- The Washington Times - Friday, February 11, 2005

Wall Street and the surrounding blocks in Richmond were home to several dozen slave dealers and auction houses where tens of millions of dollars changed hands before and during the war, providing the fuel that drove the Southern economy.

An experienced field hand could bring $1,500 to $2,000 at auction, or roughly $25,000 in 2003 dollars. If you factor in the average rate of return of 10 percent per slave, multiplied by a busy month’s volume of 10,000 or more sold, it is immediately evident that the Richmond slave trade of the early 1860s was a booming enterprise. Total annual sales there would have equaled several hundred million in 2003 dollars.

This wealth was central to the economy of the prewar South and to the fledgling Confederate States of America after secession. In fact, on larger Southern plantations of 20 or more slaves, the capital value of the slaves often was more than the estimated value of the actual land and physical plant.

This enormous capital value resulted in the South’s harboring 60 percent of America’s wealthiest men in 1860 and having a per-capita income almost double that of the North. With nearly 4 million slaves at the beginning of the Civil War, the estimated property value of Southern slavery in 1860 was somewhere between $2 billion and $5 billion in 1860 dollars, or a staggering $80 billion in 2003 dollars.

Bad neighborhood

In Richmond, however, few gentlemen of high social standing would be caught even walking through the Wall Street area, a neighborhood of low-lying brick buildings and prisonlike yards close to the James River, several blocks south and east of the Capitol grounds.

In contrast with the early days of the Colony — when influential men such as Lord John Berkeley made fortunes trading slaves — agents, dealers or independent buyers now conducted most of the business associated with the slave trade and generally were held in low esteem by the population at large. Charles Lyell, a British visitor, saw one of these dealers who had made an enormous fortune in the slave trade, but noted: “In spite of some influential connections, he was not able to make his way into the best society.”

Nonetheless, the dealers and agents continued their work, generating, in Charles Dickens’ words, “so many coins in their trading capital” after he witnessed the busy trade firsthand in Richmond.

King Cotton

Slavery, too, was the underpinning of King Cotton, the other billion-dollar industry that sustained an agrarian, elitist Southern society. As the price of cotton fluctuated, the price of prime field hands also went up or down. The $191 million cotton crop of 1860 represented more than half the exports for the entire United States, and more than 60 percent of the slave population worked in its cultivation and harvest.

“The culture of cotton imparts to slavery its economical value,” David Christy wrote in “Cotton Is King” in 1855. In Richmond, it also helped foster an elaborate subeconomy of related support services: ships’ captains and their crews, merchants, railroad personnel, police, tradesmen and, of course, bankers.

In fact, after the abolition of the international slave trade to the United States in 1808, other states and cities complained about the growing monopoly Richmond enjoyed in the interstate slave trade. By 1840, Richmond authorities began requiring slave traders to be licensed, a clear indication of the growing revenues. Not long afterward, taxes were levied on slave-pen owners.

By 1860, it was state law in Virginia for slave traders to obtain a state license as well as any local licenses. By the start of the Civil War, more than half a million slaves had moved through the Virginia slave markets to points farther south or west.

“Dear brother,” Henry Tayloe wrote, “The present high price of Negroes can not [sic] continue long and if you will make me a partner in the sale on reasonable terms I will bring them out this Fall from VA and sell them for you and release you from all troubles.”

Cornering the market

Richmond was ideally suited to the interstate slave trade because of the development of an effective transportation system that included five railroads, a major navigable river with access to the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean (and a port, RockettsLanding, which included extensive docks on both sides of the river), several canals, and a series of major north-south and east-west roads.

Originally, trading took place on board ships at dock in the river. Quickly, however, businesses sprang up along the waterfront streets, though in such close proximity to the Capitol (three blocks away) that slaves were often unloaded at night to hide their hideous condition, or in order to arouse less of a public spectacle.

By 1820, Richmond essentially had cornered the interstate slave market, and ironically, this thriving business fueled continued Virginian support for the ban on the international slave trade (because domestic slaves sold for much higher prices than imported African slaves).

