An excerpt from “Lottie’s Courage“
Williamsburg Courthouse, built in 1770 where Lottie was sold in 1862
Lottie stood on the auction block in her faded, blue-gingham dress, her legs trembling. Several hundred people milled around Market Square near the Williamsburg courthouse for the annual New Year’s Day slave auction. The auctioneer pounded his gavel for silence. He was a stocky, tired-looking man with a flushed face, and he seemed eager to get the day’s business concluded. When the crowd quieted, he began the sale, “This chocolate-colored girl looks small, but she’s almost ten years old. She has helped in the kitchen and in the stables.” He turned to Lottie. “Stand up straight and turn around so everyone can see you.” Lottie straightened her slumped shoulders and slowly turned around. The day was cold, and Lottie felt exposed, almost naked with everyone looking at her. She heard a catcall from someone in the crowd. She felt her face go hot with the shame of being looked over as if she were an animal for sale.
“It says here,” the auctioneer read from a paper in a raspy voice, “that she can milk cows, churn butter, and take care of chickens.” He paused for a moment to clear his throat before he continued. “Although she’s not used to hard work, she’s still young enough to be broke to field work. The bidding opens at four hundred dollars.”
Lottie bit her bottom lip when she heard the words, “broke to field work.” She had seen the drudgery of slaves hoeing tobacco all day in the hot sun, and she knew their lives were short and miserable. With those awful words echoing in her head, Lottie searched the crowd for her mother, wondering if she had heard the auctioneer. Lottie’s gaze fell on the powder magazine. Beyond it was Francis Street, where she had lived her whole life. Now she wished she could run, run back to the only home she had ever known. A hand went up as the buyers began bidding.
“Four hundred twenty-five dollars,” offered a tall man wearing a slouch hat.
“Four fifty.” The bid came from somewhere near the back of the crowd.
“Four seventy-five,” the first man called out. Then there was silence. For a fleeting second, Lottie hoped that no one was going to buy her.
“Sold!” the auctioneer said, pounding his gavel amid a stream of rapidly spoken words, “To Mr. Slye for four hundred and seventy-five dollars.” Just then Lottie spotted her mother as she slowly made her way through the crowd.
“Come down from there, girl,” the auctioneer said, shuffling his papers to prepare for the next sale. “We haven’t got all day.”
Lottie kept her mother in view as she stepped shakily down from the block. The last slave to be auctioned was a stooped, white-haired man, and he shuffled to the block, mumbling quietly to himself. Lottie felt numb. She had been sold. Sold to a man she didn’t know. What would happen to her now?
Mama’s sorrow-filled face grew closer. Lottie stooped and picked up her over-sized woolen coat from where it lay on the steps of the courthouse and struggled into it.
“This way.” Slye, the man who bought her, roughly grabbed her arm. Lottie flinched at the man’s touch. He was evil-looking with sunken cheeks, gray whiskers, and one dead eye. He steered her toward a group of slaves standing near one corner of the brick courthouse.
Lottie went off with the man, away from her approaching mother. She craned her neck to make sure her mother was following. She stumbled, and Slye shook her. “Pay attention to where you’re going,” he growled, fixing his cold eye on her.
They approached an older man with lanky hair, wearing a dark coat, shiny with grease. A shotgun rested in the crook of his arm. He was guarding other recently purchased slaves. A small group of onlookers, mostly slaves, stood nearby.
“She’s the last, Ferris,” Slye told the other man, giving Lottie a shove in his direction. “Let’s get these people secured and get going.”
Lottie saw Mama limp toward her. She wasn’t wearing a coat, and the apron she had put on this morning before preparing the major’s breakfast was still tied around her waist. Lottie guessed that her mother had left her work without permission. Before anyone could stop her, Mama gathered Lottie in her arms. “It’ll be all right,” Mama said quietly, trying to comfort Lottie before someone forced them apart. “It’ll be all right.”
“What will happen to me, Mama?” Lottie asked, her words thick with dread.
