By the end of the Civil War more than half a million enslaved African Americans were brought to the United States via the Middle Passage. This triangular trade route consisted of ships sailing from Europe to Africa with manufactured goods to be traded for captured Africans who were then brought to America as slaves to be traded for raw goods such as tobacco, lumber and wheat. The raw goods were then taken back to Europe and sold for the production of manufactured goods.

eyre crowe slaves waiting for sale richmond virginia

Eyre Crowe, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond Va. (1861)

During this time Richmond became a slave trading hub. While awaiting the auction block enslaved men, women and children were kept in slave jails. Some were held in jail for long periods of time when prices fluctuated downward and traders waited for prices to rise again. Those awaiting the auction block were fed, provided with medical care, new clothes and shoes and were groomed to appear attractive and healthy. Slave traders rated their slaves according to their level of compliance. Those who were classified as "not whipped," or "a little whipped," based upon visible evidence of scarring were deemed more desirable than those whose recalcitrance earned the ranking of "considerably scarred by the whip." After being sold, slaves were transported south by railways and ships as well as on foot. Often groups of slaves were shackled and chained together in 'coffles' walking up to 20 miles per day.

lumpkins slave jail richmond

Sketch of Robert Lumpkin's Slave Jail in Richmond. (Richmond City Council Slave Trail Commission)

Robert Lumpkin, a notorious jailer and slave trader, operated a slave jail ominously referred to as 'The Devil's Half Acre' along what is now 15th Street in present-day Richmond in the area called Shockoe Bottom. Enslaved men, women and children were contained by a 10-foot fence with iron spikes. The compound held four buildings: Lumpkin's house, a rooming house for buyers and sellers, a tavern and kitchen, and the slave jail. Lumpkin co-habitated with an enslaved woman named Mary, with whom he had five children. He educated his daughters at a seminary in Massachusetts and upon his death left of all his property in Richmond to Mary and their children.

anthony burns

Anthony Burns (Library of Congress)

An enslaved man named Anthony Burns was a runaway living in Boston when he was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Burns was sent to Lumpkin's Slave Jail in Richmond, where he was bound by the hands and feet and kept in an attic room for four months before being sold. Lumpkin's wife Mary is said to have smuggled a hymnal to him during his captivity. A church group subsequently raised enough money to purchase his freedom and Burns studied theology at Oberlin College before becoming a Baptist minister.

The traveling exhibit To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade illustrates Virginia’s role in the Second Middle Passage that occurred in the years before the Civil War in which over a half million enslaved African Americans from the upper southern tobacco states were forced to relocate to the lower southern states when cultivation shifted away from labor-intensive tobacco to wheat. Upper southern slave owners sold their surplus slaves for tidy profits to the booming sugar and cotton plantations of the Deep South. Richmond became the largest slave-trading center in the Upper South, raking in what would be nearly a half-billion dollars today.

eyre crowe after the sale

Eyre Crowe, After the Sale (1854)

Although it reinforced stereotypes of African Americans, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 1800s and aroused strong anti-slavery sentiments. Soon after his arrival in America, the artist Eyre Crowe became acquainted with several abolitionists and read Uncle Tom's Cabin. Crowe visited Richmond and made several paintings depicting slave trading. His paintings put a human face on slavery and aroused sympathy for these victims of human trafficking.

Pictured at the top: A red flag - the emblem of this travelling exhibit - was hung outside slave auction houses to indicate that a sale would be held that day. Sellers pinned hand-written descriptions of the slaves offered for sale upon the flag.

This installation of the traveling exhibit To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade was hosted by Belle Grove Plantation.