Many people know that Philadelphia is the home of the nation’s first “White House” where President George Washington enslaved nine Black human beings beginning in 1790.
But most people don’t know that a Philadelphian named Pierce Mease Butler organized the largest single sale of Black folks in this nation’s history precisely 162 years ago from March 2 through March 3, 1859, in Georgia.
By the way, he is the grandson of Maj. Pierce Butler, who was the author of the Fugitive Slave Clause in Article Four of the Constitution and one of the largest “slaveholders” in the country.
A total of 429 Black men, women and children — including infants — during that historically horrific two-day period were bought and sold like tools, furniture and other inanimate objects. The oldest was a 58-year-old man named Bill and the youngest were 3-month-old newborns, namely Chaney, Grace, Hannah, Joe, Patty and Violet. Say their names!
This maliciously inhumane auction was so unbearably sorrowful and so tragically heartbreaking and the weather was so relentlessly rainy that our enslaved ancestors called that tragic event “The Weeping Time.”
Because Butler advertised the sale of 440 of our ancestors (who had labored on his Georgia rice and cotton plantations), he needed to find a location large enough for a massive auction. As a result, he selected the nearby sprawling Ten Broeck Race Course in Savannah.
Four to six days before March 2, these enslaved Blacks were brought to the racetrack. And they all lived and slept on the floor of the horse stables. Also, in those stables, they had to eat what can best be described as garbage while waiting to be scattered throughout the country at the heartless whims of racist thugs, sadists, rapists and pedophiles waving money at the auction.
An enlightened white journalist named Mortimer Thomson from the New York Tribune disguised himself as a buyer and inconspicuously wrote about the auction.
In his explosive 20-page essay, which was later republished in Philadelphia, he wrote, “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.”
Every single hour, every single minute, and every single second from March 2 through March 3, there was crying. There was sobbing. There was wailing. There was bawling. There was weeping.
There was also 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 fiancée Dorcas to purchase the two of them together. But he refused. And they never saw or even heard from one another again.
And when many of the victims of these inhumane sales cried, one of the major enslaving traders responded, ”But then, what business have (n-word) with tears?”
While it was unbearably terrible 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-word) if you keep her covered up?”
Of the 440 Black men, women and children who were advertised for sale in newspapers, 436 were announced during the auctions. By the time the historic horror ended on March 3, exactly 429 of them had been bought and sold for as little as $250 to as much as $1,750. Altogether, Butler had earned $303,850 (equaling $9.6 million in 2021) and used much of that along with the $30,000 sale of his Philadelphia mansion to pay off his debts and to travel to southern Europe before returning home to Philly.
Even though they were bought and sold, these Black 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.
Sidney George Fisher, a Philadelphia socialite 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.”
And Thomson, the aforementioned reporter, pointed out in his article, “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.”
For more information about America’s worst “slave” auction, read “The Weeping Time” by Anne C. Bailey, an HBCU history professor at Spelman College who goes into meticulous and graphic detail not only about the auction itself but also about the personal lives of the enslaved men, women and children before they were sold, while they were being sold and after they were sold.
This nightmarish auction was called “The Weeping Time” by our ancestors because, as they said, in addition to the loved ones weeping frantically for one another, the heavens wept thunderously by pouring down rain for two full days.
As their descendant while writing this column in 2021, I’m weeping right now for my 429 enslaved ancestors as well as for all the others since the birth of American slavery in 1619. But it’s just a temporary thing for me, though, because I continue to spend most of my time battling for my enslaved ancestors instead of weeping for them.
And while battling for them, I hear the rallying cry, “Never forget. Always avenge!”