Remembering Dorothy Foreman Cotton
In Memory of New England Poet and US Poet Laureate Donald Hall

Breaking Up Families of Color, an American Tradition as Old as the Slave Trade

By Daina Berry

Husbands, wives, and families sold indiscriminately to different purchasers, are violently separated ; probably never to meet again, 1853
Source: New York Public Library

We’ve watched the devastating news footage of immigrant children being separated from their families at the US-Mexico border and held in fenced cages as part of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Twitter has been bristling with outrage. Hillary Clinton tweeted that “there’s nothing American about tearing families apart.” But separating families, especially families of color, has historical precedence. It’s an established American tradition. Going as far back as the slave trade, we learn that enslaved Black children experienced the same trauma on the auction block as today’s immigrant children. Just take a look at this passage from Daina Berry’s The Price for Their Pound of Flesh. Before writing off draconian policies issued from the White House as un-American, check your history.


Many enslaved children have vivid memories of the sale experience. Marlida Pethy of Missouri recalled that when she was “nine or ten years old,” she was “put up on de block to be sold.” Of the stand, she recalled, “It was just a piece cut out of a log and [it] stood on [one] end.” Her recollection about her price is even more telling: “Dey was offered $600 but my mistress cried so much dat master did not sell me.” The mistress’s attachment to her human property was so great in this case that the family decided not to sell Marlida. Such interventions were not always successful or helpful. Several enslaved people reported that their mistresses were as violent and sadistic as their husbands. In this case, we do not know if Marlida preferred to remain with her mistress. All we know is that Marlida was not sold and that, decades later, she remembered the monetary value she carried at auction. It made a deep impression on her young mind.

The sounds, sights, and smells of slave auctions contributed to the horror of enslaved children’s lives. Loud, rhythmic bid calls echoing from the mouths of auctioneers competed with chatter from potential buyers, the rattling of chains, and the everyday noises of a town center. Joining these audible oddities was another unpleasant sound that could be heard above all others at the end of a sale: the cries of wailing mothers, overcome with grief after being separated from their children.

At that moment, all children understood their status and experienced, for the first time and likely not the last, the overwhelming heaviness of loss. Some parents had protected their children from the realities of enslavement, allowing them the innocence of childhood. However, at auction, the point of separation, children witnessed the full intensity of their parents’ distress. The breaking up of families was devastating for the enslaved and also for some others who witnessed it. For many abolitionists, particularly visitors to the Deep South, the sound of shrieking mothers and crying babies and the sight of confused and frightened children were too much to bear. During one Louisiana auction where 149 enslaved people were sold at once, a Northern abolitionist said that none of the enslaved people would “raise his or her head and eyes” to gaze out at the potential buyers in the audience. “Some poor girls,” overcome with emotion, were “weeping audibly and are all looking sad—sad—sad!”

Many enslaved adults recalled horrific experiences on the auction block. Charles Ball was four years old when separated from his mother. On the day of his sale, he “was naked” and never owned any clothes. His new owner dressed him, but Ball vividly recalled that his “poor mother,” who knew it might be the last time she saw her son, “ran after” him. She took him “down from the horse” and held him tight, then “wept loudly and bitterly” over him. When it was time for him to leave, she “walked along the road beside the horse,” pleading with the owner not to take her son. After being physically separated, his mother was whipped, and Ball remembered “the cries of my poor parent” as they became less audible the further he traveled. Despite the fading sounds of her cries, and as “young as I was,” Ball explained, “the horrors of that day sank deeply into my heart, and even at this time though half a century has elapsed, the terrors of the scene return with painful vividness.”

In countless descriptions of auction scenes, auctioneers cannot be heard over the cries of enslaved parents. W. L. Bost of North Carolina vividly remembered that, when he “was a little boy, ’bout ten years” old, a coffle of enslaved people stayed on his “place” on their way to a market. He saw that they “nearly froze to death” because they came in December before sales on the “first day of January.” The coffle included “four or five of them chained together.” It was so cold that he saw “ice balls hangin’ on to the bottom” of the women’s dresses. “All through the night,” Bost explained, “I could hear them mournin’ and prayin.’” He remembered hearing the auctioneer “cry ’em off” as they stood on the block and saw weeping mothers calling for their children and husbands.

Witnessing these scenes as a boy had a profound impact on Bost’s young mind. He was thankful that his enslaver did not sell any of his human property. Seeing the yearly coffles was evidence that his family was fortunate. His memory of trading season included a critical analysis of the way enslaved people were treated like hogs and sheep. They were driven “jes like sheep in a pasture.” The speculators “rode on horses,” and when the enslaved were cold, “they make ’em run ’til they are warm again.” All of those for sale were kept “in the quarters jes like droves of hogs,” and during the night he heard them crying.

Enslaved children learned to fear auctions, even if they were not initially separated from their parents. Anna Kentuck and her little boy, Armstead, three years old, were sold together for $1,950; however, the sale was later canceled, and the two approached the block a second time. One witness described “Armstead, the poor little boy” as “living proof” that “even little children can feel the atrocity of being thus sold.” As the second sale commenced, Armstead began to cry “most pitifully” and hid his face “under the white apron of his weeping mother.” The two cried together because they knew that ultimately they could be separated.

Martha King also remembered being sold at five years old. She was placed on the auction block with her grandmother, mother, aunts, and uncles. “I can remember it well,” she told interviewers in the 1930s. “A white man ‘cried’ me off just like I was an animal or varmint or something.” King even recalled her monetary value: “Old man Davis give him $300.00 for me.” Their mothers’ reactions intensified enslaved children’s understanding of separation. They witnessed their mothers’ devastation and helplessness. Fathers, if they were recognized and present, desperately tried to make deals for their families to stay together. These efforts were difficult, because, although many sales began with instructions that families would not be separated, market needs trumped conditions of sale and families were often separated.

As for W. L. Bost, we know that he was not sold, but he witnessed auctions and could recite bid calls decades later. “I remember when they put ’em on the block to sell ’em,” he noted. “The ones ’tween 18 and 30,” people considered prime, “always bring the most money.” The auctioneer, who stood away from the human chattel, “cry ’em off as they stand on the block.” Perhaps haunted by this scene, Bost said he could hear the auctioneer’s voice “as long as I live.”


About the Author 

Daina Berry is an associate professor of history and African and African diaspora studies, and the Oliver H. Radkey Regents Fellow in History, at the University of Texas at Austin. An award-winning historian, she is also a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. She lives in Austin, Texas. Follow her on Twitter at @DainaRameyBerry and visit her website