To Be Sold

Aug 7, 2015

Credit Library of Virginia, 1812

The Library of Virginia is preparing for a groundbreaking exhibition on the U.S. domestic slave trade that existed after the newly formed American nation outlawed the transatlantic slave trade. 

Richmond was a key player in the pipeline to buy and sell human beings, and some historians believe it sent more slaves to the Deep South than were initially transported across the Atlantic Ocean. 

The “To Be Sold” exhibition begins with the paintings of an English artist who was horrified by what he saw during a visit to Richmond.

The exhibition will feature works by Eyre Crowe, who saw an ad, went to see a slave sale, then painted and engraved heart-wrenching scenes. Library Director of Public Services Gregg Kimball says most people think of the transatlantic trade, but the profitable domestic trade sent two million laborers to the burgeoning Cotton South.

“Masters in places like Virginia have too many slaves to do the work that’s required. One of the really perverse ironies of this whole system is that natural reproduction makes some of their labor redundant. And so, masters turn to the auction block.”

Crowe’s well-dressed slaves were the norm. To bring in the best price, they often wore garments from an associated cottage industry. The exhibition will include ledgers, ads, a runaway slave collar, and related artifacts. It will illustrate the trade business, but also the human side and the post-war effort to re-build families.

“People are constantly trying to find relatives who’ve been sold. So they put ads in newspapers.  And there are cases where people have the minister in a church read an announcement: ‘Do you know where So-and-so has gone to?  I’m looking for him.’”

The exhibition will open on October 27th. Crowe’s works are also depicted in a book by UVa Art History Professor Maurie McInnis, who will serve as the exhibition’s curator.

In addition to the exhibit in Richmond, Randolph College will hold a symposium from April 3 – 5 in Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest featuring panel discussions and presentations detailing slavery’s legacy. The programs are free and include tours of Jefferson’s Poplar Forest retreat, located just outside of Lynchburg.  Click here for more information.