During the major slave-trading season, September through May, yards surrounded by high brick walls called slave pens bustled with activity in the areas surrounding the French Quarter. Slave traders forced enslaved men, women, and children to line up in the slave pens and await inspection by potential buyers.
One of the most prominent slave narratives of the antebellum period, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself, recorded one man’s experience in a New Orleans slave pen. Henry Bibb was born into slavery and forced to labor throughout the south. In 1839 he was shipped as chattel to New Orleans where he was held in a slave pen along with his wife Malinda and his child. Bibb had previously been jailed for attempting to free his wife, Malinda, and child, Frances, from their masters. The Bibb family languished while awaiting their fate in a slave pen similar to one that stood on the corner of Esplanade and Chartres. A historical marker memorializing the slave pen currently stands on the neutral ground on Esplanade Avenue.
By the time Henry Bibb and his family arrived in New Orleans the pens that held enslaved people before they were traded and sold were illegal in the quarter, but the displays that sold them during the day were not; in fact, they were all around. While other cities contained slave markets to certain areas, like the section of Richmond, Virginia known as “Wall Street,” New Orleans slave auctions were scattered throughout the city. New Orleans slave pen prisons were austere while showrooms were spacious and well decorated to accommodate the tastes of free consumers.
Slave pens were realms of sale in which appearances were everything. Slave traders would hire doctors to come check on the health of slaves, sometimes on a daily basis. Separate rooms held sick enslaved men and women to avoid spreading disease. Slave traders tried to sell the people they had bought quickly, sprucing them up with makeup and fancy clothes to make them appear healthy and presentable. Slave traders often did everything they could to reduce the humanity of the enslaved in exchange for their commodification. Slavery historian Walter Johnson details the commodification of these people:
“The slaves were arranged to reflect the traders’ buyer-tracking tables...there were no husbands or wives apparent among them, no old lovers or new friends; there were only men and women, field hands and house servants.”
It was known that Bibb had previously attempted to escape enslavement at least once before, as a result the slave trader who owned the pen had a difficult time selling him for a profit at auction. After several months a new plan was made. The trader gave Henry a set of clothes and a pass so he could walk through the city and try to sell himself and his family to a new master. The written pass allowed Henry to move through the city streets without being arrested. Without the pass he could be seized by any white citizen, all of whom were legally empowered to incarcerate anyone of color who couldn’t immediately produce paperwork proving their freedom or master-approved leave.
Bibb was sent out into the city alone as the trader knew he would not attempt another escape without his family. Malinda and Frances remained with the trader who often told Henry that he would “rather paddle a
female than eat when he was hungry—that it was music to him to hear them scream, and to see their blood run.”
As Bibb walked through the Quarter, he watched other enslaved people on display get poked, groped, and undressed by potential buyers while white citizens ran their errands. It was not uncommon for people up for sale to have their hands, teeth, and even more intimate areas examined to look for signs of illness, injury, or even scars that they believed demonstrated signs of past bad behavior. Every day for several weeks BIbb set out to persuade potential masters that his wife was “a good cook, wash-woman” and that he was “a good dining room servant, carriage driver, or porter” in hopes of keeping his family together. Enslaved people, even when sold within pens, often participated actively in their own sale, by pretending to be stupid, physically fit, in possession of a particular skill, or especially docile, depending on what the enslaved person thought would best improve their degraded situation.
One day Bibb heard about a man from Tennessee who had come to New Orleans to purchase slaves. When Bibb approached and asked if he was in the market for slaves, the man from Tennessee looked at Bibb, his attire and thought he was a trader himself. Bibb didn’t correct him as he knew he would surely have the same apprehensions that the other buyers did: he was “too white” (Henry was told his father was James Bibb, Senator of Kentucky) and they were afraid he “could read and write” and “would never serve as a slave.” In the 19th century white people feared people with lighter skin because they associated whiteness with literacy, intelligence and the power that came with it. Literate slaves were a great threat to slaveholders since they could write their own pass, or help other slaves to write theirs.
Eventually, after saying that he was not literate, Bibb was able to procure his sale—twelve hundred for him, one thousand for Malinda and Frances— and he and his family were “sold up the river” to a farm 50 miles north of New Orleans in Red River. There, after enduring 18 hours days and brutal torture, Henry made several more escape attempts, the last of which separated him from his family forever. He was sold to professional gamblers who then sold him to a Cherokee slave owner on a white settlement in what is now Southeastern Oklahoma. Because he was given some respect and independence, he waited over a year until his terminally ill master died before he escaped and traveled from the frontier all the way to Detroit.