The Die Is Cast (02.26.18)

Written by Kwesi J. DeGraft-Hanson, Ph.D.  |  President, OCEANS, Inc.

On February 26, 1859, “The die is cast,” Speaking of the Weeping Time slave sale.

IMAGINE … it is 1859 … in antebellum Georgia … Savannah … at dawn. You have just picked up a newspaper, The Savannah Daily Morning Newspaper, to be exact. Now, don’t get confused if you live in contemporary Savannah and you have picked up The Savannah Daily Morning Newspaper today (for real), February 26th, 2018. Just imagine, for a minute, that you are reading the same newspaper, back on February 26th, 1859….

Yes, the same newspaper; it has been in continuous publication since … well, actually, before 1859. On February 26th, 1859, Savannah was two years and two months away from the beginning of the American Civil War. Tensions were high between north and south, essentially over the issue of slavery. Slave sales were normal in the south; just take a look at the newspaper you’re reading that day; it announces a huge slave sale simply, and matter-of-factly:

SALE OF 440 NEGROES! PERSONS DESIRING TO INSPECT THESE NEGROES WILL FIND THEM AT THE RACECOURSE, WHERE THEY CAN BE SEEN FROM 10:00 A.M. TO 2:00 P.M., UNTIL DAY OF SALE. 

J. BRYAN Feb. 26 JOHNSON SQUARE

The advertisement was succinct (the emphases are original), with a brevity that callously underestimated the atrociousness of the population dispersal that it would precipitate. The impending slave sale would become the largest in recorded American history, known as the “Weeping Time.” Many bars and hotels in Savannah had already filled up in anticipation of the slave sale / auction by February 26, 1859, and the town was agog with excitement. Yes, some people were very excited at the prospects of an event that others verily dreaded. The enslaved would eventually number 429 who would be sold from Savannah’s erstwhile Ten Broeck (horse) race course, about two and a half miles west of the city, on the following March 2nd and 3rd. 

By Saturday, February 26th, 1859, the last group of about a hundred enslaved persons had disembarked at the racetrack—actually arriving a day earlier, on Friday, February 25th. All four hundred and twenty-nine enslaved persons had been brought up via train or sailing vessels from the Darien and St. Simons Island, Georgia area, just downcoast from Savannah. They had been enslaved on two plantations—the 1500-acre Butler Island rice plantation, and the 1700-acre Hampton cotton plantation, both owned by the Butler family of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The sale had been authorized by Pierce Mease Butler (1810-1867), absentee slaveholder, who was selling his “people” because he was in debt from gambling and stock market losses.

Let’s not get too carried away by Butler. After all, it is the enslaved who were about to get carted away!... The enslaved were housed in horse stables at the racetrack upon arrival, to await inspections. Imagine the … waiting … to be inspected, then SOLD! Imagine … drooping hearts, yet with heads held high. Imagine all the unimaginable feelings: dread, uncertainty, despair, despondency, fear, anger, betrayal, hopelessness, fury, and (fill in more here …). Imagine all the unimaginable smells of horse stables as waiting and sleeping rooms—for over a week for some, and gratefully, only days for the last group to arrive. Imagine the unimaginable indignities of the inspections the enslaved went through: “bend down!”; “jump up and down!”; “spread your legs!”; “let me see your breasts!”; “… your teeth, and gums,” and many other commands besides the pinching and man-handling.  Doesticks, a reporter from the New York Tribune newspaper, arrived about this day, February the 26th, in town. He wrote the only eyewitness account of this slave sale that has survived to tell us the story, with all its depravities and degradations (see excerpts at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2919t.html).

So, one hundred and fifty-nine years ago, today, on February 26th 1859, people were en route to the Ten Broeck race track in Savannah to inspect the enslaved people whose fates—as individuals and families—were hanging in the balance. They could end up anywhere—Mobile, Alabama; Albany, Augusta, Macon, and Savannah, Georgia; Vicksburg, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; Charleston, South Carolina, or anywhere else in the American south, from Virginia to Texas, depending on who bought them (the slave sale was advertised in all these states). It was as simple as that, and the enslaved had no choice in the matter! Many of you, readers, are where you are, geographically, by choice; you chose the college, or the job, the city, the state, the region, and some of you (including me), even, the country. Just imagine … having NO CHOICE, at all, in where you would be tomorrow, what you would be doing, or who you would be with. No choice where your loved ones would be sent or taken; no choice whether you would ever see any of your loved ones again. Imagine

Let’s imagine, finally, that dusk is falling, in Savannah, on February 26th 1859. The enslaved are settling in for certainly rough nightmares in the stables (no pun intended). The horse stalls at the race track will be filling up daily for the next week with slave purchasers and traders from plantations around the American South, coming by to inspect the enslaved, with plans to make purchases of enslaved people on the impending auction days on March 2nd and 3rd, 1859, when 429 of the enslaved were sold and scattered across the American south. 

On March 2nd, 2018, on the 159th anniversary of the slave sale, there will be a commemoration event at the slave sale site. The goal is for 436 people to “stand in” for the 436 enslaved people who were listed in a catalogue to be sold at that auction. The location is Otis J. Brock III Elementary School in west Savannah, which sits on the eastern portion of the former Ten Broeck racecourse site. The commemoration is an initiative of the Organization to Commemorate (formerly) Enslaved African American Nationals, (OCEANS, Inc.), Journey by Faith, Inc., the Georgia Historical Society, Ivory Bay CDC, and Brock Elementary School. 

For more information about the event, please check the OCEANS Inc. website at oceans1.org or contact Patty Meagher at the Georgia Historical Society, pmeagher@georgiahistory.com, (912) 651-2125 x 153,  or myself at kdh.oceans@gmail.com

The general public is invited. Please bring an umbrella, rain or shine, as the umbrellas are a symbolic representation of the individuals sold as well as the untold generations nested under them. The umbrellas also evoke the documented torrential rains that fell on the two slave sale days, stopping only after the last enslaved person had been sold. African-Americans call the event “The Weeping Time,” saying God must have been weeping during the slave sale.

Kwesi J. DeGraft-Hanson is with OCEANS, Inc. Contact him at kdh.oceans@gmail.com.

Check out a fuller version of this real history at “Unearthing the Weeping Time,” at https://southernspaces.org/2010/unearthing-weeping-time-savannahs-ten-broeck-race-course-and-1859-slave-sale. Thank you, and do light a candle for these former enslaved and for their descendants. And do pass this history on. 

Joseph Bryan’s Second Advertisement for the Butler “Sale of Slaves.” 

Source: The Savannah Daily Morning News, Saturday, February 26, 1859.

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