Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Slavery's Trail Of Tears

Those of you who found Edward E. Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told  as eye-opening and mind-boggling as I did <See my post of September 20: The Half Is Finally Being Told> will be at least as astounded by an article in the November issue of Smithsonian magazine titled "Slavery's Tale of Tears: Retracing America's Forgotten Migration--The Journey of a Million African-Americans from the Tobacco South to the Cotton South," (pp. 58-83). The author is Edward Ball, a university instructor and author of Slaves in the Family, whose ancestors were a slaveholding family in North Carolina for 170 years. It brings to life--in stunning and excruciating detail--the actual experiences of many "whose half has never been told."

Ball's interest was piqued by an 1834 note found in the University of North Carolina's archives from James Franklin of Natchez, Mississippi to the home office in Alexandria, Virginia of the partnership of Franklin and Armfield, "the undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade, with an economic impact that is hard to overstate." <In 1832, for example, five percent of the commercial credit available through the Second Bank of the United States was extended to the firm.> It was owned by Isaac Franklin, James' uncle, who operated in New Orleans, and John Armfield, who ran the business in Alexandria. The note read that "we have about ten thousand dollars (about $300,000 in today's money) left to pay yet. Should you purchase a good lot for walking, I will bring them out by land this summer."  That "good lot for walking" was a gang of enslaved men, women, and children, possibly numbering in the hundreds, "who could tolerate three month afoot in the summer heat."  Bringing them out by land referred to a forced march overland from the fields of Virginia to the slave auctions in Natchez and New Orleans. That note, according to Ball, was 'the first sign that I might be able to trace the route of one of Franklin and Armfield's caravans."

And retrace it he did--albeit "the easy way"--in his own car!  Either way, it was a journey of 1,100 miles, from Alexandria, Virginia (just across the Potomac River from my graduate school
alma mater--Georgetown University) to New Orleans. Just like that caravan, he drove in a southwesterly direction through Virginia until he crossed the Tennessee border at Knoxville. From there he proceeded to Nashville via Gallitin. Then through Tennessee and Mississippi to Natchez, and finally to New Orleans. Along the way, he uncovered manuscript collections at various libraries, archives and historical societies, and had the opportunity to interview several curators, archivists, and librarians, most of whom were in the process of discovering and exhibiting long-ignored treasure troves shedding considerable light on "Slavery's Trail of Tears."  Even more revealing were his interviews with descendants of both the enslavers and the enslaved.

One of the most instructive interviewees was Delores McQuinn of Richmond, who has been both a city council member and a representative in the Virginia House of Delegates.  She informed Ball that her grandfather had visited the house where his family had once been enslaved, and inquired if the owner had any documentation about their history. The man obligingly brought out a sheaf of papers and proceeded to burn them, saying "You want your history? Well, here it is. Take the ashes and get off my land." The intent, Ms. McQuinn intoned, was to "keep that history buried. Our history is often buried. You have to unearth it." Outside universities and museums, Ball concludes, "the history of the Slave Trail lives in shards, broken and scattered." While in Richmond, he met with Maurie McInnis, historian and vice-provost of UVA and curator of the Library of Virginia exhibit on the slave trade. She told Ball that some 450,000 slaves from Virginia were "sent south" between 1810 and 1860, and that, in 1857 alone, the sale of people in the future capital of the Confederacy netted its white masters $4,000,000. "That would be more than $440,000,000 today."

The mansion at Belle Grove--built by relatives of President James Madison--has been turned into a  "house museum" by historian Kristen Laise. She pulled out an 1824 newspaper ad placed by the master of Belle Grove, Madison's brother-in-law, saying that he "shall proceed to sell sixty slaves of various ages, in families." He regretted that he had to charge interest "if buyers insisted on using credit." The nicest families in the Shenandoah, Ball observes, "tipped people into the pipeline south." At the Winchester-Frederick County Visitor Center, in a bookshop in Edinburg, the Staunton Visitor Center, and in a Roanoke tourist information outlet called Virginia's Blue Ridge.  Ball asked " did people there know anything about the chain gangs that streamed southwest through these parts?" He elicited answers like "never heard of it" and "don't know what you are talking about." They mostly changed the subject to stories about "brave Confederates" or their own ethnic lore. He did happen upon an 1834 account by one George Featherstonhaugh, a geologist doing a surveying tour for the federal government. he described Armfield as "sordid, illiterate, and vulgar," with "overpowering bad breath," from eating raw onions. He also described a "singular spectacle" of nine wagons and carriages and some 200 men "manacled and chained to each other," lining up in double file, while Armfield and his men made jokes, "standing near, laughing and smoking cigars." It was "the most revolting sight' he had ever seen.

