She told me that the auction block represented the end to life as enslaved people knew it. Family life was one bright spot in the long ordeal of slavery, she said, but auctions ripped families apart.
Yet Dr. Bailey and her researchers found fewer than 50 marked auction sites, while by some estimates there were 1.2 million slave sales between 1760 and 1860. Sites of African-American focus represent 2 percent of those registered on the National Register of Historic Places, she told me, and only a small portion of these are devoted to slavery. Here’s more from our conversation, which has been edited and condensed:
Your report allowed readers to see a slave auction from the eyes of those who were enslaved. How difficult was the research and writing?
There is no central registry of these auction sites. My research assistants and I found less than 50 were marked and that was very surprising considering there were 1.2 million slave sales between 1760 and 1860. Each of those sales represented heartbreak for family members, for loved ones. Their experience and their contributions must also not be forgotten.
I say in my work that enslaved Africans were not just “hands,” as they would be called in auction catalogs. They brought with them extraordinary talents and gifts and technology — in the case of the Low Country Georgia slaves, the ones whose experience I document in the Weeping Time slave sale, for example, the technology of planting rice. This know-how, cultivated on the continent for hundreds of years, is what made these rice planters among the richest men in the country on the eve of the Civil War. I like to say they were like the tech giants of their day.