Gullah Geechee of Sea Islands Fight for their Post-Slavery LegacyRoundup
tags: slavery, historic preservation, African American history, Georgia, emancipation, South Carolina, Gullah Geechee, Sea Islands
DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning writer and an associate professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
Dorcas, who was 17 and picked Sea Island cotton, sold for $1,200. Cassander, a 35-year-old “prime woman” who also picked cotton but was prone to “fits”, sold for “just” $400. The same price was paid for Emiline, 19, who was described as a “prime young woman cotton hand”, and Judy, who was only 11.
Under torrential rains, on 2 and 3 March 1859, these enslaved Africans, who worked on rice and cotton plantations in the Sea Islands of Georgia, were sold at the Ten Broeck racecourse in Savannah. One witness to the sale wrote that the weather was so “violent” that it felt as if the skies had opened and wept. That is how this event, the largest auction of enslaved people in US history, came to be called the Weeping Time.
The record of sale lists more than 400 men, women and children, identified as chattel and numbered, with their first names, expertise and price.
Tom, 22; cotton hand. Sold for $1,260. Judge Will, 55; rice hand. Sold for $325. Lowden, 54; cotton hand. Hagar, 50; cotton hand. Lowden, 15; cotton, prime boy. Silas, 13, cotton, prime boy. Lettia, 11; cotton, prime girl. Sold for $300 each. Fielding, 21; cotton, prime young man. Abel, 19; cotton, prime young man. Sold for $1,295 each.
Under the threat of lash whips, women wailed for their children, children for their mothers, men for their wives, wives for their husbands – family members who would probably not see each other again. They had all been put on sale to pay the gambling debts of Pierce M Butler, an enslaver who had been married to the famous British actor Fanny Kemble. Pierce, with his brother John, had inherited rice and cotton plantations in Georgia from their father, Pierce Butler, one of America’s “founding fathers” and a signer of the US constitution.
In 1859, the younger Pierce Butler shipped 435 enslaved Africans by steamer and rail from Butler Island and St Simons Island into Savannah. The auction was widely advertised. “FOR SALE: LONG COTTON AND RICE NEGROES. A GANG OF 460 NEGROES … Will be sold on the 2d and 3d of March next, at Savannah,” proclaimed the Savannah Republican newspaper on 8 February 1859.
Speculators, investors and slave traders packed hotels, eagerly awaiting the sale at the racecourse, about 3 miles from the heart of downtown Savannah. Mortimer Thomson, a reporter for the New York Tribune, described the treatment of the people that were to be auctioned: “Immediately on their arrival, they were taken to the racecourse, and there quartered in the sheds erected for the accommodation of the horses and carriages of gentlemen attending the races. Into these sheds they huddled ‘pell mell’, without any more attention to comfort than was necessary to prevent their becoming ill and unsaleable.”
The women wore grey turbans. One carried a string of blue and yellow beads. They slept on floors and ate thin meals of rice and beans with bits of bacon and corn bread.
On their faces was carved grief. Some stared vacantly. Others rocked in worry. Children clung to their mothers’ dresses, as they waited a week while preparation for the sale of humans was under way. Prospective buyers flocked to the stalls to examine the people. They slid their hands up and down the bodies of the men, women and children, looking for bruises. They pushed back their heads and opened their mouths, checking teeth. They pinched skin and walked them up and down to detect any signs of weakness.
Lastly, the enslaved Africans, the ancestors of the Gullah Geechee, were marched to the “grand stand” for final sales. When it was all said and done, Pierce Butler gave each a silver dollar, then he celebrated the sale with champagne.
Today, the site of this event, a field of more than 12 acres, lies on private property on the outskirts of Savannah. One day last summer, Patt Gunn, a Gullah Geechee elder, walked me to the place where her ancestors were sold 163 years ago. A guard watches the entrance, stopping any intruders.
“It’s a crying place,” said Gunn, her head shaved like a warrior. “I’ve poured so many libations here. Every year, on the 2 and 3 March, we do commemorations downtown” – where the city belatedly installed a historical marker in 2008. “We can’t do commemorations on the land, because that is private property.”
Gunn, the founder and artistic director of the Saltwata Players, a folk arts group of singers who perform the traditional call and response “ring shout”, said it was the Gullah Geechee people sold here during the Weeping Time who picked the Sea Island cotton shipped to England. “These would be people who would become the growers of the cotton that flowed right into Manchester and to Bristol, that flowed right into the Industrial Revolution,” Gunn said. “The cotton, rice, indigo came out of Savannah and went to England.”
Marquetta L Goodwine, an author and artist known as Queen Quet, the chieftess of the Gullah Geechee Nation, told me that it was imperative to keep the traditions alive, not simply to remember them. “When it comes to Gullah Geechee heritage and culture, which includes our language, songs and a myriad of other traditions, I do not do preservation,” Quet said. “I live my traditions and fight for them to be accurately represented because it is a matter of the continuation of the culture.”