Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Just Finished Reading - Slave Trading in the Old South

A few months ago one of our book club members expressed interest in the group choosing a book on the internal slave trade for us to discuss. At the next meeting I brought in several books from library on that subject that I had previously read. However, there was also one I had not read; Slave Trading in the Old South by Frederic Bancroft. I suggested it for that very reason. We discussed it last Sunday, and it seems that everyone took something away from it and found it very informative.

I'm always skeptical about a book published such a long time ago (1931). So much in both sources and interpretation has changed since then. But I was truly amazed at the depth of research Bancroft put into this book and how well he cited his many sources. Incorporating largely newspaper articles and advertisements, oral history interviews with formerly enslaved people, and city directories, sources not significantly different than much more modern studies, Bancroft paints an unpleasant picture of what is known as by several names; the domestic, internal, or interstate slave trade.

To do so Bancroft writes about the trade and how traders practiced it in various regions of the slave states. The Washington D.C; Virginia and Richmond markets; the Border States of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland; Charleston; Savannah; Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee; Alabama and Mississippi; and New Orleans all receive a significant amount of attention. In between the chapters on regional distinctions, other aspects of the interstate slave trade are also explored. Topics like slave-rearing, slave-hiring, family divisions, and slave price inflation are discussed with solid evidence used to show their parts in the practice.

The internal slave trade's brutal commodification of human beings is what clearly rings throughout the book. Following on the heels of earlier published scholarly works such as U.B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery, published in 1918, which provided a benign interpretation of slavery, Bancroft broke from that mold and shows how ingrained slavery was into Southern culture, society, politics, and economy.

One important point that Bancroft shares is that just going through the census records of 1850 and 1860 and looking for "slave traders" or "negro traders" is not a valid way of understanding how many people were involved in the internal slave trade. Many men, who served as auctioneers, brokers, and commission merchants used those positions not only to peddle things like dry goods, crops, and real estate, but also to sell human beings. These sales often came about due to either the deaths of owners or financial failings and often used one of these "middle men" to move their chattel property, which often resulted in the separation of husbands from wives and children from siblings and parents.

Reading Slave Trading in the Old South is important for students of the subject to get a better understanding of its historiography. Not everyone during the era of the nadir of race relations told the history of the "peculiar institution" with a Jim Crow interpretation. I highly recommend it . . . and if you do read it, read all the footnotes. You'll learn so much more by doing so.

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