Eyre Crowe (1824–1910) traveled in America for six months, from 1852 until 1853, working as secretary to family friend William Makepeace Thackeray, the wildly popular satirist and author of the novel Vanity Fair (1848). Thackeray was booked to deliver a series of six lectures in each of the eight cities he visited: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. Along the way, Crowe helped to write Thackeray’s letters and arrange his travel and lodging.
Crowe had spent much of his childhood in Paris, where his father, Eyre Evans Crowe, served as the correspondent for London newspaper the Morning Chronicle. At age fourteen, the younger Crowe enrolled in the studio of the French painter Paul Delaroche. In 1844 Crowe moved with his parents to London, where he attended the Royal Academy School of Art. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1846 and was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1876.
Shortly after arriving in America with Thackeray, Crowe purchased a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in book form in March 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel sold 300,000 copies in its first year and would go on to become the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century. As Crowe later wrote in With Thackeray in America (1893), Stowe’s dramatic depictions of auction blocks, families separated by slavery, runaway slaves, and vicious overseers “properly harrowed” him and inspired him to learn what he could of American slavery. On March 3, 1853, his first morning in Richmond, Crowe noticed in one of the local newspapers “the announcements of slave sales, some of which were to take place that morning in Wall Street, close at hand, at eleven o’clock.” He wandered down the hill from his hotel to the slave-auction rooms and there made a number of sketches that served as inspiration for a series of his later engravings and paintings.
Domestic Slave Trade
Crowe’s drawings and paintings are significant to the degree that they shed additional light on a dark corner of American slavery: the domestic, or internal, slave trade. The international slave trade, which included the often-deadly voyage from African to America known as the Middle Passage, legally ended in the United States in 1808, giving rise to a new domestic market. Historians estimate that from 1820 to 1860, two million enslaved African Americans were sold from one owner in the United States to another. Of those two million, about 666,000 were sold from states in the Upper South (especially Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina) to states in the Lower South (especially Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana), where the sharp increase in cotton production fueled a parallel demand for slave labor. Those sold through the interregional slave trade were typically purchased by traders in the Upper South, where they were held in “slave pens,” or “jails,” before being marched or transported south by railroads. Upon arrival, they were sold again, often on the auction block at places many called the “slave market.”
This forced migration of hundreds of thousands of enslaved peoples was usually attended by family asserted that family separations were rare and only occurred in unusual circumstances, but historians have determined that more than half the slaves sold by traders were forcibly separated either from a spouse or from one or both of their parents. Slaves were sold for a variety of reasons: as punishment, to pay debts or secure mortgages, or to settle an estate after the death of an owner. Families were usually not sold intact because family units did not command the highest prices. Instead, individual slaves, age fifteen to thirty, were the most profitable. Young mothers were sold away from their husbands and children, young fathers from their wives and children, and children from their parents.
Many cities in the Upper South developed a sizable infrastructure dedicated to the slave trade: Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Alexandria, and Richmond among them. These cities became primarily slave collecting and resale centers, with a large network of traders who provided slaves to satisfy the demand in urban markets. Once purchased by a trader, slaves were usually transported to the urban center by boat or railroad, or marched overland, and then placed in slave jail. One of the largest and most financially successful slave-trading firms was the partnership of Isaac Franklin and John Armfield (active from 1828 to 1836), who had an organized network of traders stationed in cities throughout the region, including Richmond and Warrenton in Virginia and Fredericktown and Baltimore in Maryland. Slaves purchased by the traders were sent to Franklin and Armfield’s headquarters in Alexandria. Richmond, the largest slave-trading center in the Upper South throughout most of the 1840s and 1850s, had multiple slave jails and auction rooms, most of which were within a few blocks of each other and only a few blocks from the Thomas Jefferson–designed State Capitol building. These facilities were concentrated on a small alleyway known locally as Wall Street, or roughly along what is now Fifteenth Street in Shockoe Valley.
After being held in jails, sometimes for weeks at a time, slaves were eventually sold, often to another trader. Sales either occurred at the jails or in salesrooms. These rooms were generally small and low-ceilinged, with little furniture or decoration. They consisted primarily of large, undivided interiors that sometimes held as many as a hundred people. Each room also had a piece of furniture specifically built for the trade conducted there: the auction block. Generally these were platforms that raised the auctioneer and the slaves for sale above the standing audience, to allow all a clear view of the “stock,” as dealers commonly referred to the people they auctioned. In addition to the dedicated salesrooms, slaves were also sold at auction in the basements of several of Richmond’s leading hotels, including the Exchange Hotel and the St. Charles Hotel.
