Author: Nikolay Melnik
Slavery – an example of how the less honorable human instincts can influence the agreed upon moral and structural societal standards. For nearly two and a half decades, a country that would become the world’s leading economic superpower, allowed greed and power-hunger to drive an institution that characterized human beings as property, instruments of free labor, and tools for profit. How could an individual, let alone an entire country, strip other fellow human beings of their personal freedom, identity, and basic human rights, only to drown them in work without pay day after day, for the entire span of their miserable lifetimes?
To further understand this, I examined a cultural artifact from the era when slavery, just as the sun shining in a day’s blue sky, was perceived by the majority as a normal and acceptable phenomenon. Slavery in North America began in 1619 when a Portuguese ship of 50 African slaves and a starving crew docked in Jamestown, Virginia. The ship’s crew gave the colonists 20 slaves in return for food. (Vox) No one could have predicted that the simple trade was only the beginning of an immoral institution that would help develop our country into what it is today while giving it one of the darkest-most histories that would be plagued with racism and revolution.
A primary source, this artifact is a poster from 1855, advertising an upcoming auction of a deceased man’s slaves. (Onion) To be specific, 178 individuals like you and me, entering this world predetermined to never know the taste of freedom until they took their last breath, being forced to dedicate their lives for the profit of one man, William M. Lambeth. Lambeth, a planter and an investor, died in 1853 (Slave) , only to leave his estate in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana, in the hands of his chosen successors. The heirs to his estate decided to sell every slave on Lambeth’s two plantations via an auction under the firm of J. A. Beard & May. Thus, 127 slaves from the Waverly plantation and 51 slaves from the Meredith plantation were split up accordingly and sold off to multiple slave owners. (Onion)
In addition, to further understand how one human could possess the mentality to enslave another, I chose to analyze this document due to an unexpected detail I found in the outlined terms of the auction. Under “Terms” it is written, “the slaves will be sold singly, and when in families, together.” (J. A. Beard…pt.1) Also, if you look at the latter two pages of the document, the majority of slaves on it are tied to a family. (J. A. Beard…pt.2; J. A. Beard…pt.3) This took me aback, since I was not expecting to find an explicit term of agreement between buyer and seller that would favor family ties. However, after thinking about it, this discrepancy between my expectations of what I thought this document would hold vs what it actually entailed did begin to make sense, once I took the abolitionist movement into account.
This poster was made in 1855, a time when the abolitionist movement had gained a enough momentum to have the prospect of abolition of slavery be a common topic of discussion that transcended state lines, class, and race – everyone was talking about it. The abolitionist movement began in the early 1830’s with a platform that outlined the immoral factors that they believed slavery stood for. One of these factors, and thus an argument for the abolitionist cause was that slave owners didn’t respect the idea of slave families. According to Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, many slave owners attempted to disprove this on paper, and thus did their best to show the general public that slavery wasn’t the immoral institution abolitionists were claiming it to be. (Pittman) Thus it would only make sense that the poster would advertise the terms of the auction that favor family ties. This does not, however, mean that these terms were carried out in actual practice. The majority of individuals who came to the slave auctions was probably slave owners who possessed pro-slavery notions and did not need pro-slavery propaganda to maintain their support for slavery. On the other hand, the views on abolition among the individuals who saw the poster prior to the auction would have most likely been more varied. There are no accounts that I could find which addressed to whom the slaves mentioned on the poster ended up being sold to, thus other than the terms devised for the auction advertisement, we have no definite proof that the slaves who were explicitly stated to be sold together were in fact sold that way, and that the promise to uphold the respect for family ties in the stated terms was more than a simple popularity stunt for the slaveowners’ cause.
It is also important to mention that this poster was made only 3 years after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a revolutionary piece of literature that took the US by storm, and immensely helped the abolitionist cause by shedding light on the horrors of slavery. (Robbins)
Another detail that stood out to me was the part that read, “…Slaves comprising the gangs of the Waverly and Meredith plantations….” (J. A. Beard…pt.1) The fact that the author felt the need to use a term other than “group” or another non-derogatory term shows that in the eyes of this author the individuals they are selling are viewed through an inferior lens. Dr. Pittman also mentioned in class that slaves had to be made inferior to be subjugated to the extent that they were in America. (Pittman) This makes absolute sense and very well explains how slave owners were able to exploit other human beings to such a degree and with such ease. The only way I see this being possible is if either every slave owner was truly an evil individual, which is very unlikely in my opinion and I don’t believe is the case, or if the slave owners were convinced that slaves were inferior to them and every other person of their race.
