Black America from Civil War to Civil Rights

The Business of Slavery

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Slave dealer’s shop on Whitehall (now Peachtree) Street, Atlanta, 1864
Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

American slavery was big business. On the eve of the Civil War, four million slaves produced cash crops—cotton, tobacco, and rice—that were exported at high prices. In addition to the crops they raised, slaves themselves were commodities to be bought, sold, bred, and borrowed against. A variety of service industries supported the slave economy including dealers, insurance companies, and shippers.

In 1862, the federal government instituted a series of domestic taxes to fund the Civil War. Slavery remained legal in six Union states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia—and the sale of slaves in these states was taxable. These documents bear federally-issued revenue stamps as evidence that the tax was paid and are poignant reminders of a time when people were property.

Davis, Deupree and Company cover and letter, October 13, 1860

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Richmond, Virginia was the center of the domestic slave trade on the eve of the Civil War. Despite the large volume of mail that must have been sent by slave dealers, just a few examples survive today.

Our market is fair at this time several here who wish to buy some good negroes...
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Curator Daniel Piazza on the Davis, Deupree cover

My name is Dan Piazza. I am the National Postal Museum’s chief curator of philately, as well as the curator of the Freedom Just Around the Corner exhibit, and we are looking at a piece of mail with the return address of Davis, Deupree, and Company, one of the largest slave dealers in Richmond, Virginia right before the Civil War. This envelope was mailed in October 1860, and within about seven months Richmond would become the capital city of the Confederacy. This section of the Freedom exhibit is called “the business of slavery,” and I wanted to show the commodification – the buying and selling – of men, women and children through stamped documents and mail of the period. I went looking through the museum’s collection for an envelope from a slave dealer, and didn’t find one. So I asked around at stamp dealers and auction houses, and I got the same response everywhere – “Oh, those are very rare,” and “I’ve never actually seen one.” Finally I lucked out and was able to buy this piece for the permanent collection and use it in this exhibit. That got me to thinking about why these covers are so rare. Nineteenth century advertising mail of any kind is highly desirable to collectors, and it seemed to me that the slave trade, as one of the bigger industries, would have generated lots of mail. But most of the early covers and letters on the market today were purchased from old businesses and old families in the early 1900s, when enterprising dealers and collectors went around offering to buy up their archives. My suspicion is that by that time people had become sufficiently embarrassed by their forebears’ involvement in the slave trade, that they destroyed those letters rather than sell them. The result is that today, fewer than a dozen letters like this one survive.

Cover from Joseph Bryan, May 2, 1860

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Joseph Bryan conducted one of the largest slave auctions in U.S. history. More than 400 men, women and children were sold over two days in 1859, an event remembered in Georgia folklore as “the weeping time.”

Loan from David Mielke

First Federal Issue Revenue Stamps on Slave Mortgage Document, March 3, 1863

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Kentucky slaveowner Margaret Jones secured a loan of $600 by mortgaging her “negro man, named George, of copper color and aged about forty five years.” Under the terms, George would be deeded back to Jones if the loan was paid off in six months.

Loan from Hermann Ivester

First Federal Issue revenue stamps on slave sale document, October 1, 1863

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A total of six cents tax was due on $305 paid for a “negro boy Charles” at a court-ordered auction in Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Loan from Michael Mahler