On March 3, 1853, when Crowe visited Wall Street in Richmond, he reported four salesrooms there. The Wall Street traders at the time were Pulliam and Davis, Benjamin and Solomon Davis, R. H. Dickinson and Brothers, and C. B. and N. B. Hill. In the rooms he visited that day, Crowe gathered material that would later form the basis for a series of images that were published in the Illustrated London News on September 27, 1856, and two paintings that were exhibited in London in 1854 and 1861. Together, these images tell the story of the American slave trade by representing different moments in the process.
Crowe’s sketching that day in Richmond attracted considerable attention. Those around him began to take notice of the image he was creating and paid little attention to the auctioneer. Three times the auctioneer stopped and came over to question Crowe about what he was doing. The artist decided that because of the auctioneer’s “ill-disguised rage,” he ought to leave, quickly. He later reported that the entire audience determined him to be an abolitionist and he worried for his own safety. Concerned that it would cause trouble for Thackeray, who was well liked by Richmonders, Crowe was relieved to learn that friends helped to keep the incident quiet.
The image Slaves Waiting for Sale is known in three versions: the sketch made the day Crowe was in the salesroom, the wood engraving of the sketch that was published in 1856, and a painting of the same scene that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1861. The image was particularly striking because it depicted a subject not commonly shown in abolitionist art. Many artists had drawn or painted a slave auction; it was a popular subject in abolitionist materials and features in several scenes in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Crowe chose instead to show the moment before the auction; his focus on that quiet moment of uncertainty and dread invites viewers to pause and to think about the subject anew. In his image of nine slaves seated on benches awaiting the moment of sale on the auction block, he depicted families that had already been torn apart by the trade.
When the painting was exhibited in London in 1861, critics were struck by what they saw as the picture’s apparent accuracy. One reviewer, for London’s Art-Journal, declared it “one of the most important pictures of the exhibition.” All were particularly taken with the figure of the male slave on the right. At the time, viewers were accustomed to seeing images of slaves who accepted their position with a happy complacency, as famously depicted by Stowe in her characterization of Uncle Tom. Crowe chose instead to paint a very different figure, a man described, by the same Art-Journal reviewer, as expressing “suffused indignant scorn, mingled with defiance.” In the figure of this man, Crowe had depicted a slave who could resist, rebel, or run away at any moment. It was his most powerful statement about slavery and the slave trade.
The second image derived from Crowe’s day in the salesroom in Richmond was also published in the Illustrated London News, alongside Slaves Waiting for Sale. The engraving, Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia (1856), showed an event more commonly dramatized in abolitionist imagery: a slave auction. In Crowe’s image, the viewer’s attention is centered on the young woman on the block. To the left is a group of slave traders. Crowe described one of them as having “an unmistakable look of devilry,” and drew him with a cowhide whip trailing between his legs, almost in imitation of an animal’s tail.
The third image in Crowe’s cycle on the American slave trade was a painting exhibited at the Society of British Artists in 1854: After the Sale: Slaves Going South from Richmond (exhibited in London as Going South: A Sketch from Life in America). In this image, Crowe depicted what happened to slaves after they were purchased in the city’s salesroom. Centered at a railroad terminal in Richmond with the city’s skyline visible in the background, Going South shows a scene of extraordinary confusion as slaves are marched to the railroad cars for their journey south. Some may have faced only short journeys to nearby locations, but most were beginning a migration that would conclude in another auction room hundreds of miles away in South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana.
Similarly, the story of the American slave trade was largely forgotten by white mainstream culture after the end of the Civil War. Only a few places in the American South still have with structural or other material connections to the trade. In Alexandria, the main house that stood at the center of the Franklin and Armfield establishment is now the home of the Freedom House Museum; in Charleston, South Carolina, the Mart on Chalmers Street is operated as the Old Slave Mart Museum. In Richmond, recent archaeological excavations have revealed the location of Lumpkin’s Jail, but most of the other traders’ jails and auction rooms are buried under Interstate 95. In most other cities, no evidence remains of the places where two million enslaved men, women, and children were sold in the American slave trade.