Bull markets

Slaves were essentially the currency in the antebellum South. When playboy planter Pierce Butler exhausted his fortune gambling, he resorted to selling his entire stable of chattel hands to recover his debt. The sale, conducted at a racetrack in Savannah, Ga., netted him more than $300,000 ($3.5 million in 2003 dollars), and allowed him to temporarily prolong his lavish lifestyle.

Statistics show that the South’s portion of the gross national product fell from 30 percent in 1860 to a mere 10 percent in 1870. This was due in large part to the abolition of slavery, which essentially wiped out millions of dollars in capital instantly.

During bull markets, so-called traders (sometimes just unemployed opportunists who were not licensed) traveled around Virginia and other mid-Atlantic states buying up slaves to take to Richmond and sell at a profit. At such times, the pens in Richmond were crowded with the chaotic traffic of human misery and even some hard-hearted pro-slavery advocates had to turn their eyes away.

Notorious business

Robert Lumpkins Slave Jail, known as “The Devil’s Half Acre,” was perhaps the most notorious of the dozens of businesses that supported the interstate traffic in Richmond. Situated on the east side of Lumpkins Alley (which turned into Wall Street one block farther south), Lumpkins consisted of a stockade surrounding six wooden buildings, two of which were large, two-story dormitories for men and women. The other buildings served as kitchen, laundry, supply shed and office.

Because healthy slaves brought better prices, slaves usually were given fresh clothing and treated for any maladies suffered during transport. Under normal circumstances, Lumpkins usually served as a collection point for incoming slaves and not an actual point of sale. After being bathed and healed, the slaves were shuttled out to the various auction houses and dealers in the Shockhoe Bottom area. Almost all of the slaves sold in Richmond ended up farther south, and many of them went to large plantations in Louisiana or to resale in New Orleans.

Near the end of the war, when retreating Confederates burned warehouses and other military stores near the river, the wind carried the embers to other buildings, and a great fire engulfed much of the central city. Up until the day before Gen. Robert E. Lee’s retreat, slaves still had been held at Lumpkins awaiting auction.

When black Union soldiers marched into the captured city, they stopped without orders at Lumpkins Slave Jail to pay homage to the suffering that had gone on there for so many years. People nearby reportedly broke out into song: “Slavery chain done broke at last.” Ironically, the grounds of Lumpkins became the original home of Virginia Union University, a historically black university.

Dissenting opinion

Not all Virginians were able to ignore the terrible trade in human flesh taking place at the very steps of their Capitol. “How can an honorable mind, a patriot and a lover of his country, bear to see the ancient dominion converted into one grand menagerie, where men are to be reared for market like oxen for the shambles?” Thomas Jefferson Randolph asked.

The Virginia Legislature, however, often acted with complete disregard to dissenting opinion. In 1806, for example, a law was passed that turned newly freed blacks back into slaves if they didn’t leave the state within one year.

Similarly, dissent at the auction houses was not tolerated. When Eyre Crow toured the United States with his employer, British writer William Thackeray, he took the opportunity to visit a slave auction in Richmond.

“The sale was announced by hanging out a small red flag on a pole from the doorway,” he wrote. “I thought it might be possible to sketch some of the picturesque figures awaiting their turn. … But perceiving me so engaged no one would bid.” Crow proceeded to engage in a conflict with the auctioneer and others until forced to leave.

Huge profits

Southern apologists have pointed out that just one-third of all white Southerners owned slaves and that many non-slaveholders were greatly troubled by the institution. Critics, however, can point out that in 1950 just 2 percent of American families owned corporate stock equivalent to the value of one slave in 1860.

From an investment standpoint, the Southern economy rode heavily on the backs of slaves, both literally and figuratively. Slavery was, indeed, profitable, as was the slavery-supported cotton business, both to the tune of millions of dollars. Of course, the profitability of slavery arguably crippled other forms of healthy economic growth, but few worried about it at the time.

“What ever endangered this Union, save and except Slavery?” Abraham Lincoln asked. “The question of Slavery is the question.”

Until the last day of the war, when Richmond was erupting in flames and Robert E. Lee was on the road to surrender at Appomattox, no one on Wall Street was listening.

Jack Trammell is director of Disability Support Services at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., and writes both history and fiction.

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