It was the nation’s largest auction of enslaved people. Now, a search for descendants of the ‘weeping time.’Historians in the News
tags: slavery, African American history, Henry Louis Gates
It poured rain at the Georgia racetrack that Wednesday and Thursday, and the wind blew water into the covered grandstand where the merchandise was gathered for auction.
Many of the offerings were “prime,” the catalogue said. “London’s Kit” was for sale, and “Smith’s Bill,” and “Hector’s Bess.” Some were lame or unsound and might not fetch much. But the wealthy Philadelphia owner had squandered huge amounts of his money and needed cash.
So on March 2 and 3, 1859, Pierce Mease Butler, whose grandfather had signed the U.S. Constitution, sold off 429 human beings he “owned” in what historians say was the largest recorded auction of enslaved people in U.S. history. The incident became known as “the weeping time” or “the weeping days.”
Now, two prominent scholars, the award-winning Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the best-selling Washington author James Swanson, have embarked on a new study of the notorious event and an effort to find possible descendants of those sold.
“The auction … was horrible,” Gates, host of the popular PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” said in a recent interview at the National Book Festival in Washington. “They did filthy things to people. Women, stripped them, poked them. Horrible.”
Families were broken up. Stricken loved ones were separated. And, often, those who had been sold were shipped to plantations far away from where they had been born.
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