- The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History by Anne C. Bailey
In The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History, Anne C. Bailey tells the story of a slave auction that took place in Savannah, Georgia, in 1859, after Pierce Mease Butler ran out of money and decided to sell men, women, and children to pay off his debts. It was a remarkable moment. In two days, 436 people had their kinship and community bonds torn apart, as purchasers took advantage of Butler's misfortune and snapped up his slaves for bargain prices.
Bailey tells the story of the Butler auction to explore the human dimensions of slavery, focusing on the devastating impact the auction had on black people while also considering the profound effects it had on white people. But her book is not just about the auction. She also follows the story—and the lives of some of those involved—to the present day in order to provide insight into the values and experiences of today's black community. As Bailey puts it, her book is designed to explore four key themes: "slave labor, emancipation from slavery, the reconciliation of lives and loved ones in the era of Reconstruction, and historical and contemporary notions of the Black family" (p. 21). [End Page 166]
To get there, Bailey breaks the book into three parts. In Part 1, she focuses on the auction itself, in what she calls "The Breach." Here, she crafts a compelling narrative from the perspective of the enslaved. She tells the story of Jeffrey, who pleaded with his new owner to purchase Dorcas, the woman he loved. When the owner refused, Bailey writes, Jeffrey "pulled off his hat, dropped to his knees, and wept" (p. 4). The notion of human suffering—of a "weeping time"—permeates the first part of Bailey's book. Auctions were a pervasive part of slavery's economy, and former slaves spoke often about the experience in the Works Progress Administration ex-slave narratives. Yet, aside from the pathbreaking work of scholars such as Walter Johnson and Frederic Bancroft, auctions have not garnered the attention from historians that the topic deserves. Bailey thus places the auction at center stage to reckon with it, to look back at the cruelties of slavery, and to come out with stories of resilience and inspiration.
In Part 2, Bailey moves into what she calls "Linked Fates." Here, Bailey looks at the events that led to the Savannah auction to showcase the interconnected fates of black and white people. Drawing on the early guidance of scholars including Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, as well as more recent contributions by Annette Gordon-Reed and others, Bailey explores how black and white southerners have shaped "each other' s histories, experiences, and memories" (p. 22). The auction block, Bailey argues, offers a unique lens through which to observe the parallel lives yet linked fates of black and white people. Butler, it turns out, was married to the English abolitionist Fanny Kemble, and slavery ultimately brought about the dissolution of their family. The outcome cannot compare with what happened to Jeffrey and Dorcas, but Bailey uses it to illustrate the pernicious effect of slavery on everyone.
Finally, in Part 3, Bailey focuses on "Healing the Breach." This part begins with the efforts of the former Butler slaves during emancipation to find those relatives separated by the auction. Family came first, Bailey argues, pointing out the ways the former slaves reconnected and repaired broken bonds. But the lessons learned from this episode are not simply a historical exercise. Bailey suggests that the resilience of the black family back then provides insight into the black family today. As such, The Weeping Time is not simply a story of sadness; instead, it is a story of redemption.