Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Slavery's Trail of Tears

Smithsonian magazine has published a fine story about the slave trading routes in America. Edward Ball has assembled a well-documented story of how "about a million enslaved people moved from the Upper South - Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky - to the Deep South - Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama." The story of the forced migration of slaves has long been buried in memory.

"Slavery's Trail of Tears" traces the route taken by the coffles from assembling the group of men, women, and children from the streets of Richmond to their sale at auctions in New Orleans. The coffles were large with as many as three hundred people. The men's hands were handcuffed together and a long chain was passed through the handcuffs to tie the men together. The travel south was on rivers and trails to the Mississippi River and slave markets in Memphis, Natchez, and New Orleans. Some slaves went by ship from Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Norfolk  to Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans.  Many went overland from Abingdon, Virginia to Knoxville then Nashville to Natchez and New Orleans.

The men engaged in this trade made fortunes with coffles valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. 
Virginia was the source for the biggest deportation. Nearly 450,000 people were uprooted and sent south from the state between 1810 and 1860. "In 1857 ... the sale of people in Richmond amounted to $4 million ... that would be more than $440 million today"    
Mr. Ball retraces the steps in one slave trading route conducted by Isaac Franklin. He points out the empire that Franklin built from the slave trade - "six plantations and 650 slaves." Ball visits the places that were once huge trading centers like Forks of the Road in Natchez. Today these places are all but forgotten. Forks on the Road is remembered by five historical markers.

Ball's story is a tale that many have forgotten, but should be told. The agony of families being separated, the hardships on the journey, the abuses of black women by the traders, and, perhaps most cruelly, the cries for help in finding lost family after the Civil War.

This is must reading for historians and should be added to curriculum for Black History month.

(Source: Edward Ball, "Slavery's Trail of Tears," Smithsonian, November 2015, 58-82.)