A Philadelphian named Pierce Mease Butler who was the grandson of Major Pierce Butler — a signer of the U.S. Constitution, the author of the Fugitive Slave Clause in Article Four of the constitution, and one of the largest slaveholders in the country — organized the largest single sale of human beings in this nation’s history exactly 161 years ago from March 2 through March 3, 1859, in Georgia.
During that excruciatingly traumatic and agonizingly tragic two-day period, an astounding total of 429 Black men, women, and children — including infants — were bought and sold and forever separated from one another. Husband from wife. Son from father. Daughter from mother. Brother from sister. Family from family. Relative from relative. Friend from friend.
The oldest was a 58-year-old man named Bill and the youngest were newborns whose age was a mere three months, namely Chaney, Grace, Violet, Hannah, Patty and Joe.
The auction was so hellishly heartbreaking and so horrifically sorrowful that our enslaved ancestors called it “The Weeping Time.” By the way, I must admit that while I sit here writing this, I am crying. Uncontrollably.
Butler organized the sale of 440 of our ancestors from his rice and cotton plantations and had to find a location massive enough for the auction. Accordingly, he selected the Ten Broeck Race Course in Savannah.
These enslaved men, women, and children were brought to the racetrack from four-to-six days before March 2. And they all were ”quartered” on the floor of the horse stables where they had to sleep and eat garbage-type so-called meals, while waiting to be scattered to the winds at the capitalist whims of racist thugs, sadists, rapists and pedophiles.
Mortimer Thomson, a progressive white journalist from the New York Tribune, surreptitiously witnessed it and wrote in his 20-page essay, which was later republished in Philadelphia, “The attendance of buyers was large. For several days before the sale, every hotel in Savannah was crowded with negro speculators from North and South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana who had been attracted hither by the prospect of making good bargains. And the office of Joseph Bryan, the ‘Negro Broker,’ who had management of the sale, was thronged everyday by eager inquirers in search of information.... Little parties were made up from the various hotels everyday to visit the race-course.”
As dreadfully mournful as this widespread auction was, what made it even more emotionally (and physically) cataclysmic was the fact that none of these enslaved men, women and children had ever been separated in sales or trades before. They all had grown up together in bondage.
From March 2 through March 3, there was crying. There was sobbing. There was wailing. There was pleading. But it all fell on the devils’ deaf ears. In one of many satanically mean-spirited examples, a shackled man named Jeffrey earnestly begged a white buyer who was purchasing Jeffrey’s fiancee Dorcas to purchase the two of them together. But he refused. And they never saw or even heard from one another again.
Also, when many of the victims of these inhuman sales cried, one of the major enslaving traders responded, ”But then, what business have ‘n-ggers’ with tears?”
As unbearably terrible as it was for the enslaved men, it was much worse for the enslaved women. The buyers were described as constantly making sexually “profane, lurid and indecent” comments and gestures to the trembling women and girls. In one particular incident among many, a beautiful young woman named Daphne, covered in a shawl to shield her infant from the heavy rain and strong wind, was repeatedly groped by leering men trying to pull off her clothes while yelling “Who’s going to bid on that n-gger if you keep her covered up?”
A total of 440 Black men, women and children were advertised in newspapers. And of that number, 436 were announced during the auctions. By the time the historic horror ended on March 3, exactly 429 of our ancestors were bought and sold for as little as $250 to as much as $1,750. Altogether, Butler had earned $303,850 (equaling about $9 million in 2020) and used much of that to travel to southern Europe before returning home to Philly.
Despite having been bought and sold, these people weren’t “slaves.” None of our ancestors were. Instead, they were “enslaved” Black human beings. And these 429 consisted of mechanics, carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths, cooks, nurses, farmers, skilled laborers and children — including babies.
A Philadelphia socialite named Sidney George Fisher, who was a friend of Butler, wrote in his diary, “[This auction was] a dreadful affair ... [T]he ties of home and long association will be violently severed ... [I]t is a monstrous thing to do. Yet it is done every day in the South. It is one among the many frightful consequences of slavery and contradicts our civilization.” But then Butler’s Philly colleague went on to add, “The Negroes of the South must be slaves or the South will be Africanized. Slavery is better for them and for us than such a result.”
As Thomson, the reporter, noted, “On the faces of all was an expression of heavy grief. Some appeared to be resigned to the hard stroke of fortune that had torn them from their homes .... Some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, their chins resting on their hands, their eyes staring vacantly, and their bodies rocking to and fro with a restless motion that was never stilled.”
The auction was called “The Weeping Time” by our ancestors and their descendants because, as they said, in addition to the loved ones crying frantically and ceaselessly for one another, the sky opened up and poured down rain for two full days from March 2 through March 3 while the heavens wept.
And while writing this column, I’m weeping for these 429 enslaved ancestors as well as all the others. But it’s just a temporary thing, though. And then my battles in their honor and on their behalf will be permanent. In other words, never forget and always avenge!
The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinions on phillytrib.com.