Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market

By Bell, Caryn Cosse | The Journal of Southern History, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market


Bell, Caryn Cosse, The Journal of Southern History


Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. By Walter Johnson. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. [xii], 283. $26.00, ISBN 0-674-82148-3.)

An 1854 Louisiana business census listed nineteen New Orleans slave yards concentrated in two sections of the city. In Soul by Soul, Walter Johnson reconstructs the operations of those antebellum slave markets on the basis of an exhaustive study of court records, the testimony of former slaves, financial documentation of the trade, and slaveholders' writings. On the downriver boundary of the French Quarter, a cluster of slave markets radiated from Esplanade Avenue near the Mississippi River. Another grouping of slave yards developed around 1850 at the opposite end of the Vieux Carre in the uptown "americain" sector--an area of thriving commercial activity. After Federal troops seized New Orleans in 1862, slave traders boarded up their businesses. In January 1864 the Union-occupied city was stripped of signboards advertising slaves for sale. Boarding houses, cotton brokerages, and a bank replaced the slave yards through which tens of thousands of black southerners had passed. Today there are no vestiges of North America's largest antebellum slave market; no "slave pens" to convey the degradation and suffering; no landmarks to evoke the enduring spirit of the survivors. Johnson's gripping study speaks eloquently to this void.

During the slave trading season between September and May, New Orleans sellers lined slaves along the walls in their showrooms or in the streets in front of their markets. Yet Johnson reaches far beyond the fifteen-to-twenty-feet-high walls of the city's slave pens to the whole of the domestic slave trade and, finally, to the making of the antebellum South itself. For, as he cogently argues, the "world the slave traders made" underwrote the history of the South's political economy (p. 40). Between 1820 and 1860, the two-thirds of a million people who moved through the interstate slave markets represented nearly half a billion dollars in property. …

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