The Auction Block
"Next day many customers
called to examine Freeman's "new lot." The latter gentleman was very
loquacious, dwelling at much length upon our several good points and qualities.
He would make us hold up our heads, walk briskly back and forth, while customers
would feel of our hands and arms and bodies, turn us about, ask us what we could
do, make us open our mouths and show our teeth, precisely as a jockey examines a
horse which he is about to barter for or purchase. Sometimes a man or woman was
taken back to the small house in the yard, stripped, and inspected more
minutely. Scars upon a slave's back were considered evidence of a rebellious or
unruly spirit, and hurt his sale."--Solomon Northrup, from
Twelve Years a
Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in
Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (electronic edition, UNC, 1997)
Using flyers and advertisements in the local newspapers, slave auctions became the prevailing method of selling slaves. The auctioneer attempted to achieve the highest bid by listing the slave's skills, such as carpenter or cook, or by pointing out physical attributes, such as strength or youth. After inspecting the slaves like animals, potential buyers proceeded to place bids as each slave was offered on the block.
Being sold by their master was a very real threat for slaves, especially since owners had no legal requirements to keep families intact. Thus, slave owners used the threat of selling their slaves to enforce discipline and fear, and in many cases sold slaves as punishment for "unruliness."