Although Henry Bibb was born into slavery and had been incarcerated in several different facilities, by the time he arrived in 1839, New Orleans was an entirely new type of prison to him. During the major slave-trading season, September through May, yards surrounded by high walls called slave pens appeared in the areas surrounding the French Quarter. Enslaved men, women, and children would line up in front of these brick walls and await inspection by potential buyers.
When Henry was captured in Kentucky trying to free his wife, Malinda, and child, Frances, from their masters, he was held in a small town jail close to the plantation before he was sent the larger holding facility in the capital of Louisville. There he was transferred to Louisville’s workhouse where he was chained for 3 months sawing stone from sunrise to sunset. Malinda and her child were held in the women’s section of the workhouse, where her owner beat her and threatened to sell baby Frances if she did not have sex with him. Although slave marriages were not recognized by law, the family eventually was able to be sold together, so they were sent to New Orleans, the center of the domestic slave trade. Once there the family languished while awaiting their fate in a slave pen like the one on the corner of Esplanade and Chartres.
By the time Henry 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 everywhere. While other cities kept their slave markets contained to certain areas, like the section of Richmond, Virginia known as “Wall Street,” New Orleans was exceptional in its scope and grandeur. If you look at the three story buildings with exterior balconies and staircases that dot the courtyards of the French Quarter, often visible above the walls of the home or through a fence, you can imagine what the slave pen prisons looked like. The rooms that held the undeserving prisoners were tiny and bare. The showrooms, on the other hand, were spacious, decorated, and accommodating of free white consumers.
Slave pens were realms of sale in which appearances were everything. Slave traders would hire doctors to come check on the health of their slaves sometimes on a daily basis. Separate rooms held sick enslaved men and women, so as to avoid spreading disease. But more often than not, slave traders tried to sell the people they had bought quickly, sprucing them up with makeup and fancy clothes to make them look presentable. Slave traders often did everything they could to reduce the humanity of the enslaved in exchange for their commodification. As Walter Johnson writes,
“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.”
Since Henry had attempted escape at least once before, the slave trader who owned the pen had a difficult time selling him for a profit, and 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 it 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.
Still, Henry was sent out into the city alone as the trader knew he would not attempt another escape without his family. Malinda and Frances stayed behind in the care of 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 Henry 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 Henry 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 buyer wanted.
One day Henry heard about a man from Tennessee who had come to New Orleans to purchase slaves. When Henry approached and asked if he was in the market for slaves, the man from Tennessee looked at Henry, his attire and thought he was a trader himself. Henry 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, Henry 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.