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‘The Price For Their Pound of Flesh’

Book reveals in chilling detail how and when Black people were the wealth of a nation

A steel cutout depicting a 19th-century Black farmer rises from a field across the highway from the small community of Nicodemus, Kansas, Jan. 14, 2021. Nicodemus, the only surviving settlement founded by formerly enslaved Black people known as "exodusters" in the 1870s, now has no Black farmers actively farming the land.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
“The Price For Their Pound of Flesh” (Beacon Press, 2017).Courtesy of Daina Ramey Berry

The challenge of solving the Black wealth gap is informed by another time in our past when Black people were the wealth of this nation, says Daina Ramey Berry, Ph.D., a scholar of enslaved people who poured a decade of research into her book, “The Price For Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.” The people treated as products are the most specific example of today’s wealth gap.

“Here, you have somebody passing enslaved people as wealth to their family members,” says Ramey Berry, history department chair at the University of Texas at Austin. But what are the Black families getting? They have nothing. So when slavery ends, they don’t have a house or an island or a vacation property to give to their children. The wealth gap was created and began during slavery.”

The scholar poured over documents, including accounting ledgers from 19th-century enslavers who needed to appraise their holdings for tax purposes as part of plantation or farm inventory. Black people were priced, based on their name, ages, and other information, and Black women’s value jumped during childbearing years because they could produce healthy children, more free labor. Black men were valued higher across the board.

Ramey Berry was keen to know how the enslaved responded to being treated as commodities.

“What did Black people say about being put on an auction block, about having bid callers, screaming out numbers, the same way you hear at a cattle auction, a horse auction?” she asks.

She created the term “soul value” to describe the value enslaved Black people had for themselves: “This is the one place that you cannot commodify,” she says. “It’s deep in their soul. It’s how they felt about themselves. It’s what drove them to become free.”

Following is an excerpt from Ramey Berry’s book, published by Beacon Press in 2017.

— Deborah D. Douglas

Preconception: Women and Future Increase

I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that happened before my birth.

—Attributed to Nat Turner

By American Law the child follows the condition of its mother. Mother free, children free; mother slave, slave children.

—James Redpath

Adeline reluctantly stepped up on the block amid a crowd of unfamiliar onlookers. Arms crossed, head covered, she gripped her young son close to her chest to shield him from the spectacle of shame they were about to experience. The audience admired her dark olive skin and her evidence of fecundity. Her 10-week-old son was living proof that she was a childbearing woman. Adeline had “a very fine forehead, pleasing countenance and mild, lustrous eyes,” while her son was a “light-colored, blue eyed, curly-silked-haried [sic] child.” Positioned on the Columbia, South Carolina, courthouse steps, the two awaited their fate. “Gentlemen, did you ever see such a face, and head, and form, as that?” the auctioneer inquired, taking off her hood. “She is only 18 years old, and already has a child ... [who] will consequently make a valuable piece of property for someone.” The bidder and Adeline struggled with her hood as he praised her skills.

“She is a splendid housekeeper and seamstress,” he continued. By this time, tears filled her eyes, “and at every licentious allusion she cast a look of pity and woe at the auctioneer, and at the crowd.” As the sale continued, the auctioneer took Adeline’s hood off three more times to show “her countenance,” and every time, she quickly replaced it. When he was exposed, her son “cast a terrified look on the auctioneer and bidders,” each time his face was revealed. Perhaps at his young age, he sensed his mother’s terror. Within minutes, the sale was complete, and Adeline “descended the courthouse steps, looked at her new master, looked at the audience, looked fondly to her sweet child’s face, and pressed it warmly to her bosom,” while the auctioneer jeered, “that child wouldn’t trouble her purchaser long.” The threat of separation followed enslaved people to the auction block.

This scene was a common one for childbearing enslaved women in the American South. They went to the market as real and potential mothers. One North Carolina enslaved person, Robert, recalled that his mother “was sold three times before I was born.” She was sold “just like a pack of mules,” but after Robert was born, and she was separated from her baby, she started having “fits.” Her outbursts were so bad that the speculators took her back to the previous enslaver, and the money exchanged was returned. From then on, Robert’s mother was able to remain with her children. Enslaved women like her were valued for their potential and projected procreation, and they knew it. “I was worth a heap . . . kaze I had so many chillun,” explained Tempe Herndon. “De more chillun a slave had de more dey was worth.” The law sanctioned valuing enslaved people before conception and adjusted women’s market values accordingly.

Partus Sequitur Ventrem, the 1662 Virginia legislation that defined slavery based on the condition of the mother, guaranteed enslavement for enslaved women’s progeny in all American colonies. Speaking in front of the Virginia legislature in January 1831, Mr. Gholson stated, “’Partus sequitur ventrem’ is coeval with the existence of the right of property itself and is founded in wisdom and justice.” He opposed statements made by Mr. Clay, who was not entirely comfortable with the notion of breeding for sale. In Gholson’s estimation, planters were justified in doing so, because women missed work to care for their young and “the value of the property justifies the expense.” Adamantly, he continued, “I do not hesitate to say that in its increase consists much of our wealth.” Women were valued for their fecundity, and traders made projections based on their “future increase.” Their appraisals were linked to their ability to reproduce.

