Are Reenactments of Slave Auctions Ever Okay?
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DOWNTOWN ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI-FOX2now.com) — It was a Civil War era reenactment like St. Louis had never seen: a slave sale on the steps of the Old Courthouse. It was part of a Lindenwood University history professor's mission to remember the overlooked figures in St. Louis history. The ugly chapter of that history came alive Saturday.
Hundreds showed up, snapping photos, rolling video of an event that seemed very real. About 50 reenactors wore the dress of the day: slaves, slave owners, sheriff's deputies, and courthouse clerks. There were no news cameras, home video when such a slave sale was really happening in St. Louis. Maybe it wouldn't have drawn cameras anyway.
Slave sales and the now-uncomfortable trappings were a part of life then; with auctions held at the Old Courthouse when property owners would die, for instance; their property, slaves included, sold at a sheriff's sale; old paintings inside the Old Courthouse Museum didn't seem to tell the whole story."These were human beings who wanted the same things we want now," said Angela da Silva, a reenactor and Lindenwood history professor."Now we look at them as one lump of black mass. There's no individualization. These were maybe not even people. But they were. They had names."
Food for Thought
The site of the"auction," the Old Court House, has a long history related to the slave trade. It was the site of public auctions of all kinds of property at sheriff's sales, usually in the course of settling estates or enforcing court orders for damages stemming from lawsuits. The Old Court House was also the site of the first hearing of the infamous Dred Scott case. Local tradition in St. Louis holds that the last slave auction on the Old Court House steps occurred in 1861, where two thousand supporters of abolition forced an end to the practice there. The historical accuracy of this claim is disputed by the stewards of the Old Court House, the National Park Service, in a PDF document here. But whatever the truth about slave auctions on the steps of the Old Court House, there is no question that St. Louis plays a central role in understanding the scope and reach of the"peculiar institution" in American history. The relatively small number of slaves auctioned by the sheriff on the court house steps over the years are barely a glimpse of the whole. As the famed"gateway to the west," on the banks of the Mississippi near the confluences of the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, St. Louis was one of the main centers of the domestic slave trade, with dealers buying and selling wholesale, in enormous quantities (left, advertisements in the Daily Missouri Republican, December 18, 1853). There are few better places to confront the realities of slavery than in the heart of St. Louis.
I'm really undecided about reenactments in general as a means of teaching history and, more than a conventional battle reenactment, this event in particular is fraught with opportunity for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. Reenacting a slave auction—or any other event related to slavery—really is the sort of thing that people react viscerally to (good), often shutting out discussion and introspection in the process (bad). I just don't know how well it works as public education. But if it keeps the conversation going about the underlying issues of the war, how we interpret the conflict, and the myriad of perspectives involved, then that's all to the good.
This is part of our shared heritage. Whether or not your descendants were involved does not negate the fact that we all share this history as Americans. We share the agonies of the enslaved as well as the fight of the abolitionist and the responsibility of the owners. We have a responsibility to our past to understand it and a responsibility to our future to do better. Our nation, forged under the debate over the rights of man, went to war in an attempt to determine whether we could be one country with this shared past. Our nation has been fighting ever since over who was right and who was wrong, who deserves the glory and who deserves the blame, who deserves the benefits of citizenship, and who needs to be remembered in the annals of history.
I dare anyone who stood in the cold this morning and watched as the story of buying and selling other people unfolded to say that our sins need to be forgotten. I dare anyone present to forget this day. As my baby kicked inside me, innocent and pure, I promised her that I would someday tell her what she couldn’t see today, and that she would know why it was important that she know, and why I cried when those little girls stood up to be sold.
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Elizabeth - 1/20/2011
It would scare me if this didn't evoke extreme emotion on all parts, but that does not mean we should not do it. Perhaps jarring our hearts by reminding ourselves of our mistakes is a good way to make sure it does not happen ever again? I am all for in your face history. It happened, it was real, it was not just a story on paper and each new generation needs that reminder, that connection, that real image. There is no reason to fear or hide history as long as you are gaining from it. To hide it is silly. It's good that it hits us where it hurts
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