Home page > Writing and publishing in Africa > How the Slave Trade Built America
| More

How the Slave Trade Built America

Monday 6 April 2015

By Maurie D. McInnis

April 3, 2015

We don’t know exactly when the last sale of enslaved persons occurred in Richmond, Va., known as “the great slave market of the South,” but it must have taken place before April 3, 1865. On the previous day, the order had come to evacuate in advance of the arrival of Union troops who liberated the city.

Amid the chaos, a slave trader named Robert Lumpkin still had a jail full of people he was hoping to sell. According to the journalist Charles Carleton Coffin, who was there to witness the fall of Richmond, after learning of the order to evacuate, Lumpkin “quickly handcuffed his human chattels,” about 50 men, women and children, and marched them four blocks south to the Danville-Richmond Railroad depot on the banks of the James River. He was hoping to whisk them away, and find buyers for them in another city.

When they arrived, however, “there was no room for them on the train which whirled the Confederate Government from the capital. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced them back. It was the last slave gang seen in this Western world.” Lumpkin was angry, but there was nothing he could do. So, “with oaths and curses loud and deep,” Coffin reported, Lumpkin was forced “to unlock their handcuffs and allow them to go free.” These 50 people were worth about $50,000, according to Coffin, “but on that Sunday morning were of less value than the mule and the wagon which had drawn the slave-trader’s trunk to the station.”

Even though Lumpkin’s coffle was not, as Coffin so colorfully pronounced it, “the last slave gang seen in this Western world,” his comment points to the way that the slave trade had become the iconic symbol of the institution of slavery. And with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox only a few days later, the reporter’s prophetic statement became true for the United States. It was the end of the slave traders and slave gangs.

Richmond had long been the epicenter of the northern end of the American slave trade. In the preceding decades, tens of thousands of people had been brought to the city from the surrounding regions, where they were held in jails, sold at auction and sent to labor in the sugar and cotton fields of the Deep South. From the end of America’s participation in the Atlantic slave trade in 1808 until the opening of the Civil War, at least two-thirds of a million people were forcibly relocated through the internal American slave trade from the Upper South (Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina) to the Lower (especially Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama). This massive movement of people populated what was then considered the American Southwest and resulted in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of families as husbands and wives, parents and children were sold away.

The economic engine of the slave trade helped to fuel America’s prosperity. The profits from the trade in enslaved people flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved people.

Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for people, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves. The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved people forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.

The slave trade is not merely a footnote or a side story in the history of American slavery, but was central to its modernization and continuation. That was well understood by the Boston artist David Claypool Johnston, who used it to powerful illustrative effect in his satirical work “The House That Jeff Built.” Playing off the English nursery rhyme “This is the House That Jack Built,” Johnston wrote and illustrated a series of 12 verses, beginning with the simple statement, “This is the house that Jeff built.” “Jeff” is, of course, Jefferson Davis, and his “house” is shown as a slave pen with a sign announcing a slave auction to the left of the door. Three scenes later, the image shows the inside of a slave auction room, with two men seated on a bench and two women and children standing. “These are the chattels,” the poem tells us, “To be sold by the head, in the slave pen: A part of the house that Jeff built.” Photo "The House That Jeff Built," by David Claypoole Johnston, 1863. "The House That Jeff Built," by David Claypoole Johnston, 1863.Credit Library of Congress

Other images show slave dealers, slave buyers, slave breeders, manacles and whips. The final image displays the paraphernalia of the slave trade: manacles, an auction hammer, a “slave auction” sign, advertisements and bills of sale. For this artist, like so many Americans, the slave trade stood at the center of the Confederacy and was the reason they had continued to fight the war. The last stanza reads:

But Jeff’s infamous house is doom’d to come down.
So says Uncle Sam and so said John Brown. —
With slave pen, and auction, shackles, driver, and cat,
Together with seller, and buyer, and breeder for that
Most loathsome of bipeds by some call’d a man,
Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can,
From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span,
In and out of the house that Jeff built.

On that day in Richmond in 1865, when Jeff’s house finally came down, thousands of people no longer had to fear that at any moment they could be sold away. As the city was abandoned, chaos reigned. Fires set to warehouses grew out of control and burned much of the city. On April 4, Abraham Lincoln arrived and was thronged by African-Americans, who had lived their entire lives with an auction hammer hanging over their head. As a former slave named William Wells Brown explained: “None … can estimate the suffering their victims undergo. If there is one feature of American slavery more abominable than another, it is that which sanctions the buying and selling of human beings.”

After decades of steady business along Wall Street in Richmond, the auction rooms were silent. The detritus of the business of human trafficking littered the floor: shackles, bills of sale, advertisements, receipts and ledgers. On April 8, 1865, as the city still smoldered, two Massachusetts abolitionists, Sarah and Lucy Chase, who were in Virginia to help educate emancipated African-Americans, entered Richard H. Dickinson’s slave-trading house on the corner of Franklin and Wall Streets. Wanting something to document the atrocities of slavery, they scooped up two ledger books and a stack of correspondence documenting the sale of thousands of men, women and children.

When they first saw Richmond from its docks a few days earlier, they had been struck by the symbolic image of the burned out city. Sarah wrote that nothing was left of the warehouses “but the brick walls ragged and jagged pointing their threatening fingers to heaven,” concluding, “as if saying there is justice.” She noted that inside the ledger books Dickinson had recorded the sales of several slaves on March 31, but for April 1 — one day before the Confederate retreat — only the date was written. There were no sales. “Thank God — no more was written or will ever be in that bloody register.” As Union troops filled the streets, as Lincoln toured the city, as the auction rooms fell silent, thousands rejoiced that they would never have to fear the slave market again.

At the end of the war, abolitionists like the Chase sisters collected documents and artifacts to preserve the memory of the slave trade and document why the sacrifices of the war had been necessary. But with the resurgence of white supremacy in the late 19th century, much of that history was deliberately removed from public memory. In Richmond, for example, slave-trader offices were quickly repurposed or destroyed. First the railroad and then I-95 forever altered the landscape where most of the trade took place.

But the story of the slave trade lived on in the family histories of African-Americans, and in the last decade of so, its memory has returned to the broader public consciousness as well. Current exhibitions on the slave trade in Richmond and New Orleans have led to new discoveries of histories long buried. This new research into the slave trade will give all of us an opportunity to make sure that it is never forgotten again.

Sources: Charles Carleton Coffin, “The Boys of ’61; or, Four Years of Fighting”; Sarah Chase, comments in R. H. Dickinson & Bro. record book, 1855-58, Slavery in the United States Collection, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.; William Wells Brown, “Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown: An American Slave.”

Maurie D. McInnis is the author of “Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade” and the curator of “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade,” a show at the Library of Virginia on view until May 30, 2015.

See online: How the Slave Trade Built America