The individuals behind the making of the poster would need to be the firm that was representing the auction: J. A. Beard & May. (J. A. Beard…pt.1) I couldn’t find anything else on this firm, however, I did find another poster that advertised a slave auction, that took place one year later.
Though this document doesn’t mention anything that would lead one to believe that slaveowners valued family ties, it does proceed to, yet again, label a group of slaves as a “gang.” The poster’s main heading reads, “Credit Sale of a Choice Gang of 41 Slaves!” (Schomburg) This further proves not only how slaves were seen as inferior to white individuals, but it also shows how slaves were seen less as individuals and more as property.
Furthermore, both documents above show that a slave was seen less as a human and more as a thing. The documents communicate this through providing specifics on certain slaves outlining either their noteworthy skills and productivity, or providing information about their shortcomings such as health problems and handicaps. The newer poster reads, “Lewis, a black man aged 32 good field hand and laborer,… Phillip, [a black man aged] 32 fair bricklayer, George, [a black man aged] 30 No. 1 blacksmith,” (Schomburg) while the older poster reads “… Doll, 42 years, asthmatic… Abram, 19 years, feeble mind… Barbary Ann, good field hand – crooked knee… Virginia, Infant…” (J. A. Beard…pt.2) Unfortunately, I must admit that this sounds more like buying a used piece of furniture rather than a person: “Table, mahogany, good physical condition, can’t support large weight, and works great with the other pieces of furniture.” I mean, seriously, if this isn’t racial subjugation via convenient notions of the subjugated group’s inferiority, then frankly, I don’t know what is. Therefore, the reason why early US citizens could go on enslaving others for so long was because they believed the people they were enslaving weren’t in fact people, rather inferior beings made for labor.
At the same time, the mass ignorance that lead to this country participating in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and later maintaining the largest domestic slave trade in recorded history, produced a lot of profit. (Pittman) Hence, slavery was key to the US economy and thus was played a crucial role in the development of our country. Even today, though we don’t have slaves picking cotton, the US is still in the third largest cotton producer and the leading exporter in the world. (Meyer) Thus, it is extremely important to remember that even though slavery came to an end over 150 years ago, this country is still reaping its benefits today. However, with the majority of today’s poverty surrounding African American individuals, one can’t help but ask, who exactly in this country is getting the said benefits? And thus in that regard, has much really changed in the last 150 years for the country that many of us so proudly call our home?
Works Cited (Bibliography)
J. A. Beard. “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves!” March 13‐14, 1855 (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC09340 p.1)
J. A. Beard. “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves!” March 13‐14, 1855 (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC09340 p.2)
J. A. Beard. “178 Sugar and Cotton Plantation Slaves!” March 13‐14, 1855 (Gilder Lehrman Collection, GLC09340 p.3)
Meyer, Leslie, James Kiawu, and Stephen MacDonald. “USDA ERS – Cotton & Wool.” USDA ERS. United States Department of Agriculture, 03 Nov. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/cotton-wool.aspx#.UappautAuwY>.
Onion, Rebecca. “A Detailed Brochure for an 1855 Slave Auction Shows How People Were Sold as Property.” Slate. The Slate Group, 20 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2015/08/20/history_of_american_slave_auctions_advertisement_for_1855_auction_in_new.html>.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “In-Class Lecture” Class. Savery Hall Room 260 at the University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Lecture.
Robbins, Hollis. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Matter of Influence.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute Of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute Of American History, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/literature-and-language-arts/essays/uncle-tom%E2%80%99s-cabin-and-matter-influence>.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Credit sale of a choice gang of 41 slaves… By J.A. Beard & May. Banks’ Arcade Magazine Street [New Orleans], Tuesday, February 5, 1856.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1856. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/83d3d742-842b-ffe4-e040-e00a18061713
“Slave Auction Catalog from Louisiana, 1855.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute Of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute Of American History, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/slavery-and-anti-slavery/resources/slave-auction-catalog-from-louisiana-1855>.
Vox, Lisa. “When Did Slavery Start in North America?” About.com Education. About.com, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/slavery/a/The-Start-Of-Slavery-In-North-America.htm>.