Remnants of slavery – auction ads & neck shackles
I was flipping through a decade-old black history newsletter recently when I came across an article illustrated with two 19th-century ads announcing slave auctions. The headlines slapped me across the face because they were so jarring:
“A Gang of 101 Negroes! By John B. Habersham & Co. G.W. Wylly, Auctioneer.”
The auctions could have been any of the many I attend quite regularly now, but obviously this one was quite different because people were being sold, not items. The newsletter – called Black Memorabilia (2003) – offered this caption information about the broadsides (that’s what these posters were called): “Letterpress advertising broadside, 12×8.5 inches; Macon, GA (1863), $4,000 – $8,000.” These original broadsides were apparently scheduled to be sold at Swann Auction Galleries in New York.
The description stopped me, too, because the slave auction was held in a very familiar place – in front of the courthouse in Macon, GA, the current home of my family and the area where my distant relatives had lived before them.
Some of those 101 slaves could have been my ancestors. They were listed as field hands and house servants, and a few of the men were carpenters. They ranged in ages from 2 months to Old, as noted on the broadside, and all were listed by first names. Some were to be sold together as a family, and a few singles were to be sold separately. In the margins, someone had written in the prices that each one of them had fetched.
I was again reminded of the horrors of slavery at the 2012 Black History & Culture Showcase last weekend where an exhibit of slave neck shackles and other objects were on display. They were part of the Lest We Forget Slavery Museum in Philadelphia. The museum is the heart and soul of J. Justin & Gwen Ragsdale, who have been collecting artifacts for the past 45 years.
I have not traced my family history, but I do know that on my grandfather’s side his parents were born in slavery. I learned that information from the 1900 and 1910 census records when I was conducting a preliminary history for a family reunion newspaper some years ago. I know very little about any of my other ancestors. My great-grandfather Green Howard was born in 1852 and his wife Rebecca in 1855. Their son Alonzo, my grandfather, and his wife Annie Lee owned a farm outside Macon and lived there with their children. Later, family members moved to Macon.
The city of Macon during slavery was said to be one of the “principal marts for slaves in the South,” as Southern journalist Edward Alfred Pollard wrote in a letter. In his 1859 book “The Southern Spy: Or Curiosities of Negro Slavery in the South. Letters from a Southerner to a Northerner,” he wrote that “now, I can assure you that the inhuman horrors of the slave auction-block exist only in the imagination,” and went on to describe a slave auction in 1858. From his perspective, he saw a cheery slave who was oh-so-happy that his current “master” was able to purchase him rather than a stranger.
Slave auctions and trading were commonplace in Macon and other Southern town, and slave traders like G.W. Wylly seemed to flourish. In one book, he was described as a “long distance slave trader,” and I don’t believe he was based in Macon. Another site listed the names of several privately owned companies dealing in the slave trade, seven in Macon with businesses at locations I’m now very familiar with. One trader was Charles Collins, a member of one of the largest slave-trading families in the country, the DeWolfs.
The month of December, according to one site, was the most worrisome for slaves because it meant that the owner had to tidy up his finances, which could mean their being sold to pay off debts and other costs. Adam Goodheart writing in the New York Times opinion section in 2010 noted that New Year’s Day slave auctions were common. The year’s end also meant that the contracts of slaves who were rented out to work for others would expire and they could be sold off to slave-holders near or far. The 1863 auction in Macon was held on Dec. 15.
One of the most fascinating slavery stories linked to Macon was the case of William and Ellen Craft, a couple who escaped slavery in a bold and daring plan in 1848. The light-skinned Ellen disguised herself as a white male slave owner traveling to the North with his servant. It was not a quick trip: train from Macon to Savannah, GA; steamship to Charleston, SC; steamer to Wilmington, NC; train to an area near Fredericksburg, VA; steamer to Washington, DC, and then a train to Baltimore and finally to Philadelphia. They arrived on Christmas Sunday, and soon moved to Boston.
The 101 people mentioned in the ad in the newspaper were not the largest group I came across in my research. One site noted that a sale of 400 Africans in Savannah in 1858 was the largest slave auction in the country’s history. It was conducted at a racetrack during a major rainstorm, and once the auction ended, the sun came out. It became known as “The Weeping Time.”