See previous entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 10 -- The Wheeling Farm Market.
One Saturday morning in June 1851, when I was ten years old, a neighbor boy -- James Van Pelt -- and I were at Wheeling market, looking for something to do while we waited for my mother. We ventured to the upper end of the markethouse, and there beheld a sight that I shall never forget, and which subsequently changed my whole political thought and action. It was a slave auction.
The auction block was on the west side of the upper end of the market. It was a wooden, movable platform about two and a half feet high and six feet square, which was approached by some three or four steps. The auctioneer was a little dapper fellow with a ringing voice and an air of self-assured bustle; I figured he must be a man of some importance. Not a very large crowd was surrounding the auction block.
On top of the platform was a portly and rather aged Negro woman and the auctioneer. She was a mulatto [mixed blood], had a broad full face, soft matronly eyes, and gray hair. Her face reflected kindness and affection, mingled with a sad and troubled expression. I liked her as soon as I saw her.
Grouped together on the ground at the side of the block stood three other Negroes, two men and one woman. They were all about the same age, the woman being probably two years younger than the men. I guess she was about twenty. She was also a mulatto, as was one of the men. The other man, who was her brother, was quite dark, with features and expression like his mother, who was on the auction block.
The outline of the girl's face looked like her mother and darker brother, though here the resemblance ended. She was tall and slender, and had a very attractive figure. When she moved, it was with a grace that showed refinement. She was almost as white as any white person in the crowd, and her hair, while wavy, was not short and tightly curled like her brother's, but long and jet black. Her lips were thin like a white person's and her eyes quite dark. They were full of tears. I thought she was beautiful. Had she been in Spain, she would easily pass for a Spanish lady.
In my childish innocence I could not reason how this white girl could be the sister of that black man. Subsequent knowledge has replaced my innocence. The circumstances were inherent in the conditions of American slavery. What a contradiction of words -- American slavery! The father of that black brother was a black man, the father of his mulatto sister was a white man, and both children had been born by their mulatto mother, now on the auction block.
The girl would bow her head for a while as if to hide her tears. Then she would raise her eyes for a moment and with inexpressibly pathetic sadness, look toward her mother, whom she evidently loved very much. Then her eyes would wander to the auctioneer in a kind of dazed look of disbelief, then to the bystanders, whom she would scan in speechless, pleading, agony. Then her head fell again.
I quietly slipped around in front of her and looked up into her face; the tears were freely rolling down her cheeks and dripping onto her blue-checked apron. I knew something was wrong and I wanted to help. I pulled the coattail of an elderly gentleman. When he stooped down to ask what I wanted, he answered my inquiry by saying hat this was a slave auction and they were going to sell these four people. He told me that the woman on the auction block was the mother of the girl and darker man; and that the same master had owned them all, along with the other mulatto man. They were being sold to pay his creditors. He said they would probably be sold to different persons, and separated, never to see each other again.
This elderly gentleman seemed so kind. He had a light brown broad-brimmed hat and was dressed in drab-colored clothes except for his clean white shirt with its close-fitting standing collar. His coat came up and fastened close to the neck like that of a minister. He seemed educated and refined. His clothes, I noticed, had some flour on them. When he began to talk to me I saw at once he was a Quaker, and for the first time I looked at his face and knew him at once. He was Joshua Cope, our neighborhood miller. His flour mill was near the headwaters of Glen's Run, a half mile east of Colerain, in Belmont County, Ohio, and some four miles from the Ohio River. He was at Wheeling market to sell flour. I had been to the mill many times, and when I told him my name, he recognized me, too.
When I asked why they were selling these poor people, he replied, "For money, my child, the price of human blood." His words were subdued and low, as though he wanted no one but me to hear, but I noticed the young mulatto girl caught every word he said, and her face lighted up with a strange hope. "What will they do with them, Mr. Cope, when they buy them?" I asked. "Take them away to the South and work them like beasts, just as we do horses and oxen," he replied.
"Will their owners beat them like some farmers beat their oxen," I asked. "Some of them will fare very badly," said Mr. Cope, "but the worst treatment may not come from their masters. The master's slavedriver will frequently beat them when the master isn't around. And if they are hired out to work for other people, those people may work them very hard to get back more than they paid the master for their services."
Mr. Cope paused and looked away. Then he stooped down to me again, and said: "One of the worst features of this cursed traffic is the separation of families. But this is not all, my child...." He lowered his voice to barely a whisper, "this is not the worst; would to God it were! It is the way some masters treat their female slaves that is so wicked. Oh, my boy, God is gathering a swift and terrible judgment to the people who are doing these things. You will live to see terrible times. Be a brave man when it comes."
Those words sank deep into my heart. They came with an earnestness and feeling I can never forget. He straightened up and began to take an interest in the crying of the auctioneer, which had been going on for several minutes. The eyes of the young girl followed him in a pleading manner, and I saw that he noticed it.
"And a-going! And a-going!" cried the auctioneer. "How much am I offered for Aunt Tilda Taylor? How much? How much? Now, gentlemen, this is a good servant woman. It's true she is a little old, but there's lots of work left in her. How much am I offered? Speak quick, for she is going to sell. How much am I offered?"
