His owner sold William and his family at auction, but other owners sold other slaves, sometimes by the hundreds in auctions where the equivalent of millions of dollars changed hands. William’s ordeal remains his, but serves also to portray the ordeal of others who left behind no narratives of their own. Even for those who never faced auction, its prospect always hid just under the horizon. Circumstance could force even the most gentle owners to sell their human property just as it could force them to mortgage their land and homes. Death could transmit slaves from an owner who would not auction them off to one who would. No shortage of owners invested in slaves. They bought women with an eye toward the sale of their future children and, like William’s, invested in teaching slaves trades to increase their value. Whatever else owners thought of slaves, they remained legally livestock with all the implications that carried.
With all that in mind, I offer the entire account of the auction that tore apart William’s family. Four million slaves lived every day with at least this possibility in their futures:
My poor sister was sold first: she was knocked down to a planter who resided at some distance in the country. Then I was called upon the stand. While the auctioneer was crying the bids, I saw the man that had purchased my sister getting her into a cart, to take her to his home. I at once asked a slave friend who was standing near the platform, to run and ask the gentleman if he would please to wait till I was sold, in order that I might have an opportunity of bidding her good-bye. He sent me word back that he had some distance to go and could not wait.
I then turned to the auctioneer, fell upon my knees, and humbly prayed him to let me just step down and bid my last sister farewell. But, instead of granting me this request, he grasped me by the neck, and in a commanding tone of voice, and with a violent oath, exclaimed, “Get up! You can do the wench no good; therefore there is no use in your seeing her.
On rising, I saw the cart in which she sat moving slowly off; and, as she clasped her hands with a grasp that indicated despair, and looked pitifully round towards me, I also saw the large silent tears trickling down her cheeks. She made a farewell bow, and buried her face in her lap. This seemed more than I could bear. It appeared to swell my heart to its utmost. But before I could fully recover, the poor girl was gone;–gone, and I have never had the good fortune to see her from that day to this! Perhaps I should have never heard of her again, had it not been for the untiring efforts of my good old mother, who became free a few years ago by purchase, and, after a great deal of difficulty, found my sister residing with a family in Mississippi. My mother at once wrote to me, informing me of the fact, and requesting me to do something to get her free; and I am happy to say that, partly by lecturing occasionally, and through the salve of an engraving of my wife in the disguise in which she escaped, together with the extreme kindness and generosity of Miss Burdett Coutts, Mr. George Richardson of Plymouth, and a few other friends, I have nearly accomplished this. It would be to me a great and every-glorious achievement to restore my sister to our dear mother, from whom she was forcibly driven in early life.
I was knocked down to the cashier of the bank to which we were mortgaged, and ordered to return to the cabinet shop where I previously worked.
But the thought of the harsh auctioneer not applying me to bid my dear sister farewell, sent a red-hot indignation darting like lightning through every vein. It quenched my tears, and appeared to set my brain on fire, and made me crave for power to avenge our wrongs! But alas! we were only slaves, and had no legal rights; consequently we were compelled to smother our wounded feelings, and crouch beneath the iron heel of despotism.