This morning I attended a slave auction reenactment on the steps of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. The courthouse, which is administered by the National Park Service as a part of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, was site of many slave auctions from 1828 up to and during the Civil War. Slaves were auctioned as part of probate court, and unclaimed runaway slaves were also auctioned there under Missouri state law. Today’s reenactment demonstrated an estate auction as demanded by probate court, and was the first such reenactment that the NPS is aware of in St. Louis.
After brief introductory and contextual remarks from a park ranger, 2011 melted away and we were brought back to 1861 as a group of African American men, women and children were led to the steps of the courthouse in chains. Tears welled in my eyes as some wailed, some pled, some resisted and some stood stoically. The sheriff held the group back with the butt of a gun; a marshal beat the belligerent ones with a thick club. A lot of four — two men and two women — were up for auction first, and as the auctioneer drove the price up past $800, interested men prodded and poked the group, inspecting teeth and limbs. The eventual winner led his new property away as the crowd parted to make room for them. As they were driven past me and loaded into a wagon waiting on Broadway, I could hear one of the women start to bargain with her new owner. “Master promised us we’d never be separated. Please don’t split us up. We’re loyal, sir, real faithful. We’ll be faithful.”
Orphaned sisters, eight and ten years old, were sold with the option to buy one or both. A woman advertised as a good teacher for the younger ones was up on the block when someone arrived with an injunction to stop the auction. As the men and women in chains were led away, the present slowly faded back in. The ranger returned to invite everyone inside the courthouse for warm drinks and brief conversation. I looked around to find the colleagues I had come with and watched as the wagon pulled away from the curb, carrying the men and women still in character, their wails of “Oh God, oh God!” fading as a siren wailed at the other end of the block.
Nearly everyone standing near me streamed into the courthouse for the discussion. Inside the courthouse from my vantage point above the crowd on the second level of the rotunda, I was as surprised as I’d been outside at the wide range of people who’d attended. Baby-boomer women in long mink coats stood next to young people in Army jackets; an even mix of African Americans and whites mingled as they drank warm apple cider. Parents had brought their children, hoisting them on their shoulders to see over the crowd.
The first to speak after the park ranger was Angela da Silva, an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University, who put this event together as a way to ground the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration in one of the major issues that brought our country to war. As the proud descendant of slaves, she said, it was her responsibility and her calling to educate people. “We cannot let others define us,” she said. “We have to tell our story. If we don’t, who do we give the authority to tell our story?”
Others spoke, echoing her desire to make slavery a public issue. Many of the reenactors used the phrase “We have to tell our story” to bring light to their motivation for being involved. One woman expressed her displeasure in how history is told in school, how the slave trade is only discussed in the context of how the Africans got to America in the first place and after that everything is perpetuating the myth of the “happy slave.” Angela replied that the problem with education is not the children being educated having a problem with a frank discussion of history — it’s their parents who the school districts and the textbook writers tiptoe around and try to placate. Thus, people don’t know how to start the discussion and they don’t know how to talk about slavery.
As the discussion ended, people milled around, taking pictures of the people in period costume and moving in and out of the exhibit galleries. All tolled, the event lasted no longer than an hour and a half. It has been weighing on my heart all day, however. I still hear the moans, the pleas, the admonitions. And true, as the one lone protester yelled, it wasn’t a hundred percent accurate. The slaves up for sale were fully clothed. Nobody poked at their genitals or made comments about their ability to breed or to please. No blood was shed. The shackles were replicas, and when the day was over, everyone got to return to their homes and lives and jobs.
But the point was made. We live in a country that was founded on the idea that free white men of age and property are created equal to one another — we live under a constitution that was written with compromises about forced servitude. Every day commuters and tourists walk by a building where over 150 years ago, people sold other people as easily as they would furniture or cattle. Tax laws governed how much you owed not only on your land and your possessions, but your property in the form of people as well. And this was normal. It was accepted. It was not universally liked and clearly was protested in many ways for many reasons, but this was everyday life for centuries on this continent.
I made the mistake of looking up news articles online when I got back to my computer. The articles promoting the event were fine, largely accurate and informative, but the comments made me want to vomit. I was astounded by the number of people who took the time out of their day to say things like “People need to get over slavery — the slaves were freed long enough ago we need to stop talking about it” or “Do they take Discover?” or “Why don’t they round them all up while they’re in the same place and shuttle them back to North County where they belong” or “My family didn’t own slaves so I don’t feel the need to apologize, so stop making me feel guilty.” Someone I know even asked me if I’d bought anything while I was downtown and if I’d picked up a nanny while I was out.
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.