Dr. Anne C. Bailey ’82, professor of history and African American studies at SUNY Binghamton, wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning series, The 1619 Project, which documents the history and legacy of slavery in America.
“They Sold Human Beings Here,” which was published this week, uncovers the mostly forgotten auction sites where enslaved people were bought and sold. Dr. Bailey's essay is accompanied by images taken by photographer Dannielle Bowman.
Previously, little had been recorded regarding these pivotal locations in American history. After the Civil War, Dr. Bailey writes, “the emphasis on national unity and reconstruction created a desire to paper over the atrocities of the past, and many of these sites were forgotten. ... Except for the occasional marker or museum, there was no record of the horror of separation suffered by many black families.”
Dr. Bailey and her research assistants at the Binghamton University/Harriet Tubman Center for the Study of Freedom and Equity sought to expand the historical record. They conducted original research, delving through archives that included narratives of the formerly enslaved and even post-Civil War ads placed in newspapers by the enslaved themselves.
From these accounts, Dr. Bailey describes the brutal treatment of enslaved people as a result of the auction process, particularly the devastating effect auctions had on enslaved families.
“Family was one of the few bright spots in the long night of slavery, and the auction was the event that ripped enslaved families apart. The very prospect of it cast a specter over the enslaved population like a slowly dilapidating roof: At any time, it could come down and destroy the inhabitants of an already-fragile dwelling.”
While the families of enslaved peoples were torn apart, other families profited for generations. Dr. Bailey’s piece documents the wealth that the slave trade created for those who conducted it, such as the slave trading firm of Franklin & Armfield. “In their heyday,” Dr. Bailey writes, “Isaac Franklin and John Armfield sold between 1,000 and 2,000 enslaved people per year, and by the time Franklin died in 1846, his estate was valued at $710,000—almost $24 million today—a fortune largely earned through the slave trade.”
This is not the first time that Dr. Bailey has researched and written on the slave trade. Her second book, The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History, examines a devastating two-day auction held in 1859, during which 436 people were sold, tearing apart a community of Gullah Geechee African-Americans. Dr. Bailey offered a reading of The Weeping Time at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s in 2018.