A Slave Auction
Digital History ID 481
James Martin, born on a Virginia plantation in 1847, was 90 years old when he was interviewed by the Works Progress Administration in 1937. After the Civil War he moved to Texas, where he served in the 9th U.S. Cavalry and later worked as a cowboy. Here, he describes a slave auction.
The slaves are put in stalls like the pens they use for cattle -- a man and his wife with a child on each arm. And there's a curtain, sometimes just a sheet over the front of the stall, so the bidders can't see the "stock" too soon. The overseer's standin' just outside with a big black snake whip and a pepperbox pistol in his belt. Across the square a little piece, there's a big platform with steps leadin' to it.
Then, they pulls up the curtain, and the bidders is crowdin' around. Them in back can't see, sot he overseer drives the slaves out to the platform, and he tells the ages of the slaves and what they can do. They have white gloves there, and one of the bidders takes a pair of globes and rubs his fingers over a man's teeth, and he says to the overseer, "You call this buck twenty years old? Why there's cut worms in his teeth. He's forty years old, if he's a day." So they knock this buck down for a thousand dollars. They calls the men "bucks" and the women "wenches."
When the slaves is on the platform -- what they calls the "block" -- the overseer yells, "Tom or Jason, show the bidders how you walk." Then, the slave steps across the platform, and the biddin' starts.
At these slave auctions, the overseer yells, "Say, you bucks and wenches, get in your hole. Come out here." Then, he makes 'em hop, he makes 'em trot, he makes 'em jump. "How much," he yells, "for this buck? A thousand? Eleven hundred? Twelve hundred dollars? Then the bidders makes offers accordin' to size and build.
Source: George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn., 1972), Texas Narr., Vol.5, 62- 65.
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