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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Slave broadside; “Will be Sold, Valuable Slaves,” letterpress with illustration of slaves in tobacco field; $20,700. Photo courtesy of Swann Galleries
They made their way to America shackled by the ankle, two-by-two, in a crouched position in the belly of a slave ship. With less than 18 inches between the ceiling and floor, their futures along with their hopes sank

Slave trading was so lucrative the Africans were called “black gold.” By the 18th century, buying and selling slaves was one of the world’s biggest and most money-making businesses.

During the late-1850s in Texas, a prime male field hand between the ages of 18 and 30 could fetch $1,200. Skilled slaves like blacksmiths could bring over $2,000.

Rich soil and a warm sunny climate awaited the slaves in the South where they served as fuel for the cotton, sugar cane, and tobacco industry. Somewhere, between 10 and 25 million Africans arrived in America as slaves.

In the South, slave auctions happened as a regular course of business. Advertisements might list slaves for sale along with mules, cows and horses. As property, they could be bought, sold, mortgaged or hired out.

For the slaves, leaving the African coast was like going to hell. Some jumped overboard and drowned rather than cross the Atlantic. Others were tossed overboard at the first sign of protest or sickness.

Ultimately, trading slaves was about power, violence and money. It’s an era in history when the price of human life was small. It’s an era that’s hard to conceive of and uncomfortable to revisit.

Today, actual eyewitness accounts from slave-dealers are important and rare. The letters offer immediacy. Listening to the person who was there tell about it in his own words can be spellbinding as well as historically revealing.

Generally, when slave-dealer letters do appear on the market, they show up individually, not as a group. So, when 40 letters and telegrams sent to the Virginia slave-dealing houses of Dickinson, Hill & Co., and S.R. Fondren, go on the block, it’s a big deal.

The correspondence was offered in the Feb. 26 African-Americana auction at Swann Galleries, New York and sold for $23,000.

The information provides a wealth of information regarding the pricing and treatment of slaves as a product between 1855 and 1857. They show how the dealers went to great lengths to keep each other aware of current market values and how they maintained those values.

In one letter from Centerville, VA., dated April 19, 1855, an A.P. Grigsby makes a rare reference to his “Fancy.” Fancies were women slave dealers kept for their own pleasure.

“My Fancy had an increase, a boy though she had a hard time of it,” he said. “She had two physicians with her, but they are doing pretty well now.”

The letters, in various sizes, were in good condition.

The sale also featured a selection of ephemera ranging from the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights movement to African-American medicine, photography, film, business, religion and sports.

Here are some current values for items offered in the auction.


Slave document; outlining terms for hiring Negroes belonging to Thomas Winn includes providing winter and summer clothing as well as shoes; signed by those involved; 1830; $633.

Shackles; wrought-iron; for wrists or ankles; type used in Atlantic slave trade; mid to late-18th century; $1,265.

Chromolithographed print; training African Americans recruits at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia; 1863; 11 1/2 inches by 14 3/4 inches; $5,060.

Slave broadside; “Will be Sold, Valuable Slaves,” letterpress with illustration of slaves in tobacco field; 1812; 14 1/2 inches by 11 1/2 inches; $20,700.

Pastel portrait; by Douglas Aaron; Two Scottsboro Boys; sensitive portrait by one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance; circa 1935; 15 3/4 inches by 14 inches; $41,400.

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