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The Weeping Time
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In 1859, at the largest recorded slave auction in American history, over 400 men, women, and children were sold by the Butler Plantation estates. This book is one of the first to analyze the operation of this auction and trace the lives of slaves before, during, and after their sale. Immersing herself in the personal papers of the Butlers, accounts from journalists that witnessed the auction, genealogical records, and oral histories, Anne C. Bailey weaves together a narrative that brings the auction to life. Demonstrating the resilience of African American families, she includes interviews from the living descendants of slaves sold on the auction block, showing how the memories of slavery have shaped people's lives today. Using the auction as the focal point, The Weeping Time is a compelling and nuanced narrative of one of the most pivotal eras in American history, and how its legacy persists today.


‘Here is a graceful chronicle of a wretched moment in history. This is a work of restoration, culling a crucial narrative from the silences of the past. But most crucially, this is a restoration of the humanity to those enslaved black people who were so commonly denied it.'

William Cobb - Columbia University

‘The Weeping Time offers a remarkable prism through which to explore the human dimensions of slavery and reconstruction in the American South. Using the March 1859 auction of some 440 slaves in Savannah, Georgia as a focal point, Anne C. Bailey explores the history of the slave owning Butler family, the history of the Butler plantations on the Georgia Sea Islands, and the post-slavery experiences of the slaves sold at that auction to illuminate broader themes of race in American history. She offers a moving and engaging social history of an understudied aspect of American slavery.'

Thomas Dublin - Co-editor, Women and Social Movements in the United States and Bartle Distinguished Professor, State University of New York, Binghamton

‘Bailey's engrossing saga reminds us that the auction block was a crucial shared experience that shaped the consciousness of millions of African Americans. The Weeping Time is about the largest slave auction in American history, but it is also a remarkably vivid story of individual lives forever transformed when people are treated as property.'

Clayborne Carson - Stanford University, California

‘A meticulously researched and beautifully told story of slavery. Bailey makes us see and feel the experiences of those enslaved on the Butler plantation and their descendants.'

Mary Frances Berry - Geraldine Segal Professor of American Social Thought, Professor of History, Professor of Africana Studies, University of Pennsylvania

‘The black body on slavery's auction block was at once commerce, exhibit, and spectacle; it was also the stuff of mourning, memorialization and mobilization. Such is the grand and grave subject of this absorbing book on the mother of all slave auctions in the United States, a tale told with verve and an eye for detail. A bedrock work.'

Michael West - Binghamton University, State University of New York

‘Bailey has written a powerful study of African chattel slaves sold at huge profit, on the eve of the Civil War, to brokers from New York to Louisiana. Her approach to the experience of the auction block, like her portrayals of the modern black family, intent today on assembling fragments of their fractured past, is both interdisciplinary and humane. This outstanding contribution to understanding American capitalism should be compulsory reading in American history courses.'

Herbert P. Bix - Emeritus Professor of History and Sociology, Binghamton University, State University of New York

'The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History chronicles the sale of 436 men, women and children from the Butler Plantation of Georgia's Sea Islands in 1859. … Remarkably, Bailey has been able to trace the historical record of 50 people from 10 families sold during the Butler auction. … As a historian, Bailey is determined to keep lifting that blanket of silence and uncover the humanity of people it obscures.'

Jim Higgins Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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African American history in this period, as I say in the beginning of the book, is a patchwork quilt, with some pieces clearly missing from the known historical record. This history is at once intriguing and frustrating because of the paucity of sources from the enslaved themselves. As such, this has been the story of the Butler slaves before, during, and after the auction event of 1859, as sources permit.

There were several leads that I followed with great enthusiasm and effort, which then led ... nowhere. For example, I found a short written contemporary account that seemed to suggest that one owner bought almost half of the slaves on auction! He was reportedly from Vicksburg, Mississippi. I did as much tracking as I could do but, to date, have not found a record of this possible slaveowner (who might have been an agent, not an owner) or the slaves he supposedly bought. So, in the end, I had to work with the individual stories of descendants as well as other important primary sources like the diaries or journals of some of the Butler family members.

I am thankful, however, for being able to find fifteen percent of the slaves in the records after the auction, detailing the trends and patterns of their lives in Chapter 9. Altogether, ten families and fifty men, women, and children from the original 436 on the auction catalogue have been found in the historical record. Census records and Freedman’s Bank records were critical to telling this part of the story. In the end, however, this story could not have been told without multiple visits to Savannah, Darien, Butler, and St. Simon’s Island, as well as visits to significant public history sites around the country over a ten-year period. These include visits to George Washington’s Mt. Vernon estate as well as to Colonial Williamsburg, trips that were both educational and inspiring.

I do hope to continue to pursue this research and suspect that other records may turn up or that other scholars may join me in building on this work. As we have already discussed, a number of the descendants, like ace investigative sleuths, are continuing to do some excellent work identifying their ancestors. This work, when properly crosschecked with other sources, will add greatly to the telling of the Weeping Time event and beyond.

Georgia Slave Narratives and selective narratives from other Southern states, Born into Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project 1936–38.

United States Department of Commerce. Bureau of the Census; Census Records for the following years: 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920

  • Freedman’s Bank Records

  • The United States Colored Troops

  • The Civil War Pension Application Files

  • Freedom and Southern Society Project

  • Secession Acts of the Thirteen Confederate States

  • Burial Records, Darien Cemetery

  • Chatham County Superior Court House records, Savannah, Georgia

  • Georgia Historical Society Savannah newspapers

  • The Auction Catalogue

  • Cadwalader papers

  • Wister family collection

  • Butler Plantation Papers, 1744–1822

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