Slave Auction Held in St. Louis

It was a cold, gray morning in St. Louis as a crowd gathered to witness the first slave auction held on the Courthouse steps in nearly 150 years. As I said in an earlier post, this re-enactment was the project of Lindenwood University Professor Angela Da Silva, who has done living history as a slave woman for several years. I think there were about 300-400 people in attendance, but I’m guessing and I’m not good at estimating, so take it for what it’s worth. I will say that many, a majority, were African-American. I stayed behind the crowd for the most part and tried to listen and observe not only the program, but the reaction of the crowd as well.

There were a few people protesting, a couple of people quite loudly. One man, with the only sign, kept hollering that it was all a lie; that slavery was murder. He shouted out, “Do like you really did! Take her clothes off! Rape her on the steps! Beat on ’em!” Another man conversed with a city police officer and I heard him say he objected because this “glorified” slavery. Most of the crowd, however, listened respectfully, and after the re-enactment, all were invited into the courthouse to discuss what they had seen and felt. 

Prof. da Silva explained that she is the descendent of Missouri slaves; that she has been teaching Missouri history for thirty years; that her inspiration is her own grandmother, who taught her that African-Americans should be proud that they had survived the ordeal of slavery. She explained that she believed these programs are necessary because if African-Americans don’t step up and tell their own story, it is left to someone else, who may not tell it accurately. Most importantly she said she wanted to do this at this particular time, so that as we begin the sesquicentennial, slavery is the focus; slavery is shown to be the cause of the war that cost the lives of over 600, 000 Americans.  She thanked the National Park Service for bravely agreeing to host and participate in this program. 

The re-enactment was probably as accurate as it could be in a modern setting for a modern audience. It did not follow the “last slave sale” narrative. (See my previous post) I’m not African-American, so I would not presume to tell anyone else how they should feel about this. I will say that no matter how accurate this portrayal was, we can never really put ourselves completely in that time. We have 150 more years of human experience intervening, and we have our own modern day values and mores ingrained in us. I’m somewhat reminded of battle re-enactments. Again, no matter how careful re-enactors are, down to the thread count of their shirts, the experience will never truly be the same as what Civil War soldiers experienced. Do I think living history programs and re-enactments are worthwhile? Yes, I do, if they bring visitors to the park, particularly visitors who don’t normally come to the park, and if the visitor makes that emotional and intellectual connection. Most of all does the program make a visitor think?

You can find more up close photos here.

Also, my friend and co-worker, Abbi Telander posted her thoughts on this on her blog. I highly encourage you to read her post.

Update: After a couple days reflection, a few more thoughts here.

12 thoughts on “Slave Auction Held in St. Louis

  1. Pingback: On the Block « Dead Confederates

  2. Awesome write-up, Bob. I saw on a photoblog that estimated a total of 500 (including participants and the audience). I’m glad you were able to attend; I wish it would have been week or two earlier so I could have seen this happen.

  3. I too attended the slave auction. I wont call it a re-enactment, but a portrayal. I agree with you that we dont know how it really was and how they really felt. I have been in some Civil War re-enactments. You can get a sense of the time period, a sense of the history, but you also know that you can walk right back into our reality in an instant. For the real slaves, this was their reality. This was eternal to them. They did not know they would be freed in 1865.

    To see the emotion of the people in the crowd was very moving. To see part of the history that has been somewhat hidden, revealed, was touching. Not only has the Black Man been deprived of his history, but so has the White Man been deprived of learning about it. I, a white man, personally feel cheated that the history was hidden from me. This is one more step in the process.

    • Thanks for the comment Tim. I have been trying to come to grips with the whole thing since yesterday. I have read lots of reactions, ranging from one extreme to the other. I can’t say that I think this history has been hidden. Maybe it just hasn’t been brought to life in this way before, but there have been many books written about slavery. If you haven’t read it, I might suggest Kenneth Stampp’s “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South.”

      • Oh, I don’t mean that slavery has been hidden. In school, we only learned of George Washington Carver. It made one think that he was the only famous black man in history. As more black history is revealed to us, the more we realize how much was not taught. Let us not lose sight that yesterday was not only about black history, and not white history, but America’s history. That if we don’t explore it, and learn from it, how can we make our country greater?

        • Yes, it is America’s history, and it is important to explore it and understand it as best we can. My only concern is that we don’t become so overwhelmed with the negative aspects of our history that we fail to recognize the positive. I think that is what I have been trying to settle in my own mind. This portrayal highlighted a very ugly part of our collective history, but that profound, bright, and glorious principle upon which our country was founded, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, has enabled countless millions to break the bonds of slavery and oppression around the world even if it has and is taking longer than it should.

  4. Pingback: Reenacting History: Secession and Slavery | Crossroads

  5. Dad, your comment about remembering the positive made me think about my teaching my students about MLK, Jr. I realized how far we have come as a nation after endless, “but why?” questions from them. They can’t understand why someone with darker skin wouldn’t be allowed to be in the same classroom as them…why their friends who are African American wouldn’t be allowed to play ball with them. When I asked them, “Do we all have the same color eyes? Do we all have the same color hair? So, does it matter if our skin color is the same?” One little boy raised his hand and said, “We are all the same on the inside!” which led another to say, “We all have hearts inside us!” Should we teach the horrible parts of our past, yes. It would be an injustice not to. We did not all come over on the Mayflower-with hopes and dreams of a new
    future. However, we also need to recognize how far from slavery we have come. We need to recognize how open-minded, loving, and accepting of others our children are. After all, they are our future-right?

    P.S. I typed this on my phone with auto-correct and no spellcheck which is not always a good thing-so I apologize now for typo’s. =)

    • Thanks for the comment Stace! It is heartening to know children have teachers like you who are doing their best to instill positive values.

  6. Pingback: BlackPride » Blog Archive » Do Civil War Reenactments Help or Hinder?

  7. Pingback: Media Comment on the St. Louis Slave Auction Re-enactment « Preserving the American Past

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