USA had long been the epicenter of the Atlantic slave trade. In the preceding decades, millions of Africans had been brought to the country from the African continent, where they were held in jails, sold at auction and sent to labor camps 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 Africans 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 Africans resulted in the destruction of hundreds of thousands of families as husbands and wives, parents and children were sold away.
The economic viability of slave trade was the fuel towards America’s prosperity. The profits from the trade in enslaved Africans flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal and external slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for Africans they sold.
Slave owners in the Lower South profited because Africans they purchased were forced to labor camps in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved Africans.
Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for slaves, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved Africans. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves.
The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved Africans forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.
The slave trade is not merely a footnote or a side story in the history of American slavery, but was central to its modernization and continued economic growth.
That was well understood by the Boston artist David Claypool Johnston, who used it to powerful illustrative effect in his satirical work “The House That Jeff Built.” Playing off the English nursery rhyme “This is the House That Jack Built,” Johnston wrote and illustrated a series of 12 verses, beginning with the simple statement, “This is the house that Jeff built.” “Jeff” is, of course, Jefferson Finis Davis, the first and only President of the confederate states of America, and his “house” is shown as a slave pen with a sign announcing a slave auction to the left of the door. Three scenes later, the image shows the inside of a slave auction room, with two men seated on a bench and two women and children standing. “These are the chattels,” the poem tells us, “To be sold by the head, in the slave pen: A part of the house that Jeff built.” Other images show slave dealers, slave buyers, slave breeders, manacles and whips. The final image displays the paraphernalia of the slave trade: manacles, an auction hammer, a “slave auction” sign, advertisements and bills of sale.
For this artist, like so many Americans, the slave trade stood at the epicenter of the Confederacy and was the reason they had continued to fight the war. On April 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln arrived at the south and was thronged by African-Americans, who had lived their entire lives with an auction hammer hanging over their head. As a former slave named William Wells Brown explained: “None … can estimate the suffering their victims undergo. If there is one feature of American slavery more abominable than another, it is that which sanctions the buying and selling of human beings.”
After decades of steady business along Wall Street in Richmond, the auction rooms were silent. The detritus of the business of human trafficking littered the floor: shackles, bills of sale, advertisements, receipts and ledgers.
On April 8, 1865, as the city still smoldered, two Massachusetts abolitionists, Sarah and Lucy Chase, who were in Virginia to help educate emancipated African-Americans, entered Richard H. Dickinson’s slave-trading house on the corner of Franklin and Wall Streets. Wanting something to document the atrocities of slavery, they scooped up two ledger books and a stack of correspondence documenting the sale of thousands of African men, women and children.
At the end of the war, abolitionists like the Chase sisters collected documents and artifacts to preserve the memory of the slave trade and document why the sacrifices of the war had been necessary. But with the resurgence of white supremacy in the late 19th century, much of that history was deliberately removed from public memory. In Richmond, for example, slave-trader offices were quickly repurposed or destroyed. First the railroad and then I-95 forever altered the landscape where most of the trade took place.
But the story of the slave trade lived on in the family histories of Africans and African-Americans, and in the last decade of so, its memory has returned to the broader public consciousness as well.
Current exhibitions on the slave trade in Richmond and New Orleans have led to new discoveries of histories long buried. This new research into the slave trade will give all of us an opportunity to make sure that it is never forgotten again.