Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

On the Block

Posted in African Americans, Education, Genealogy, Memory by Andy Hall on January 15, 2011

On Saturday, a group in St. Louis, Missouri re-enacted an antebellum slave auction on the steps of the city’s old courthouse. There are more photos here, and a news story about the planned event from KSDK Channel 5. From Channel 5:

Angela deSilva takes her history seriously — as an adjunct professor of American Studies and as a Civil War era re-enactor of American slave history, based on a knowledge that began with stories from her grandmother.

“I can remember being very, very young and listening to her talk about her grandmother who had been a slave,” says deSilva. “And I remember asking her what a slave was.”

A frequent slave re-enactor at the Daniel Boone Home, deSilva is bringing her history lesson to the steps of the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis Saturday, staging a mock slave auction with the help of dozens of historical re-enactors from across the region. DeSilva says it the 150th anniversary of the Civil War this year that prompted her to recreate such a dark scene in St. Louis history.

“You need to remember that there was another aspect to this. That a whole race of people was freed as a result there of,” she says of America’s deadliest war.

The National Parks Service oversees the Old Courthouse and as far as anyone there knows this will be the first event of its kind since the real thing back in the 1860’s. And organizers are aware it will be disturbing for some.

“It’s not that it’s glorifying it,” says deSilva defending the idea. “Not at all. I have relatives that could have been sold on those very steps.”

“When you talk about the Holocaust everyone says, ‘don’t forget us, never let them forget.’ But sometimes in slavery we want to bury it. I personally, I can’t do it. I cannot do it. I guess because the slaves in my past have names.”

This is a bold effort that pushes back — hard — against so much of what’s being done in the way of reenactments as part of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, such as the SCV-sponsored reenactment of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis next week. The “auction” held today in St. Louis is itself a deeply controversial event, even among African American groups, and that’s to be expected. It recalls a demeaning and ugly part of our shared  history, and it’s something that a great many people would simply like to relegate to books and museum exhibits. St. Louis is a particularly important place to recognize this aspect of antebellum history, as it was one of the main centers of the domestic slave trade, with dealers buying and selling wholesale, in enormous quantities (left, advertisements in the Daily Missouri Republican, December 18, 1853).

I’m really undecided about reenactments in general as a means of teaching history and, more than a conventional battle reenactment, this event in particular is fraught with opportunity for misinterpretation and misunderstanding. I just don’t know how well it works. But if it keeps the conversation going about the underlying issues of the war, how we interpret the conflict, and the myriad of perspectives involved, then that’s all to the good.

Update: Kevin has a long and thoughtful post on this event here; Bob Pollock has photos and comments here. And Abbi Telander has more reflections on it here:

This is part of our shared heritage. Whether or not your descendants [sic.] were involved does not negate the fact that we all share this history as Americans. We share the agonies of the enslaved as well as the fight of the abolitionist and the responsibility of the owners. We have a responsibility to our past to understand it and a responsibility to our future to do better. Our nation, forged under the debate over the rights of man, went to war in an attempt to determine whether we could be one country with this shared past. Our nation has been fighting ever since over who was right and who was wrong, who deserves the glory and who deserves the blame, who deserves the benefits of citizenship, and who needs to be remembered in the annals of history.

I dare anyone who stood in the cold this morning and watched as the story of buying and selling other people unfolded to say that our sins need to be forgotten. I dare anyone present to forget this day. As my baby kicked inside me, innocent and pure, I promised her that I would someday tell her what she couldn’t see today, and that she would know why it was important that she know, and why I cried when those little girls stood up to be sold.