and his three small children, selling them as a lot. She and Jeffrey were separated, probably forever.
Bailey recovers poignant details of lives of the Butler slaves from documentary records and from two singular informants: Mortimer (Doesticks) Thomson, a New York Tribune reporter who infiltrated the auction masquerading as a buyer, and Fanny Kemble, a popular British actress who married plantation owner Pierce Mease Butler. Slavery destroyed white relationships, too: Kemble’s brief exposure to slaves on the plantation intensified her abolitionist leanings and led to their divorce.
Bailey draws on Kemble’s diary to re-create the funeral of Shadrach, a young Butler slave who died of lung disease after several bouts of malaria, a hazard for slaves working in this swampy place.
Faith on the plantation “was a quietly fought contest between the slaves and their masters about how much religion was enough. The slaves appeared always to want more — more time to have their services, more prayer books, more Bibles and more opportunities to get baptized.” Bailey also writes about slaves who kept to Islam and African ancestral religion. She makes the point that slaves retained more of their African culture and heritage than white people realized.
Following the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, former slaves “systematically attempted to reconstruct their family bonds,” Bailey writes. She cites personal ads taken out in black newspapers by men and women seeking spouses, siblings and children separated from them by slave sales. Many former slaves returned to the sites of their old plantations, to negotiate new work arrangements and in the hope of finding their lost loved ones.
Remarkably, Bailey has been able to trace the historical record of 50 people from 10 families sold during the Butler auction. She has interviewed several living descendants of those slaves, such as Annette Holmes, a California woman who painstakingly traced her ancestry back to former Butler slaves. Holmes had to work through and around the “blanket of silence,” as Bailey describes it, that some older family members draped over the trauma of their past.
As a historian, Bailey is determined to keep lifting that blanket of silence and uncover the humanity of people it obscures. She cites with approval the aim of Yad Vashem’s Shoah Victims’ Names Recovery Project to remember the name and personal story of each Holocaust victim. I have to believe she wishes the same for every former slave.