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A Former Slave Recalls "a Mournful Scene" in the New Orleans Slave Market

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free African American living in New York, was kidnapped while visiting Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. He spent the next twelve years working on plantations in Louisiana, finally attaining freedom in 1853. His book, Twelve Years a Slave, presented a stark, detailed account of day-to-day slave life, including this description of a slave sale run by a slave dealer named Freeman. From the 1820s on, as more lands in the lower South and Southwest opened to cotton cultivation, the sale of slaves within the U.S. devastated many slave families.

[The day of the sale] many customers called to examine Freeman’s “new lot.” The latter gentleman was very loquacious, dwelling at much length upon our several good points and qualities. He would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers would feel of our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a horse which he is about to barter for or purchase. Sometimes a man or woman was taken back to the small house in the yard, stripped, and inspected more minutely. Scars upon a slave’s back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit, and hurt his sale… 

All the time the trade was going on, Eliza was crying aloud, and wringing her hands. She [begged] the man not to buy [her son Randall], unless he also bought her self and Emily. She promised, in that case, to be the most faithful slave that ever lived. The man answered that he could not afford it, and then Eliza burst into a paroxysm of grief, weeping plaintively. Freeman turned round to her, savagely, with his whip in his uplifted hand, ordering her to stop her noise, or he would flog her… Eliza shrunk before him, and tried to wipe away her tears, but it was all in vain. She wanted to be with her children, she said, the little time she had to live. All the frowns and threats of Freeman, could not wholly silence the afflicted mother. She kept on begging and beseeching them, most piteously not to separate the three. Over and over again she told them how she loved her boy. A great many times she repeated her former promises - how very faithful and obedient she would be; how hard she would labor day and night, to the last moment of her life, if he would only buy them all together. But it was of no avail; the man could not afford it. The bargain was agreed upon, and Randall must go alone. Then Eliza ran to him; embraced him passionately; kissed him again and again; told him to remember her - all the while her tears falling in the boy’s face like rain. 

Freeman [called] her a blubbering, bawling wench, and ordered her to go to her place, and behave herself; and be somebody. He swore he wouldn’t stand such stuff but a little longer… 

The planter from Baton Rouge, with his new purchases, was ready to depart. 

“Don’t cry, mama. I will be a good boy. Don’t cry,” said Randall, looking back, as they passed out of the door. 

What has become of the lad, God knows. It was a mournful scene indeed. I would have cried myself if I had dared.

Source | Solomon Northup, Twelve Years A Slave (Auburn, N.Y.: Derby and Miller, 1853), 78–82.
Creator | Solomon Northup
Item Type | Biography/Autobiography
Cite This document | Solomon Northup, “A Former Slave Recalls "a Mournful Scene" in the New Orleans Slave Market,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 25, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1643.

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