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Photo courtesy of Chicago History Museum
"After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond" by Eyre Crowe
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Photo courtesy of Library of Virginia
An advertisement from 1812
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Photo courtesy of Library of Virginia
In an 1853 New York newspaper article, a writer describes witnessing the ousting of a young artist from a slave auction in Richmond. British painter Eyre Crowe was sketching the scene of nine slaves sitting on benches, waiting for the moment they would be put on an auction block, when a mob of auction attendees forced him out.
“It was the aspect of the institution of American slavery that by the 1850s, anti-slavery activists are the most critical of,” University of Virginia professor Maurie McInnis says. “By the process of selling human beings, you are dividing families, breaking apart relationships and treating [people] as if they are merely a commodity.”
On the morning of March 3, 1853, Crowe saw an advertisement for a slave auction in the Richmond newspaper. When he arrived at the site and began sketching, people started to notice. The auctioneer asked Crowe to explain what he was doing, and as he saw the image coming together, he and a group of slave traders demanded that Crowe leave. Crowe snuck into an adjacent room until he thought it was safe to escape, but he was met by an angry mob in the street. Later, in a book he published detailing his time spent in America, Crowe wrote that he was surprised he was not lynched for the activity.
Upon returning to England, Crowe painted the scene that he had sketched at that Richmond auction. Slaves Waiting for Sale was displayed at a London art gallery a few weeks after the start of the Civil War, along with two other paintings Crowe created that depicted the process of selling slaves in America. From Oct. 27 to May 30, the Library of Virginia will display Crowe’s artwork, along with more than 100 artifacts and documents, in an exhibition titled “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade.”
“Slaves Waiting for Sale asks the viewer to pause and consider the emotional moment before the sale,” McInnis says of the painting that is on loan from the Heinz Family Foundation. The professor of American art and material culture curated the exhibition after publishing a book of the same name in 2011. “It is a very contemplative scene where the nine people there have absolutely no idea what their fate is.”
The other Crowe painting that will be on display, After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond, depicts slaves boarding a train at the Richmond-Petersburg Railroad depot at the bottom of Eighth Street. The painting is on loan from the Chicago History Museum.
In 1808, Congress outlawed the international slave trade, and by the 1850s, the railroads were the most common way to transport slaves domestically. As the Southern hub of the East Coast rail system, Richmond became the largest slave-trading center in the Upper South. The sale of slaves through Richmond to the bourgeoning agricultural and cotton fields of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana made Virginia the largest mass exporter of enslaved people in the country.
“It was clearly an important part of the city’s economy and affected African-Americans really dramatically,” says Gregg Kimball, Library of Virginia’s director of public services.
The exhibition, which will start with a series of exhibit cases lining the library’s lobby and lead into the main gallery on the first floor, includes many documents that were already in the Library of Virginia’s permanent collection.
Other artifacts will be on loan from historical collections, such as the slave punishment collar that was cut off a woman in New Orleans by a Union soldier and mailed to the governor of Massachusetts during the Civil War. “It’s one of the more chilling pieces in the show,” Kimball says, adding that New Orleans was Richmond’s major trade partner in the domestic trade system. Ledgers, advertisement clippings and shackles, along with audio files of former slaves describing auctions in Richmond, will also be included in the exhibition.
“I think it’s vitally important that Richmonders understand this history as they think about their future,” McInnis says.