Men and boys sold, on average, for about $700. Multiply that by 200 and it comes to about $3.5million today. Slaves were routinely insured --plenty of companies did that sort of business with policies guarding against "damage." bur collecting "would be inconvenient."  While walking the streets of Radford, Ball chatted with one "Daniel," who exchanged pleasantries, "until I bring up the slave days Daniel's expression empties. He shakes his head. His face acquires a look that suggests the memory of slavery is like a  vampire visiting from a shallow grave."

At the Shenandoah, Armfield's "coffle" merged with others coming from the east. One of these was led by William Waller, who walked from Amherst, Virginia to Louisiana in 1847 with 20 or more slaves. In the deep archive of the Virginia Historical Society, Ball discovered "an extraordinary batch of letters that Waller wrote about selling people he had known and lived with for much of his life." His wife, Sarah Garland, was Patrick Henry's daughter and the wife of a congressman. He was deeply in debt and left a few slaves behind in Amherst as house servants for his family, while he marched with the rest to Natchez and New Orleans. He wrote some 20 letters home, in which he seems like businessman sending word that there is nothing to worry about. He was careful to assure his wife that "the negroes were happy." Even so, he admitted that he had felt and seen enough to make me loath the vocation of slave trading." He was especially morose because he had sold two young women apart from their parents. 'My heart grieves over Sarah and I do wish it could be different, but Sarah seems happy."  It as at the spine of the Blue Ridge where Armfield turned over his coffle to James, Isaac Franklin's nephew, and took a stage coach back to Alexandria.

In Gallitin, Ball drove out to the old Franklin estate, which was being transformed into a housing development and golf course called Fairvu Plantation.   "A thicket of McMansions, in every ersatz style," filled most of the area. But Ball decides to visit the more modest home of Kenneth Thomson, a direct descendant of Isaac Franklin, whose living room is dominated by a large oil portrait of his ancestor. He turned out to be the most candid--and therefore the most infuriating of all the descendant of slavers. After Isaac died, in 1846, "they published an inventory of his belongings" that ran to 900 pages. He had six plantations and 650 slaves." He knew "how to be a gentleman He had the equivalent of an eighth grade education. He was not ignorant. He could write a letter." Before he married, "Isaac had companions, some willing, some unwilling. That was just part of life." He had a child by a black woman before he married, but this daughter of his left Tennessee and nobody knows what happened to her after that." Actually, Uncle Isaac "sent her off" because  he didn't want her around after he married." It is possible, Ball interjects, that he sold her. "It would have been the easiest thing to do."                                              

Thomson produces a letter that he wrote some years ago to the  Gallitin Examiner. The headline reads "Isaac Franklin Was a Well-liked Slave Trader." Asked how a person inside the family measure the inheritance of slave trading, he replies that "You can't judge those people by today's standards." He adds that "many things in the Old Testament are pretty barbaric, but they are part of our evolution." Thomson expressed a special contempt for "revisionist historians." He emphasizes that has been around blacks his whole life, and that "they are good people." He denies that he is in any way responsible for the actions of his ancestors. Slavery "developed because of the ignorance of the blacks.They just "slid into slavery." He stresses that people in his family "looked after their slaves," that some free blacks themselves became slaveholders, and that American black are better off than West Africans. There is more, but you have to read it for yourself. Ball, himself the descendant of slave holders, that he recognized "the melody , and let the song pass."

While in Gallitin, Ball also interviewed 73-year--old Florence Hall Blair, a retired nurse. She tells him that "a lot of black people don't want to know about their ancestry," but counters that she is "not one of those people. When asked how she felt about Isaac Franklin, Ms. Blair professed "a certain detachment." He was "a cruel individual, but he was human." His humanity was not always visible, but it was there. She concludes that she has let go of hatred, because it only hurts those who hate. But she adds that she "wouldn't have made it too well in slavery days, because I am the kind of person who just can't imagine you would treat me the way they treated people. Like a dog, she calls it. "They would have had to kill me with my temperament." She expresses admiration for her own people. "We carried on."

