The Virginia Slave Trade…

The History Museum of Western Virginia is currently hosting the traveling exhibit To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade, created by the Library of Virginia with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. This exhibit, a smaller version of the original, on view at the Library of Virginia (LVA) from October 2014 to May 2015, takes a closer look into the treatment before, during, and after the sale of African Americans in antebellum Virginia.


1812 ad for the sale of “an excellent carpenter, a brick moulder, a tanner, a good crop hand, 2 women and 5 children.”

While the trans-Atlantic slave trade officially ended in 1808, the United States continued to sell and trade African Americans domestically, with Virginia being a heavy partner in the Upper South.  Sugar and cotton became staples for the American economy, which both needed a large labor force.  Richmond, Virginia, quickly became a hub for slave auctions, and by the 1840s, Richmond was the largest slave-exporter in the Upper South.  When Eyre Crowe toured across the United States as secretary to William Makepeace Thackeray (author of Vanity Fair) in 1852-1853, he took note of the poor conditions of African Americans (England had abolished their slave trade in 1807), sketching scenes surrounding him.


Courtesy of the Library of Virginia


Upon Crowe’s return to England, he published several anti-slavery articles and created several paintings illustrating scenes inside and outside auction houses in Richmond and Charleston, South Carolina.  Two particular paintings illustrate Richmond market’s:  Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia (oil on canvas, 1853), and After the Sale: Slaves Going South (oil on canvas, 1854).  Curator of the LVA exhibit, Mauri McInnis, writes about Waiting for Sale:  “Crowe sought to convey the depth and complexity of the horrors of slavery by presenting an entirely different scene: the moments before the auction. By choosing to represent slaves waiting to be sold rather than slaves being sold, Crowe forced viewers to think about the emotional moments before the sale and to consider the uncertainty faced by these individuals. By leaving their fate ambiguous, Crowe intended to unsettle viewers and generate an emotional response to the plight of the enslaved.” The same can be said for Crowe’s After the Sale.


Slaves Waiting to be Sold, Richmond Virginia by Eyre Crowe, 1861 (Collection of Teresa Heinz)

The History Museum of Western Virginia is proud to host To Be Sold, which will run until June 17, 2016.

For more information on the exhibition at the Library of Virginia, check out their website: