Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Slave Sale in Richmond


A Slave Sale at the Richmond Slave Market written and illustrated by EYRE CROWE
The 3rd of March, 1853, is a date well imprinted on my memory. I was sitting at an early table breakfast by myself, reading the ably conducted local newspaper, of which our kind friend was the editor. It was not, however, the leaders or politics which attracted my eye, so much as the advertisement columns, containing the announcements of slave sales, some of which were to take place that morning in Wall Street, close at hand, at eleven o'clock.

Ideas of a possibly dramatic subject for pictorial illustration flitted across my mind ; so, with small notepaper and pencil, I went thither, inquiring my way to the auction rooms. They consisted, I soon discovered, of low rooms, roughly white-washed, with worn and dirty flooring, open, as to doors and windows, to the street, which they lined in succession. The buyers clustered first in one dealer's premises, then moved on in a body to the next store, till the whole of the tenants of these separate apartments were disposed of. The sale was announced by hanging out a small red flag on a pole from the doorway. On each of these was pinned a manuscript notice of the lot to be sold.

Thus I read : " Fifteen likely negroes to be disposed of between half-past nine and twelve five men, six women, two boys, and two girls." Then followed the dealer's signature, which corresponded to that inscribed over the doorway. When I got into the room I noticed, hanging on the wall, a quaintly framed and dirty lithograph, representing two horsemen galloping upon sorry nags, one of the latter casting its shoe, and his companion having a bandaged greasy fetlock ; the marginal inscription on the border was to this effect : " Beware of what you are about."
I have often thought since how foolish it was, on my part, not to have obeyed this premonitory injunction to act prudently in such a place as this was. The ordeal gone through by the several negroes began by making a stalwart hand pace up and down the compartment, as would be done with a horse, to note his action. This proving satisfactory, some doubt was expressed as to his ocular soundness. This was met by one gentleman unceremoniously fixing one of his thumbs into the socket of the supposed valid eye, holding up a hair by his other hand, 'and asking the negro to state what was the object held up before him.
He was evidently nonplussed, and in pain at the operation, and he went down in the bidding at once. More hands were put up ; but by this time feeling a wish for fresh air, I walked out, passing intervening stores and the grouped expectant negroes there.

I got to the last and largest end store, and thinking the sales would occupy a certain time, I thought it might be possible to sketch some of the picturesque figures awaiting their turn. I did so. On rough benches were sitting, huddled close together, neatly dressed in grey {sic}, young negro girls with white collars fastened by scarlet bows, and in white aprons. The form of a woman clasping her infant, ever touching, seemed the more so here. There was a muscular field-labourer {sic}sitting apart ; a rusty old stove filled up another space. Having rapidly sketched these features, I had not time to put my outline away before the whole group of buyers and dealers were in the compartment. I thought the best plan was to go on unconcernedly ; but, perceiving me so engaged, no one would bid. The auctioneer, who had mounted his table, came down and asked me whether, " if I had a business store, and someone came in and interrupted my trading, I should like it." This was unanswerable ; I got up with the intention of leaving quietly, but, feeling this would savour {sic}of flight, I turned round to the now evidently angry crowd of dealers, and said, "You may turn me away, but I can recollect all I have seen." I lingered in a neighbouring {sic}vacated store, to give myself the attitude of leisurely retreat, and I left this stifling atmosphere of human traffic."Crowe has been very imprudent," Thackeray wrote to a friend afterwards. And, in truth, I soon reflected it was so... (source: With Thackeray in America, 1893 )

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