“I don’t know,” Mama whispered, wondering if she’d ever see her daughter again. She had hoped that Lottie would find a new owner in Williamsburg. Now that hope was gone. Probably she would be taken south to work in the cotton fields of the Carolinas where she would become one of the expendable work horses of farm life. Her little girl would be old before her time, if she survived the harsh life of unending toil. Lottie’s mother struggled to keep her voice steady. “I heard someone say you’d been bought by ….” She choked on the hated words, “a slave trader.”
Slave trader. Lottie had heard about slave traders. She bit her bottom lip. There was no need for bogey men to scare slave children in Virginia. The words “slave trader” were enough to frighten the bravest child.
“Am I being sold south?” Lottie asked, remembering stories she had heard of her father’s uncertain fate.
“I don’t know, child,” said Mama, her gentle face full of pain. “There’s no telling where you’ll end up. But you need to remember where I’ll be. In Winchester, at Mrs. Emma Howell’s. Say it.”
“Winchester, Mrs. Emma Howell’s,” Lottie repeated the words as she had so many times in the last several days. Mama had worried what would happen to them ever since their owner, Mrs. Shadwell, died in childbirth last October. Major Shadwell had been away fighting with the Confederate army and had returned home ten days ago. The day after Christmas he told Mama the dreadful news that she had been inherited by her former mistress’s sister in Winchester and Lottie was to be sold.
Slave Auction in Virginia, 1861
Illustrated London News, February 16, 1861; courtesy of The Illustrated London News Picture Library
The auction was over, and the crowd was beginning to disperse. Lottie heard the clank of chains as Slye began fitting iron collars around the necks of the seven men and boys. He then fastened a long chain through the hasp of the padlocks that held the neck irons, chaining the men together in a line. Lottie glanced at the other slaves, hoping she might see a familiar face. But she recognized no one.
The man called Ferris began tying the women with a rope. “Out of the way,” he said to Mama, pushing her aside when it was Lottie’s turn to be tied with the others. As Mama watched helplessly, he fastened a rope halter around Lottie’s neck and attached her to the heavy-set, older woman behind her. Whenever the other women moved, the rope chafed Lottie’s neck. She bit her lip again. She had seen slaves traveling through Williamsburg in similar slave coffles, but she had never imagined how wretched it would feel.
Slye turned to Ferris, “Let’s get going,” he said. “We’ve a way to go before nightfall.”
Mama hugged Lottie one last time. “Be strong. Only the strong survive,” she said. “I want you to promise you’ll be strong.”
In spite of her brave words, Mama looked so defeated that for a moment Lottie feared more for her mother than for herself. “I’ll be strong,” Lottie said, trying to sound confident. “I’ll survive.”
As a slave Lottie’s mother had been taught to hide her feelings, and she had hidden them so often these last several days, they had formed a great knot in her chest. Now Lottie’s words loosened the knot, and she began to sob.
Ferris and Slye mounted up. Then Ferris prodded the slave at the head of the coffle with the end of his gun. “Move on,” he barked.
The line started with a stumble and jerk. The rope cut into Lottie’s neck. For a moment, she choked. Mama let go of her, and she got in step with the others, easing the tension on her neck. As the slaves began to move away, Mama thrust into Lottie’s hands the flax tow sack she had packed the night before.
The coffle made its way down Duke of Gloucester Street. Lottie heard her mother’s sob-racked voice raised above the commotion of departure. “Gone! All gone! Everyone I’ve ever loved is gone. Why doesn’t God just kill me? It isn’t right to take my child. It isn’t right. It isn’t right.”
Lottie painfully turned to catch one last glimpse of Mama. Slye saw her waver in line. His whip whizzed through the air. It burned her shoulders through her coat, and its tail bit into the side of her face. The tears Lottie had been stifling all morning spilled over as she staggered forward, her face burning and her heart breaking. “Oh, Mama, Mama,” she sobbed. “Will I ever see you again?”