22. June 2019 · Comments Off · Categories: History, Literary Good Stuff

Shockoe Creek was a creek emptying into the James River – a creek now mostly channelized and paved over. It lay between two substantial hills upon which the city of Richmond, Virginia, was built; in the earliest days of the city, it was the market district; convenient to the waterfront, the main roads, a transshipment node where goods from deep-water cargo ships were transferred to smaller boats, to wagons, and warehouses. Commerce was the lifeblood of that part of Richmond, within sight of the grand white neo-classical building which was the state capitol. Here was the shipping basin and canal which led to it, the market building housing venders of meat, produce and other comestibles. Nearby was the bridge which crossed the James, the Haxall mill which ground fine white flour for shipment throughout the Americas. Up-river a little way was the Tredegar Iron Works complex, the pride of the ante-bellum industrial South.

And another kind of commerce was centered in the Shockoe Bottom – the trade in slaves. In the decades before the Civil War, Richmond was the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: the offices of brokers, agents and traders in slaves, auction houses, and holding-pens – known as slave jails, all were situated in a quarter-mile square area. I have discovered all kinds of curious things about the slave trade as practiced in Richmond – curious to me, that is. I wasn’t raised in the South, the ancestors of my one American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist; frankly, all I knew about the matter was what there was in the generalist history books pertaining to the Civil War. Nothing much about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as it were.

I have had to become acquainted with all of this, as I am working on the next historical novel – and this involves a heroine, Minerva Templeton Vining, a spinster of independent means and thinking, who becomes an active campaigner for abolition in the 1850ies, and then a volunteer battlefield nurse during the war itself. The catalyst for all of this is a visit that she makes to Richmond to visit kinfolk – and while she had to that point been of abolitionist sympathies, she is radicalized by what she sees in the course of that visit. So I have to write about what she sees, and create the conversations that she would have had, dealing with what was termed the ‘peculiar institution.’ I don’t think that she would actually have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending the auctions. It seems that male slaves were often asked to strip entirely, so that their state of health and soundness could be judged – I have read one account of a woman slave being stripped for a prospective buyer in private, but not at the auction location. Both male and female slaves often had to show their bare back and shoulders, though, to determine if they had been whipped. The degree and age of scarring would indicate a discipline problem, and downgrade market value in the eyes of a potential purchaser.

I did go into this project knowing that for most Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth $1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars. A slave who was trained in a particular skill might command an even higher price.
A particular curiosity – which makes sense, once I thought about it – was that the dealers in slaves who kept a slave jail (basically a warehouse/boarding house/dormitory) took every effort to make their sellable human merchandise look good upon being put up for auction, although the actual conditions in the slave jail may not have been very good. Those slaves being held for sale were provided with decent food, medical care if required, and a period of recovery from any particularly grueling travel. On the day of auction, they were provided with means of bathing, were groomed and dressed in new clean clothes. There is a painting by an English abolitionist who made sketches of an auction on the spot and later produced a then-well-known painting: five female slaves, clad in grey dresses and white aprons, with red bows at the throat, with one man, in trousers, white shirt, tan trousers and a red waistcoat. One of the women has a small child in her lap; they sit patiently in a row. They are luxury goods – of course, the vendors want the merchandise to look good. I think that is the most unsettling aspect of it all; not outright cruelty (of which there was some, although not quite as much as the campaigners for abolition would have had it) but the fact that it was just business, the business of selling and buying human beings.

Slaves Waiting for Sale - 1861 - Eyre Crow

Slaves Waiting for Sale – 1861 – Eyre Crow

Finally – an interesting curiosity: one Robert Lumpkin, who kept a slave jail of such notoriety that the compound was called “Hell’s Half Acre” was formally married to a slave woman, who had five children by him – including daughters who were sent to a finishing school in the North. When he died, at the very end of the Civil War, his wife inherited the property … and sold it to a Baptist minister who founded a school for blacks – the Richmond Theological Seminary. The site is half-under a freeway, now; the half that isn’t is an empty lot with an outline of some of the buildings in the compound.

Comments closed.