Bearing Witness: The Weeping Time

“I remember when they put ’em on the block to sell ‘m. The ones ‘tween 18 and 30 always bring the most money. The auctioneer he stand off at a distance and cry ’em off as they stand on the block. I can hear his voice as long as I live.” 

 W.L. Bost, age 87, Asheville, North Carolina

By John Cole Vodicka

W.L. Bost was born into slavery. In 1937, he was interviewed by a Federal Writer’s Project worker as a part of the FWP’s effort to compile what they called “Slave Narratives.” Mr. Bost was a very young boy when he and his family were sold at a slave auction, and he remembered this horrendous experience for the remainder of his life.

I was reminded of the Slave Narratives several weeks ago while learning more about the infamous slave auction that took place near Savannah on March 2 and 3, 1859. On those two days, the largest sale of human beings in the history of the United States took place at a horse race track just west of the city. 

During a steady downpour, 436 men, women and children, all slaves, were auctioned off by plantation owner Pierce Mease Butler in an effort to stave off financial ruin. Pierce Butler had inherited his wealth from his grandfather, Major Pierce Butler, one of the largest slaveholders in the country and, we should note, one of the signatories of the U.S. Constitution. 

The younger Butler had squandered his fortune. He and his trustees first sold off Butler’s Philadelphia mansion, and then other properties. It was not enough to satisfy creditors, so they turned to the “moveable property” on Butler’s Georgia plantations – the slaves.

The two-day sale netted $303,850. The highest price paid for one family – a mother and her five grown children – was $6,180. The highest price for one individual was $1,750. The lowest price for any slave was $250. 

Mortimer Thompson, a reporter for the New York Tribune, posed as a potential buyer and wrote about the auction in damning detail.

“The slaves were stuffed into the horse and carriage stalls at the race track,” Thomson wrote. “On the faces of all was an expression of heavy grief. (Slaves) sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, their chins resting on their hands, their eyes staring vacantly, and their bodies rocking to and fro, with a restless motion that was never stilled.” 

Thomson described the slave speculators poking and prodding the “chattel” pinching their muscles and checking the insides of their mouths like livestock. At one point, Thomson, wrote, Pierce Butler showed up and “extended a gloved hand to a few of his slaves, and after the auction, gave each of those sold $1 in freshly minted coins, as if that were consolation to the families who had spent generations on his plantations and were ripped apart on those two days.”

“Soon after the last slave was sold, the rain stopped,” wrote another commentator. “Champagne bottles propped in celebration. And Pierce Butler, once again wealthy, made a trip to southern Europe before returning home to Philadelphia.”

Today, African Americans remember and mark March 2 and 3, 1859 as ” The Weeping Time.”

This past week, court-watchers observed in Magistrate, State and Superior Courts. We watched as defendants, some who appeared remotely from the jail, while others who were out on bond showed up in person for their hearings. These defendants were either in misdemeanor and felony courtrooms for status and bond reduction hearings, arraignments, probation revocation proceedings and guilty pleas. We watched as these men and women – the vast majority of whom were people of color – were either granted bonds and released from confinement or denied bail and remained in jail. We saw defendants sentenced to years in the Georgia prison system and others ordered to spend time in jail before being released, only to then begin serving months or years on probation. We witnessed judges telling defendants they had to wear ankle or breath monitors; enter mental health, alcohol or drug treatment programs; report and pay fines and fees to probation officers. We listened to judges who barred defendants from contact with members of their families, forbade defendants from living at a certain address or even from entering an entire neighborhood. We were in the courtroom when individuals were banished from Athens-Clarke County altogether. 

At week’s end an observer couldn’t help but be reminded of the 1859 Savannah slave sale. The Auction Block. The Weeping Time. 

John Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street United Methodist Church, an organizer of Athens Area Courtwatch Project and a leader of Oconee Street UMC’s Racial Justice Task Force. He publishes his observations in a weekly column called Bearing Witness.