Commentary: Re-enacting slave sales and Civil War lessons
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2011 - Last Saturday, Jan. 15, during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, Angela da Silva and the National Black Tourism Network re-enacted a slave auction on the steps of the Old Courthouse. The event was cosponsored by the National Park Service, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation and other groups deeply concerned with educating the public about the experience of slavery in St. Louis and the fight for emancipation and equal rights for African Americans during the Civil War era, 150 years ago.
Beforehand, da Silva described how the event would not be sugar-coated, as husbands will be separated from their wives, children sold away from their parents. Attendees attested to the emotional scenes they saw and the impassioned historical discussions that followed. As da Silva noted, such anguished scenes were common throughout the United States before emancipation, as white Americans made peace with the idea that those of African descent could somehow, simultaneously, be both person and property.
The idea of such a slave sale in 2011 is nauseating and outrageous -- in a good way. We are horrified, we are repulsed -- and, through those reactions, we learn something important about many in the Civil War generation: They were not.
Slave auctions were banal, routine affairs. Outstate merchants would plan annual visits to St. Louis to make their yearly purchases -- including slaves. The fear of losing their daughters in just such an auction is likely what led Dred and Harriet Scott to sue for their freedom.
Sure, there were pockets of abolitionists, groups even in a slave state like Missouri willing to question the slave system. But for the most part, Americans white and black, northerner and southerner, simply went about their business on the day of a slave auction.
President Abraham Lincoln accepted this reality, and fought, at first, only to prevent slavery's expansion into the western territories. Even religious leaders like William Greenleaf Eliot, the founder of Washington University, felt constrained; slavery was the law of the land, and after the Dred Scott decision nowhere seemed safe from its demands.
We may wish that this were not the case. Indeed, St. Louisans long believed that the last slave sale on the courthouse steps was held in 1861, and a group of abolition-minded Unionists interfered, preventing the sale. There is even a painting at the Missouri History Museum, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, purporting to show the scene.
Yet a recent National Park Service study confirms what I found in my research -- that slave sales continued in St. Louis until at least 1864, when the actions of African Americans refusing to submit to slavery combined with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the actions of the U.S. Army to dissolve slavery in Missouri. No such interrupted sale, however fondly remembered, seems to have happened.
Noble's motives for painting The Slave Mart in 1866, showing a slave sale (the word "last" was added later, in a St. Louis Daily Times review) are unclear. It is part of a string of paintings featuring the lives of African Americans under slavery that Noble completed in the years after his service to the Confederate army.
And, unfortunately, this is not the first re-enactment of a slave auction on the courthouse steps. During the 1904 World's Fair, at 2 in the morning, a Fair commissioner announced that he had a young slave girl "of unusual beauty" for sale. He took bids up to $750, a bargain by antebellum prices, before revealing it a farce, merely a drunken effort to sell one Fair commissioner to another. Even by the racist standards of the day, such an act desecrated both local and national history, erasing the lessons of the Civil War Era completely.
Da Silva's slave auction may horrify us, but it should also motivate us to act. In these years of the Civil War sesquicentennial, learn about the true causes and consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction, in St. Louis and throughout the nation.
And act on this chilling fact: according to the organization Free the Slaves, more individuals are held in slavery today -- in the sex trade, as forced laborers on farms, in carpet factories, as street beggars or in sweatshops -- than at any time in human history. We still have an opportunity to stop a real slave auction today, perhaps even in St. Louis.
Adam Arenson is the author of the new book "The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War," published by Harvard University Press. He will be in St. Louis to present more of his research at the Missouri History Museum on Jan. 23 and at UMSL on Jan. 24. He is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso.