As the author of The Weeping Time: Memory and the largest slave auction in American History published by Cambridge University Press in 2017, I want to congratulate Ms. Lauren Davila on her addition to existing scholarship. Her finding that the Ball family sold over 600 enslaved people on one day in 1835 is yet another event in a historical record that has been erased, forgotten, and ignored.
The auction of those enslaved by the Ball family in 1835 does however differ in one important respect from the Weeping Time in Savannah in 1859. Those six hundred souls – or those who survived – most likely had to wait another thirty years before they could attempt to find their folk. Thirty years was a lifetime for an enslaved person; it is why, after slavery, so many talked of “their people” who came from Virginia, or Carolina, or Georgia. The people dispersed from the Butler plantation slave community did not have to wait so long to attempt reunification with their families. It is likely why I could, a century and half later, locate about 15% of them in the historical record including some living descendants, though the fates of all are yet to be discovered.
This is yet another opportunity to underscore the relevance of slave auctions in American history and life. My hope is that going forward, numbers will have their place but not be the focus of our attention. We are not discussing sports statistics. We are talking about human beings. Hundreds of people were put on an auction block to be sold for money to the highest bidder, without regard to families, mothers, fathers, children, or kin; auctions that sold people in the same way that livestock, houses, and farm implements were sold.
Certainly for me in my work, it was and is the voice of the enslaved that matters most. Of note is the fact that the auction had been called “The Weeping Time” not by historians but by the enslaved themselves. They had named their experience and, by doing so, had proclaimed that they were not purely victims. They had written themselves back into history even as their past and potential futures were being erased. I wanted readers to hear the voices of Jeffrey and Dorcas-an engaged couple who were separated on the auction block. Their deep bond meant nothing to slaveowner Pierce Mease Butler, nor to the auctioneer, Joseph Bryan, nor to the buyers, nor even to those that bought them on those two rainy days in March 1859. No one considered the marriage they were eager to consummate; no one considered their likely future children, grandchildren, and other descendants; no one considered their dreams like the dreams of any engaged couple.
Finally, my hope is that the Weeping Time auction and others are properly memorialized. That is one way in which we can repair the past. Thankfully, the issue of reparations is no longer in the shadows and for that I am glad. This discovery of a slave auction of 600 people sold is a “grim new record ”according to journalist Jennifer Berry Hawes; but as Weeping Time memorial advocate, Rev. Larry Gordon says, it should add “more fuel to the fire for reparations. It shows that the impact of slavery was even MORE devastating than we knew.” Given the history and nature of historical research, we can expect eventually more findings on this subject.
Ultimately, I am glad for other scholars to add to my work and the work of others on slave auctions and the entire history of African American slavery. I would be even more glad for all of us to finally start ACTING on what we now know about this history; to finally answer the cries of Jeffrey, Dorcas, and others on the auction block in 1859—and the cries of their descendants today. Their voices mattered then even if they were ignored, and they matter even more now as their descendants and their allies seek redress and justice.
Anne C. Bailey