Perhaps nothing symbolized the dehumanizing effects of slavery more than slave markets. Abolitionists saw them as the evil apotheosis of the Southern economic system where human beings literally became livestock to be prodded and inspected like prized cows and bulls on the eve of a sale. For the enslaved, the markets raised a legion of uncertainties, fears, and terrors; something to avoid at all costs. To many Southerners, the marts were necessary evils—unpleasant, but vital for the production of cotton. Finally, for the merchants, the sales served as placed where one, if savvy, could make a fortune.
The quintessential image of the slave market shows a bewildered, shivering, and nearly nude slave on an auction block, humiliated before a host of broad-brim-hatted, silver-caned planters. And while that scene certainly played out at various slave markets in the United States, it was not the only method for selling slaves. Natchez, Mississippi, home of the Forks of the Road slave mart (the second largest in the South) on the outskirts of the town, consisted of a series of shops and corrals—much like a modern strip mall—where planters went to view the various slave merchants's offerings (Barnett and Burkett 2001, pp. 169–187). New Orleans slave traders operated in a similar manner. A British traveler to the Crescent City in the 1850s recorded how the well-dressed slaves loitered in courtyards "not doing any work" like so many mannequins, awaiting potential buyers. The dealer, thinking her a potential customer, lined the slaves up in two rows "and began to describe and extol his wares" (Pfeiffer 1856, pp. 403–404).
In some communities, the slave depots became so squalid and disease ridden that city officials forbade them from conducting business within the city limits. In Natchez the final straw came when a dealer got caught dumping the bodies of cholera-infected slaves in a ravine. Rather than give them proper burials, he treated them in death like he did in life—as livestock (Deyle 2005, p. 326).
Prior to the sales, the traders housed the slaves in anything from small tents, to barns, to large pens. Sometimes they languished for months on end, waiting for a buyer to take them. To make them more attractive the traders tried to make them as youthful and healthy looking as possible. William Wells Brown (d. 1884), a former slave, recalled his chore of making older slaves look younger prior to a sale:
I was ordered to have the old men's whiskers shaved off, and the grey hairs plucked out where they were not too numerous, in which case he had a preparation of blacking to color it, and with a blacking brush we would put it on. These slaves were also taught how old they were by Mr. Walker, and after going through the blacking process they looked ten or fifteen years younger. (Brown 1849, p. 39)
A Yankee clergyman, Joseph Holt Ingraham (1809–1860), described a similar scene where slaves were "made to shave and wash in greasy pot liquor to make them look sleek and nice; their heads combed and their best clothes put on." Next, the dealer ordered the slaves to stand in a double line, segregated by sex, after which the customers were taken into a private room for a more thorough examination, which disgusted the transplanted Yankee (Ingraham 1835, pp. 234–241). "See a large, rough slaveholder, take a poor female slave into a room, make her strip, then feel of and examine her, as though she were a pig, or a hen, or merchandise. O, how can a poor slave husband or father stand and see his wife, daughters and sons thus treated" (Anderson 1857, p. 14). Such were the humiliations experienced daily in the slave markets.
Of the stories that emerged from the slave marts, the separation of loved ones are among the most heartrending. In another scene at another auction, Brown recalled the selling of a husband and wife—separately. The auctioneer sold the husband first, who immediately began lobbying his new owner to purchase his wife, pleading, "Master, if you will only buy Fanny, I know you will get the worth of your money. She is a good cook, a good washer, and her last mistress liked her very much. If you will only buy her how happy I shall be." Although the new owner did not want her, he relented, and began bidding on her. The couple's hearts rose and sank with each bid until, finally, the hammer dropped and someone else purchased her. They both broke down into tears and the husband bade farewell, "Well, Fanny, we are to part forever, on earth; you have been a good wife to me… I hope you will try to meet me in heaven. I shall try to meet you there" (Brown 1849, pp. 39, 127–128).
In addition to trying to get potential masters to purchase family members, the enslaved, at times, actively tried to influence a sale to their own advantage. During the inspection process, slaves often faced untenable situations. If they were sick, had runaway in the past, or in some manner could not work efficiently, they ran the risk of beatings if they did not tell their potential owner. On the other side, if they revealed too much information, they risked the ire of the slave trader. In some cases, the slaves could not resist gaming the system, especially if they could gain significant advantage or avoid greater hardship by marketing themselves to a planter or shop owner. If they knew a potential buyer liked to beat his slaves, work them too hard, or abuse them in other ways, then they would often influence the sell. If the master lived in a location where the potential for escape was good, that too could influence the slave's behavior during the inspection. But such gaming only worked in the marts where individual masters shopped for new slaves. In auctions, unless the enslaved had opportunity to talk with a potential buyer beforehand, gaming was much more difficult.
As a symbol of the evils of slavery, auctions served as an effective propaganda tool for the abolitionists. In the years leading up to the war, abolitionists published reams of first-person accounts describing humiliation and heartbreak on the auction blocks of the South. But it was a white female abolitionist from the North who made the greatest impact among Northern readers. Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) fictional composite account of the auctions in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which she based on stories she had read in the abolitionist press and through her encounters with runaway slaves, reached people who normally did not read abolitionist literature. Only the coldest of hearts remained unmoved after reading of Tom's sale at an auction, followed by his humiliation at the hands of Simon Legree.
Such was the power of slave market imagery that near the conclusion of the war, the sign and steps of the slave auction block in Charleston, South Carolina, were sent to the Eleventh Ward Freedman's Aid Society of Boston, Massachusetts, as a trophy of war. There, William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), and others, gave triumphant speeches. One speaker called "the relics of the Great Barbarism" a symbol "of the worship of the Anti Christ" and requested that it be preserved alongside the "racks of the Inquisition and the keys of the Bastille," as symbols of oppression. The highlight of the evening, however, came when Garrison climbed the steps to put "the accursed thing under his feet" as a symbol of abolitionism victory over slavery (The Liberator, March 17, 1865).
Anderson, William J. Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave. Chicago: Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office, 1857.
Barnett, Jim, and H. Clark Burkett. "The Forks of the Road Slave Market at Natchez." The Journal of Mississippi History 63, no. 3 (2001): 169–187.
Brown, William W. Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. London: Charles Gilpin, 1849.
Ingraham, Joseph Holt. The South-West, by a Yankee. Two vols. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835.
The Liberator (Boston, MA), "An Immense Meeting in Music Hall (The Charleston Slave Auction–Block)" March 17, 1865, issue 11, col. B.
Pfieffer, Ida. A Lady's Second Journey Around the World. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1856.
David H. Slay