Although there are few records about the trip from Nashville to New Orleans, Ball admits, "it is possible to follow in detail a coffle of people...thanks to William Waller's letters." Waller muses that the scenery is beautiful, but the trip itself was brutal. He was especially morose because he is not able to sell many of his slaves along the way, because the market for slaves was at low ebb. Prospective buyers came to look at "my negroes," and wanted to buy seven or eight, "but they objected to the price."  Waller wrote to Sarah that he did eventually sell some to "as kind a masters as could be found." She wrote back that she was "most pleased that you have sold at such fine prices," but that  "I wish you could have sold more of them." After examining the people on display, a buyer would talk to a seller and negotiate. Ball can't resist interjecting that "it was like buying a car today."

In Natchez, Ball interviewed the individual whom he calls "the man who has done the most to call attention to the Slave Trail." Clifton Boxley, who changed his name to Ser Seshsh Ab Heter brcause he regards his birth name as "the plantation name, his slave name." He is 75, "direct, assertive and arresting," with a full baritone voice. He does not make small talk. "I want to resurrect the history of the enslavement trade, and for 20 years that is where I've focused."  His "Jim Crow Kitchen" is filled with mammy salt shakers, black lawn jockeys, Uncle Tom figurines, and similar demeaning memorabilia. He forced the white population to accept his "Forks in the Road" project, for which he wrote the text for four of the trail markers.  "You feel something?" he asks Ball. "That's good. They say there were no feelings here." Boxley says that his aim is preserve every inch of dirt in this area. "I am fighting for our enslaved ancestors." Asked if there is any way to do this without injuring the sensitivity of friendly white people, he says "I don't spare anything. It is the humanity of our ancestors denied that I am interested in. This is your story as well as an African-American story."
The only way to transcend pain and hurt, he continues, is "to face the situation, to experience and cleanse yourself, to allow the humanity of your ancestors and their suffering to wash through you
and settle into your spirit." His parting words were "Peace out."

When he reaches his final destination, Ball talks with Erin Greenwald, who is the curator of the Historic New Orleans Collection, which is featuring an exhibition titled "Purchased Lives, New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808-1865," She is also the director of a  developing data base of names of those enslaved who were shipped from the Eastern States: "We studied hundreds of shipping manifests and compiled a list of 70,000 names. Of course, that is only some." The auction advertisement at the end of the Slave Trail, she relates, always said Virginia and Maryland Negroes, "because that meant compliant, docile, and not broken by overwork." She also produced a copy of the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel discussing slave auctions at the posh St. Louis Hotel, where two stages did business simultaneously--in both French and English. Here, families at the end of the Slave Trail were divided. The reporter described "a noble-looking woman with a wide-eyed seven-year-old."  He was sold separately to a man from Mississippi, his mother to a man from Texas. "She burst forth in the most frantic wails that ever despair gave utterance to."

After emancipation, historian Heather Williams relates, the Southwestern Christian Advocate began to carry a column called "Lost Friends," in which people called out for family members who had disappeared on the Slave Trail. She has unearthed a handful of reunion stories, one of which obviously deeply affected Ball. After years of searching, Robert Glenn located his aged mother from whom he had been torn at the age of eight. At first, she gave no indication of recognition, but she later approached him and asked "Tell me, ain't you my child whom I left on the road near Mr. Moore's farm before the war?" Glenn broke down and cried: "I did not know before I came home whether my parents were dead or alive, and now mother nor father did not know me."

I trust that my truncated rendering has inspired you to read Ball's article in its entirety---because:
1. Edward ball is a far better story teller than I am
2, The caricature on the title page brilliantly captures the essence of the Trail of Tears
3. The detailed map of the various Slave Trading Routes in absolutely incredible
4. It features a bone-chilling poster headlined "One Hundred Negroes For Sale."
5. There are gorgeous full-page photos of Delores McQuinn, Maurie McInnis, Kenneth Thomson, Florence Blair Hall, Clifton Boxley, and Erin Greenwald.                     




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