"How old is she?" came a gruff voice from one of the bystanders. I looked at the man who asked this question. He was well dressed, and had a ponderous gold watch charm and chain, diamond shirt-studs, and a fine gold ring on his left small finger. He was a large, powerfully built, broad shouldered man, with dark complexion and black hair and mustache. He had an expression on his face that scared me. "Sixty-five years old," replied the auctioneer, "but she is healthy, spry and active, and her teeth are good yet, come up and examine them."
The man walked up on the platform. In a rough manner he caught the lips of the woman and pulling them apart, took a thorough survey of her teeth and mouth. His grasp slipped and she closed her mouth. He ordered her to open her mouth again, which she did, and then he actually ran his finger into it to feel her "back grinders," as he termed it. Blood mounted to her cheeks at this indignity, but in a moment she regained her composure, and flushed cheeks gave way to a sad look of resignation.
He took hold of her arms, and punched her in the side and back to see how fleshy she was; he then looked at her hands. They seemed soft and tender. "Oh, she's a damned house servant," he said; "I don't want her. She'd be of no account in my hemp fields in Mississippi." Then turning to her, he said: "Did you ever work in the field, old woman?" "No, sir; I waited on Misses all my life till she died the other day," the woman replied. I was struck with her soft musical voice and I thought of how I would hate to have my mother treated that way.
"Well, I don't want her," said the man, "but I'll give fifty dollars for her, to sell again on speculation; and if anybody else wants her for more money he can take her." "Fifty dollars I am offered," cried the auctioneer, "and a-going! and a-going at fifty dollars. Who'll give more?" "Seventy-five," came from another, whose voice had a Southern ring.
"I am out," said the first bidder as the auctioneer turned toward him for a raised bid. "And a-going! and a-going! and a-going at seventy-five dollars!" "Eighty," came from the lips of Mr. Cope. I was dumbfounded; what could he want with a slave in Ohio. They did not permit slavery there. "I'll give eighty-five," cried the other bidder, and the auctioneer repeated it again, lustily. "Ninety," said Mr. Cope softly. "Ninety-five," cried the Southerner, and the bid hung at this for some time, until I feared Mr. Cope would let her go. Finally, when the auctioneer was about to close the bid, Mr. Cope said, "One hundred."
I was on Mr. Cope's side. I wanted him to get Aunt Tilda, for I knew he was a kind man, who would always help another person. In our neighborhood he was called an "Abolitionist." I'd also heard some of the Democrats and Whigs, as well as several other persons in the community, call people with his beliefs "Black Abolitionists," "Nigger Worshippers," "Woolly Heads," and other similar names.
"One hundred, and a-going at one hundred!" cried the auctioneer. The Southerner eyed Mr. Cope for a moment, and then bid one hundred and five. Immediately came, "One hundred and twenty-five," from Mr. Cope, and the opposing bidder said, "Let him have her. There is no money in her at that price."
She was sold to Mr. Cope, who walked up to the constable, handed him the money and said, "Thee will please give me a bill of sale for Matilda Taylor." This was promptly done, as these bills of sale were prepared in advance, leaving nothing to fill in except the purchase price, the name of purchaser, and date of sale. Mr. Cope took the paper, read it over (it was a printed form), then wrote something across the back and folded it and placed it in his large notebook in his side pocket.
A change had come over the features of Aunt Tilda. A Quaker had bought her and she knew what that meant. Her face was radiant with joy. It looked as though it had been touched by an angel of light. This lasted only a moment, however, and was quickly replaced by that same, sad, distressed look as her eyes fell upon her two children at the side of the auction block.
Years later I learned what Mr. Cope had written on the back of that bill of sale. It was the following:
"Wheeling, Va., 6th month [June], 7th day [Saturday] 1851.
"I, Joshua Cope, the within owner, hereby manumit, release, and forever set free, the within slave, Matilda Taylor. Witness my hand, day and date above written.
See next entry: Beautiful Belmont, Part 12 -- The Wheeling Slave Auction: Bidding For Lucinda Taylor.
For the table of contents and first entry in this series, see: Beautiful Belmont, Part 01 -- Table of Contents and Brief Introduction.
This entry is adapted from Bonnie Belmont: A Historical Romance of the Days of Slavery and the Civil War, by John Salisbury Cochran, which was published originally in 1907. The book has been reedited extensively for inclusion in the Pierian Press Fulltext eBooks database, and is included on the Stratton House Inn Web site by special permission. This special edition of Beautiful Belmont is licensed for use ONLY on this Web site. It may not be copied or downloaded, but may be used for educational purposes and personal pleasure under fair-use provisions via this Web site. Please note that this Stratton House Inn iteration of the book does NOT include the subject headings assigned each chapter for use in the Fulltext eBooks database.
CO-AUTHOR: Wall, C. Edward. (Editor)
CO-AUTHOR: Schultheiss, Tom. (Asst. Editor)
DATABASE: Fulltext eBooks: Copyright (c) 2000 The Pierian Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved
ENTRY NUMBER: EBK30011831