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22. June 2019 · Comments Off on What Went on in Shockoe Creek Bottom · Categories: Uncategorized

Shockoe Creek was a creek emptying into the James River – a
creek now mostly channelized and paved over. It lay between two substantial
hills upon which the city of Richmond, Virginia, was built; in the earliest
days of the city, it was the market district; convenient to the waterfront, the
main roads, a transshipment node where goods from deep-water cargo ships were
transferred to smaller boats, to wagons, and warehouses. Commerce was the lifeblood
of that part of Richmond, within sight of the grand white neo-classical
building which was the state capitol. Here was the shipping basin and canal
which led to it, the market building housing venders of meat, produce and other
comestibles. Nearby was the bridge which crossed the James, the Haxall mill
which ground fine white flour for shipment throughout the Americas. Up-river a
little way was the Tredegar Iron Works complex, the pride of the ante-bellum
industrial South.

And another kind of commerce was centered in the Shockoe
Bottom – the trade in slaves. In the decades before the Civil War, Richmond was
the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: the offices of brokers,
agents and traders in slaves, auction houses, and holding-pens – known as slave
jails, all were situated in a quarter-mile square area. I have discovered all
kinds of curious things about the slave trade as practiced in Richmond –
curious to me, that is. I wasn’t raised in the South, the ancestors of my one
American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist; frankly, all I knew
about the matter was what there was in the generalist history books pertaining
to the Civil War. Nothing much about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as
it were.

I have had to become acquainted with all of this, as I am working
on the next historical novel – and this involves a heroine, Minerva Templeton
Vining, a spinster of independent means and thinking, who becomes an active
campaigner for abolition in the 1850ies, and then a volunteer battlefield nurse
during the war itself. The catalyst for all of this is a visit that she makes
to Richmond to visit kinfolk – and while she had to that point been of abolitionist
sympathies, she is radicalized by what she sees in the course of that visit. So
I have to write about what she sees, and create the conversations that she
would have had, dealing with what was termed the ‘peculiar institution.’ I don’t
think that she would actually have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so
far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending
the auctions. It seems that male slaves were often asked to strip entirely, so
that their state of health and soundness could be judged – I have read one
account of a woman slave being stripped for a prospective buyer in private, but
not at the auction location.  Both male
and female slaves often had to show their bare back and shoulders, though, to
determine if they had been whipped. The degree and age of scarring would
indicate a discipline problem, and downgrade market value in the eyes of a
potential purchaser.

I did go into this project knowing that for most
Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth
$1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars.
A slave who was trained in a particular skill might command an even higher
price.

A particular curiosity – which makes sense, once I thought
about it – was that the dealers in slaves who kept a slave jail (basically a
warehouse/boarding house/dormitory) took every effort to make their sellable
human merchandise look good upon being put up for auction, although the actual
conditions in the slave jail may not have been very good. Those slaves being
held for sale were provided with decent food, medical care if required, and a
period of recovery from any particularly grueling travel. On the day of
auction, they were provided with means of bathing, were groomed and dressed in
new clean clothes. There is a painting by an English abolitionist who made sketches
of an auction on the spot and later produced a then-well-known painting: five female
slaves, clad in grey dresses and white aprons, with red bows at the throat,
with one man, in trousers, white shirt, tan trousers and a red waistcoat. One
of the women has a small child in her lap; they sit patiently in a row. They
are luxury goods – of course, the vendors want the merchandise to look good. I
think that is the most unsettling aspect of it all; not outright cruelty (of
which there was some, although not quite as much as the campaigners for
abolition would have had it) but the fact that it was just business, the
business of selling and buying human beings.

Finally – an interesting curiosity: one Robert Lumpkin, who
kept a slave jail of such notoriety that the compound was called “Hell’s Half
Acre” was formally married to a slave woman, who had five children by him –  including daughters who were sent to a finishing
school in the North. When he died, at the very end of the Civil War, his wife
inherited the property … and sold it to a Baptist minister who founded a school
for blacks – the Richmond Theological Seminary. The site is half-under a
freeway, now; the half that isn’t is an empty lot with an outline of some of
the buildings in the compound.

Slaves Waiting to Be Sold -1861 -Eyre Crow

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