My book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History, opens with the story of an engaged couple separated from each other on the auction block.
On March 2 and 3, 1859, Pierce Mease Butler of the Butler Plantation estates in the Georgia Sea Islands sold 436 men, women, and children, including 30 babies, to buyers and speculators from New York to Louisiana.
Slave auctions were long a part of the fabric of American life, but on the eve of the Civil War, this unprecedented sale was noteworthy not only for its size but because of the fact that the Gullah Geechee slaves of Butler Island, Georgia, had generally not been sold on the open market.
They were a tight-knit community with norms, values and customs—greatly influenced by their West and Central African heritage.
This past year, when I have given presentations on my book, I often begin by reading the words of the 23-year-old cotton hand, Jeffrey,to his new owner begging him to purchase his love, Dorcas, chattel number 278: “I loves Dorcas, young Mas’r; I loves her well an’ true; she says she loves me, and I know she does; de good Lord knows I love her better than I loves any one in de wide world – never can love another woman half as well. Please buy Dorcas, Mas’r. We’re be good sarvants to you long as we live. We’re be married right soon, young Mas’r, and de chillum will be healthy and strong, Mas’r and dey’ll be good sarvants, too. Please buy Dorcas, youn Mas’r. We loves each other a heap—do really true, Mas’r….”
Every single time it is heart wrenching to read those words. Every single time, I have to take a minute before I get back to presenting on the book.
It is never lost on me the human cost of slavery. It is never lost on me the trauma that families endured.
I always begin that way not to be sensational but to objectivelycapture what slavery really entailed because the raw emotion of such routine separations was that horrible and was that dreadful; of that there can be no doubt.
There is no getting around it. What else would one feel when separated from a loved one?
Thankfully, in this auction that I have spent 10 years studying, there are no cases of young children being separated from their parents, but studying this history has been no less heart wrenching. We know that separation did indeed happen quite routinely in the period of slavery.
Listen to some of those voices here.
From Kate Drumgoold, enslaved child whose mother was sold on the eve of the Civil War: “My mother was sold at Richmond, Virginia and a gentleman bought her who lived in Georgia and we did not know she was sold until she was gone; and the saddest thought to me was to know which way she was gone, and I used to go outside and look up to see if there was anything that would direct me, and I saw a clear place in the sky, and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it three and a half years, not knowing what that meant, and it was there the whole time mother was gone.” (From Help Me to Find My People, by Heather A. Williams.)
And from the ex slave and renown statesman, Frederick Douglass: “My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant. It is a common custom in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.” (The Life of Frederick Douglass.)
I have always felt that the legacy of slavery had a great impact on the present, but I have often argued that we may see certain patterns or themes reminiscent of the past but no straight line. I never expected to draw a straight line between anything that America did then and what it does now, yet the voices of immigrant mothers tell another story.
Here belowis an affidavit of an immigrant mother at the border being separated from her child: “My son was crying as I put him in the seat. I did not even have a chance to try to comfort my son, because the officers slammed the door shut as soon as he was in his seat. I was crying too. I cry even now when I think about that moment when the border officers took my son away.”
I never could have expected that we would be witnessing in the modern day scenes of children being ripped from the arms of their parents. No, not here, somewhere else maybe, but not here in a country which had long since progressed to a new understanding of civil rights and human rights; a country that has, in fact, led the world in the development of such rights.
For those of us who love this place, who call this place home (no matter where we were born), I pray we will stand up. I pray we will stand up for the best that this country represents, not the worst.
For as I show in my work, alongside the devastation of the auction block, there was also the Underground Railroad. Alongside the slave master or the overseer, there was the abolitionist. It is not today that these opposing forces have been in conflict; it is not a new thing, but on Emancipation Day, January 1, 1865 to be exact—a new day literally dawned.
America started out on a new journey – the journey to reconcile the high ideals set out in the Declaration of Independence and in theConstitution with its reality on the ground. It set out on a journey that led to the passing of the 13th Amendment, which officially ended slavery, and the 14th that gave citizenship to African Americans who had been enslaved. This new journey was to have many fits and starts, but the 1950’s and 60’s civil rights movement gave it new life and extended that life and these rights to many others who had also been excluded: Jews, Asians, Latinos, women, immigrants from non-European countries and the like.
That journey brings us to today.
Some of us say, we will NOT go back. We will not return to antebellum America. We will not call that great. We will not be satisfied and happy with big bank accounts while the very fabric of our society and our very humanity is at stake.
Some of us, perhaps soon more of us, will agree again with that incomparable statement: “All men are created equal and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
And those rights include the right to not be forcibly separated from our children.
Anne C. Bailey is a writer, historian, and professor of History and Africana Studies at SUNY Binghamton (State University of New York). She is the author of The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave auction in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
This article was originally published at History News Network