Aside from political debates over breeding, the memories of enslaved children are rife with their mother’s and grandmother’s experiences of being sold. “Grandma was a cook and a breeding woman,” Josephine Howell of Arkansas explained, continuing, “She was so very valuable. They prized her high. She was the mother of 21 children.” Mollie Williams of Mississippi grew up in a household that divided enslaved children between two enslavers. Her parents had different enslavers, so every time her mother gave birth to a sibling, the enslavers would take turns for ownership of the newborn.

The language and practices enslavers and traders deployed at auctions defined the boundaries of the commodification of women and children, particularly evident in comparisons made to cattle and other livestock. Viewed as “merchandise” rather than human beings, “when the children of slaves are spoken of prospectively, they are called their ‘increase’; which is the same term used for flocks and herds.” Enslaved mothers are called “breeders” past their child-bearing years. This systematic naming became part of people’s vocabulary and daily references. Both enslaved people and livestock were “levied upon for debt in the same way … included in the same advertisements of public sales,” “herded in droves like cattle,” and literally driven in the fields by foremen who used whips to control the pace of their labor. Enslaved people were “bought and sold, and separated like cattle.” At auction, they were “exposed” to highlight “their good qualities” and “described as jockeys show off the good points of their horses.” For example, “their strength, activity, skill, power of endurance” were “lauded ... and those who bid upon them examine[d] their persons, just as purchasers inspect horses and oxen.” Countless descriptions show potential buyers opening enslaved people’s “mouths to see if their teeth are sound; strip[ping] their backs to see if they are badly scarred, and handl[ing] their limbs and muscles to see if they are firmly knit.” In short, “like horses, they are warranted to be ‘sound,’ or to be returned to the owner if ‘unsound.’”

The last four decades of the 18th century were crucial years for assessing enslaved women’s monetary values, and they set the tone for the years that followed. Black women in early America filled the pages of Northern and Southern newspapers in slave-sale ads, became the subjects of legal proceedings in ownership disputes, served as collateral for loans among debtors and creditors, and commanded strong prices in an evolving domestic market for “sound” human property. Their monetary value was based on their age, skill, and reproductive status. Some enslavers rejected childbearing women; others preferred them. However, women’s capacity to bear children, their labor skills, and, in some cases, their (perceived) physical attractiveness remained the primary factors in their inspections, valuations, and sales. But the choice to buy a childbearing, expectant, or current mother depended on the individual buyer’s needs and desires. That choice also meant that potential buyers put a price tag on enslaved children before conception.

Who determined the cost of an unborn child? What was the fiscal value of enslaved people at preconception and how were childbearing women priced? The answers to these inquiries are linked to a mother’s uterus, because the institution of slavery in the United States extended its reach into women’s bodies. Enslaved women entered the market as objects and producers of goods; yet, they appeared as assets and as liabilities depending on the perspective of the seller or the needs of a potential buyer.

So when K. G. Hall stated, “For Sale: A Young Negro Woman,” to advertise an unnamed woman and her two children, he was not doing anything unusual. This woman was a “complete Washer and good ironer,” but Hall did “not want a breeding wench.” Therefore, he placed the family up for sale. There was no mention of the father, nor any indication of the woman’s age, except “young.” The record only reveals her status as a “breeding wench” with young children in her care. Despite labor skills, her ability to procreate ultimately led to her sale.

On the eve of the American Revolution and the early 19th century, many American-born enslaved women shared this experience. They were sold because they gave birth and had young children to nurture. Because procreation and healthy children increased their monetary value, sellers like Hall capitalized by putting enslaved women and their children up for sale. The women’s reproductive values were crucial to the expansion of the institution, particularly when the African supply source via transatlantic slave trading was abolished in 1808. This shifted the source to the natural, coerced, encouraged, and forced reproduction of enslaved women in America and other New World slave societies.

When the French and Spanish occupied Louisiana, 18th-century enslavers had relied on captives directly imported from Caribbean and West African countries. Georgia did the same, despite initially having a ban on slavery for nearly the first two decades of settlement (the ban was lifted in 1751). Across the South, slavery increased rapidly along with technological developments like the 1793 invention of the cotton gin. Responding to these impetuses, planters moved their enslaved people to the Southwest, enticed by lands included in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. As a result, Louisiana became the slave-trading center of the Deep South in the 19th century.

Changes in the international slave trade and market innovations affected the domestic traffic in human beings. Given the markup for childbearing women, it appears that the acquisition of land and technological inventions altered the face of slavery at the turn of the century. Women played an important role, as the shift to import more enslaved women assured enslavers that they could produce additional labor sources on their farms and plantations. They did not have to depend on the market to purchase human property. Instead, by making calculated choices about their enslaved population, they could, in fact, grow their own. Enslaved women’s bodies were catalysts of 19th-century economic development, distinguishing U.S. slavery from bondage in other parts of the world.