The Weeping Time

A forgotten history of the largest slave auction ever on American soil
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Illustration depicting a slave auction (Wikimedia Commons)

Two miles west of downtown Savannah, Georgia, sits a historical marker in the center of a small plot of a fenced in city park. The triangular park measures not more than a fifth of an acre. The surrounding neighborhood is one of the most distressed and depressed sections of the city.

The marker reads:

Kristopher Monroe

The marker was dedicated on March 3, 2008, 149 years after the slave auction occurred, and at the commemoration ceremony then-mayor Otis Johnson—only the second African-American to hold that office—offered up a short speech honoring the enslaved men and women whose labor helped build the oldest city in the state of Georgia. At the ceremony a local man handed out dirt from Nigeria to be sprinkled around the marker and Mayor Johnson poured water over the dirt to consecrate the ground.

And that's it for the city's commemoration of the event known as the Weeping Time. Contrast that with the towering monument to the Confederate dead that has stood for over a century smack in the center of one of the city's largest public parks.

The Weeping Time acquired its name colloquially, by the slaves and their descendants, because of reports that the sky opened up and poured down rain for the full two days of the auction. It was said that the heavens were weeping for the inhumanity that was being committed.

The event wasn't just notable because of the size of the auction. In 1859 the country was on the verge of a national bloodbath, and the historic threads that weave through the story of the Weeping Time are so far-reaching and remarkable, it's perplexing that more hasn't been written or remembered about this time.

* * *

Pierce Mease Butler, the owner of the slaves who were sold, inherited his wealth from his grandfather, Major Pierce Butler, one of the largest slaveholders in the country in his time. One of the signatories of the U.S. Constitution, Major Butler was the author of the Fugitive Slave Clause and was instrumental in getting it included under Article Four of the Constitution.

When Major Butler died, most of his estate and holdings were passed on to Pierce M. Butler and his brother John, including two sprawling island plantations on the coast of south Georgia, one that produced rice and one cotton, and more than 900 slaves who worked the plantations.

Pierce M. Butler was a profligate steward of his inheritance, regularly engaging in risky speculations and accruing a considerable amount of gambling debt over the years due to his compulsive card playing. It was these two factors that necessitated the appointment of a group of trustees who, in 1856, seized control of his financial assets in an effort to return him to solvency. Over the next few years the trustees proceeded to sell off various Butler properties.

By 1859 the trustees were still unable to extricate Pierce Butler from his debts, and it was decided that the “movable property” on the Georgia plantations would be split between Pierce and his brother John, and the half of the slaves that were allotted to Pierce would be sold at auction to relieve his remaining financial obligations. A small fraction of those obligations were the quarterly payments Pierce Butler was required to pay to his then-estranged ex-wife Frances Anne Kemble as part of their divorce agreement 10 years prior.

In one of the many ironies, Fanny Kemble, as she was called, was an avowed and outspoken abolitionist and had made much of the fact during the time she was married to Pierce Butler. This difference was a constant source of contention throughout their tumultuous 15-year marriage and ultimately contributed to its dissolution. At the time they were wed in 1834, Fanny claimed she knew nothing of how the Butler wealth was acquired, but it soon became apparent after a trip to visit the plantations in 1838-39 what the true nature of the Butler inheritance was.

Fanny Kemble was a revered Shakespearean actress from London on tour when she met Butler in Philadelphia. Kemble was, by all accounts, a strong-willed and independently minded woman of her own making, tendencies Butler aimed to tame. Nevertheless, they were married two years after Butler's unremitting courtship and Kemble reestablished herself in America.

Once Kemble found out about Butler's Georgia plantations, she begged him to take her down to witness first hand what she'd previously only heard and read about in her native England. Despite his better judgement, Butler brought Kemble with him in late 1838 to visit the plantations and what Kemble found was every bit as callous and horrible as she'd imagined. Kemble cataloged her stay in her diaries, which were eventually published some years later as Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1838-1839) and to this day it's considered one of the most detailed eyewitness accounts of slavery during that period.

(Kemble's journals weren't published until 1863—in the middle of America's Civil War—due to custody issues with Butler over their two daughters. Butler had “forbade” the publication of the journals during their marriage, but once their daughters were “of age” Kemble felt free to let her account of that time be known to the world. Her journals ended up playing a significant role in the anti-slavery debate raging at the time.)

Kemble was long out of the picture by the time the Butler slave auction took place (they were divorced in 1849). But the most virulent phase of great slavery debate was only just getting under way. Just a few months before the Butler auction, the now infamous slave ship the Wanderer had landed at Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia with more than 400 illegal slaves brought directly from the Congo. This was one of the last documented slave ships to arrive in North American and it created a roiling controversy. The transport of slaves from Africa had long been outlawed, but the pro-slavery “fire-eater” Charles Lamar, owner of the Wanderer, had disguised his ship as a luxury cruise liner and brought back a hull-full of “human chattel,” thumbing his nose at federal law. Records indicate that nearly 80 slaves perished on the voyage.

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Kristopher Monroe is a writer based in Savannah, Georgia, and the arts editor at Inside Philanthropy.

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