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.