How the Slave Trade Built America

Roundup
tags: slavery



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.

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. ...




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