Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"In Pressing Need of Cash": Gender, Skill, and Family Persistence in the Domestic Slave Trade

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

"In Pressing Need of Cash": Gender, Skill, and Family Persistence in the Domestic Slave Trade

Article excerpt

Charlotte grew up on a Rockingham County, Virginia, plantation with her parents and sixteen brothers and sisters. Her family was somewhat favored by their slaveholder Charles L. Yancy because they represented nearly half of his enslaved population. They spent most of the day in the fields cultivating wheat, corn, rye, hemp, and tobacco; her father Novel was the "head man" who managed the agricultural laborers. Their lives changed when Yancy, who had developed a drinking problem, decided to employ an overseer. Suddenly, the plantation profits decreased and Charlotte and her family were subjected to four overseers over the course of two or three years. Unfortunately, Yancy's financial troubles continued and he "found himself in pressing need of cash," so Charlotte was sold to the highest bidder on the auction block in Richmond. (1)

Charlotte's sale greatly affected her parents and siblings. Her mother, Mary Francis, "show[ed] all the symptoms of a distracted mind and a broken heart" and her father "laboured under great distress." Yancy noticed a change in Novel and asked him to share his feelings; to this he replied:

  Why, master, if I should see one of your daughters sold away from you,
  and you did not ever expect to see her again in this life, I could
  give a pretty close guess how you felt; and now, if you can just place
  yourself in my stead, and think how you would feel at a separation
  such as I had to endure, and then my other children weeping around me,
  you can tell what the matter is with me. (2)

As the dialogue continued, the distressed father reminded the slaveholder of his continued faithfulness, hoping that Yancy would understand the reason for his sadness. Acknowledging Novel's loyalty, Yancy justified his decision to sell Charlotte, claiming, "If I have to sell, and must sell, I have to sell to the best advantage." At age 19, and a skilled field hand, Charlotte was one of the most valuable laborers on the estate and brought "the heaviest price"; Yancy believed he had no choice but to sell her first. (3) Not quite convinced by this rationale, Charlotte's brother J. A. Banks entered the conversation and requested that Yancy sell him next so that his parents would not have to witness repeated acts of sale. To this Yancy replied, "You are about 19 years of age, and the most valuable man I have on the farm. I cannot spare you, but I have more young women than I need. I must sell some of them." (4)

Southern slaveholders purchased, sold, and traded enslaved black laborers on a daily basis throughout the antebellum period. Historians interested in the economics of slavery have uncovered a wealth of material relating to the domestic slave trade as well as the transatlantic trade, and have debated the overall profitability of this "inhuman bondage." (5) More recently, Steven Deyle's prizewinning study Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life examined both the "long-distance interstate trade" and the extensive local or "intrastate" trade. Far from being "marginal" to the southern economy, the slave system was an essential element in commercial life. Deyle found that in 1860, the commercial value of the enslaved population "was roughly three times greater than the total amount of all capital, North and South combined, invested in manufacturing, almost three times the amount invested in railroads, and seven times the amount invested in banks." With regard to the slaveholding states, "By 1860 slave property had even surpassed the assessed value of real estate." Historian Herbert Gutman had argued in 1975 that "once every 3.5 minutes, 10 hours a day, 300 days a year, for 40 years, a human being was bought and sold in the antebellum South." However, since that time, historians documenting the domestic slave trade have estimated that Gutman's figures were "too low." (6)

One reason "this species of property" was so valuable was because from 1820 to 1860 prices were increasing. …

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