How slaves reacted to their appraisals: Traumatic U.S. history of slave auctions


PHOTO/Beacon Press

A new book asks important questions about slaves’ perspectives on their auctions, including an enslaved father who fought to buy his son at auction.

Excerpted from The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation by Daina Ramey Berry (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Chapter 3: Adolescence, Young Adulthood, and Soul Values

Average Appraised Values:
Females: $517 ($15,189 in 2014); Males: $610 ($17,934 in 2014)
Average Sale Prices:
Females: $515 ($15,131 in 2014); Males: $662 ($19,447 in 2014)

They abolished the external or African slave trade, in 1808, the effect of which gave an impetus to the infamous traffic of slave breeding and trading among themselves; and perhaps it was one of the main objects they had in view, the protection of their slave breeders and traders.—Thomas Smallwood, 1851

As was the custom, all the negroes were brought out and placed in a line, so that the buyers could examine their good points at leisure… once negotiated with the trader, paid the price agreed upon, and started for home to present his wife with this flesh and blood commodity, which money could so easily procure in our vaunted land of freedom. —Lucy A. Delaney, 1891

On the eve of the Civil War, an abolitionist attending the auction of 149 human souls in New Orleans, Louisiana, was intrigued by the bid caller’s excitement over a seventeen-year-old field hand named Joseph who was on the auction block. “Gentlemen,” the bid caller exclaimed, “there is a young blood, and a capital one! He is a great boy, a hand for almost every thing. Besides, he is the best dancer in the whole lot, and he knows also how to pray—oh! so beautifully, you would believe he was made to be a minister! How much will you bid for him?” The opening bid for Joseph was a thousand dollars, but according to the enthusiastic auctioneer, Joseph was worth more, considering his value over time. “One thousand dollars for a boy who will be worth in three years fully twenty-five hundred dollars cash down. Who is going to bid two thousand?” the caller asked his audience. As the price for Joseph increased to $1,400, each interested party eagerly made eye contact with the bid caller. Standing on the podium with a wand in hand, he tried to increase Joseph’s price by assuring the audience that $1,400 was “too small an amount for” him. “Seventeen years only,” he added, “a strong, healthy, fine-looking, intelligent boy. Fourteen hundred and fifty dollars!… One thousand, four hundred and fifty—going! going! going! And last—gone!” As the caller slapped his hand on the platform, just like that, in less than five minutes, Joseph was sold “to the highest bidder.”

We do not have direct testimony from Joseph about his response to this sale, in which he was sold with 148 others from the same Louisiana plantation. Joseph’s enslaver, who provided religious instruction to his human chattel, decided to retire from planting in order to pursue a political career. In two days, he sold an enslaved population consisting of field hands (like Joseph), carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths, coopers, drivers, and household servants. How did Joseph (enslaved person #2) feel about being the second person on the auction block that day? Did Joseph’s experience differ at age seventeen, as he approached his “prime” working years, from the experiences of others who were younger or older than him? Had Joseph’s adolescence and teen years prepared him for this moment? Was he conditioned to handle and/or witness auctions from previous exposure?

Where were his parents? Did he have any siblings, given that there is no mention of his relatives? Yet witnesses said the enslaved stood “upon a platform, similar to a funeral pile erected for martyrs” holding on to their last embrace. Joseph stepped on the block alone as the auctioneer described him with a host of complimentary adjectives. What was his mind-set? Did these descriptions comfort him, uplift him, or add to the trauma of being sold? Joseph and Isam (slave #21) were noted for their ability to preach, and they likely approached the block in silent prayer. Ultimately, their fate is unknown.

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