So today, we have documents that describe big dramatic things in the most "just the facts, ma'am" language possible, like a captain's log usually does. And we found this article from 1853 that's a good example of this.
In the article, a writer named William Chambers went out to witness and report on slave auctions. Apparently enough people had written about these in a very melodramatic and sensationalistic way that Chambers felt like somebody needed to go out and give a true, factual account.
John Ellison Conlee: Everything is described precisely as it occurred, without passion or prejudice. It would not have been difficult to be sentimental on a subject which appeals so strongly to the feelings but I preferred telling the simple truth.
Ira Glass: Our excerpts of Chambers' article were read for us by actor John Ellison Conlee. By 1853, slavery was controversial, and Chambers opposed it. He was a Scottish guy, an outsider. And so he spent a couple days going from one auction shop to another in Richmond, Virginia. Chambers explains that he's seen advertisements for slave sales. And when he went to the addresses, he found a narrow short street between two main streets in the city, brick houses on either side where there were a few small auction shops. On this particular day, it was pretty empty. Shops were identifiable by little red flags that hung outside their doors. And pinned to each flag was a piece of paper listing the men, women, and children who were going to be sold that day.
John Ellison Conlee: Conceive the idea of a large shop with two windows and a door between, no shelving or counters inside, the interior a spacious, dismal apartment, not well swept. The only furniture a desk at one of the windows and a bench at one side of the shop, three feet high with two steps to it from the floor.
Conceive the idea of this dismal looking place with nobody in it but three Negro children who, as I entered, were playing at auctioneering each other. An intensely black little Negro of four or five years of age was standing on the bench-- or block, as it is called-- with an equally black girl, about a year younger, by his side whom he was pretending to sell by bids to another black child who was rolling about the floor.
My appearance did not interrupt the merriment. The little auctioneer continued his play and appeared to enjoy the joke of selling the girl who stood demurely by his side. "$50 for the girl. $50, $50. I sell this here fine girl for $50," was uttered, with appropriate gestures in imitation, doubtless, of the scenes he had seen and acted daily on the spot.
I spoke a few words but was scarcely understood. And the fun went on as if I had not been present. So I left them, happy and rehearsing what was likely soon to be their own fate.
Ira Glass: At 9:30 AM, at another store, Chambers is approached by a salesman and asked if he's there to buy a slave. Chambers explains that he is not. He's simply there to witness the sales and gather information, which seems fine with the salesman. A lanky man sits down next to Chambers wearing what Chambers calls a wide awake hat, which is a hat with a kind of low round crown and a wide brim.
John Ellison Conlee: Looking towards the door, I observe the subjects of sale. The man and boy indicated by the paper on the red flag enter together, whence, as the day was chilly, they edge themselves towards the fire in the corner where I was seated. I was now between the two parties, the white man on the right and the old and young Negro on the left. And I waited to see what would take place. The sight of the Negroes at once attracted the attention of Wide Awake. He kept keenly eyeing the pair as if to see what they were good for. Under this searched gaze, the man and boy were a little abashed but said nothing. Their appearance had little of the repulsiveness we are apt to associate with the idea of slaves. They were dressed in a grey woolen coat, pants, and waistcoat, colored cotton neck cloths, clean shirts, coarse woolen stockings, and stout shoes. Moved by a sudden impulse, Wide Awake left his seat and, rounding the back of my chair, began to grasp at the man's arms, as if to feel their muscular capacity. He then examined his hands and fingers, and last of all told him to open his mouth and show his teeth, which he did in a submissive manner. Having finished these examinations, Wide Awake resumed his seat. I asked the elder Negro what was his age. He said he did not know. I next inquired how old the boy was. He said he was seven years of age. On asking the man if the boy was his son, he said he was not. He was his cousin.
Ira Glass: Chambers and the man that he calls Wide Awake wait around for a while for the auction to start and then get tired of waiting. And they leave the shop to check out another one further up the street.
John Ellison Conlee: Here, according to the announcement on the paper stuck to the flag, there were to be sold a woman and three children, a young woman, three men, a middle aged woman, and a little boy. Already a crowd had met. A few were seated near a fire on the right-hand side, and others stood around an iron stove in the middle of the apartment. The whole place had a dilapidated appearance.
From a back window, there was a view into a ruinous courtyard, beyond which, in a hollow, accessible by a side lane, stood a shabby brick house on which the word jail was inscribed in large black letters on a white ground. I imagined it to be a depot for the reception of Negroes.
On my arrival, and while making these preliminary observations, the lots for sale had not made their appearance. In about five minutes afterwards, they were ushered in, one after the other, under the charge of a mulatto, who seemed to act as a principal assistant.
I saw no whips, chains, or any other engine of force, nor did such appear to be required. All the lots took their seats on two long forms near the stove. None showed any signs of resistance, nor did anyone utter a word. Their manner was that of perfect humility and resignation.
As soon as all were seated, there was a general examination of their respective merits by feeling their arms, looking into their mouths. Yet there was no abrupt rudeness in making these examinations, no coarse or domineering language was employed. The three Negro men were dressed in the usual manner, in grey woolen clothing.
The woman with three children excited my peculiar attention. She was neatly attired with a colored handkerchief bound around her head and wore a white apron over her gown. Her children were all girls, one of them a baby at the breast three months old, and the others two and three years of age, respectively, rigged out with clean white pinafores.
There was not a tear or an emotion visible in the whole party. Everything seemed to be considered as a matter of course. And the change of owners was possibly looked forward to do with as much indifference as ordinary hired servants anticipate a removal from one employer to another.
While intending purchasers were proceeding with personal examinations of the several lots, I took the liberty of putting a few questions to the mother of the children. The following was our conversation.
Are you a married woman? Yes, sir. How many children have you had? Seven. Where is your husband? In Madison County.
When did you part from him? On Wednesday, two days ago. Where you sorry to part from him? Yes, sir, she replied with a deep sigh. My heart was almost broke.
Why is your master selling you? I don't know. He wants money to buy some land. Suppose he sells me for that.
There might not be a word of truth in these answers, for I had no means of testing their correctness. But the woman seemed to speak unreservedly. And I am inclined to think that she said nothing but what, if necessary, could be substantiated.
Ira Glass: When the woman and her three children are put up on the auction block, bidding starts at $850. But it only gets up to $890. That won't do, gentleman, the auctioneer says. I cannot take such a low price. And the women and her children step down from the block.
$890 is the equivalent of nearly $26,000 today. Chambers reprints a price list. That's what one adult would sell for, not an adult and three kids.
The most interesting passage in Chambers' report is where he speculates about what the slaves feel about all this. Then in this passage he starts fine.
John Ellison Conlee: There was an entire absence of emotion in the looks of men, women, and children thus seated, preparatory to being sold. This does not correspond with the ordinary accounts of slave sales which are represented as tearful and harrowing.
Ira Glass: And then, Chambers takes a turn. He says something that is really hard to imagine somebody today writing.
John Ellison Conlee: My belief is that none of the parties felt deeply on the subject, or at least that any distress they experienced was but momentary, soon passed away and was forgotten. One of my reasons for this opinion rests on a trifling incident which occurred.
While waiting for the commencement of the sale, one of the gentleman present amused himself with a pointer dog which, at command, stood on its hind legs and took pieces of bread from his pocket. These tricks greatly entertained the row of Negroes, old and young. And the poor woman, whose heart three minutes before was almost broken, now laughed as heartily as anyone.
Ira Glass: Today, this just seems wrong-headed. Of course you could be deeply affected by something you're going through and still, you know, laugh at a dog doing tricks. Of course, any of us could contain both those things at the same time. It's weird that Chambers doesn't see that.
A scholar who's written about Chambers told me that Chambers was actually not a keen observer of people in his writing. He doesn't do much character observation when he writes. So it's possible he just was not super perceptive about people's feelings.
But also, when you read more of Chambers, it's clear he thinks that white people are superior to black people. He wrote, quote, "A black man is only a kind of man. He stands upright on two legs, his hands to work, wears clothes, can cook his food, a point not reached by monkeys," Chambers writes. "Perhaps," Chambers says, "there's something wrong with his craniological development," which, I guess he means, not as smart.
So he went on a mission to document the reality of slavery for his readers. He was that enlightened. He was that against it. But that was as far as he went. On his visit to Richmond, he was not able to see the people in front of him for what they really were, which was, of course, exactly the same as him.