“Babies was snatched from their mothers’ breasts and sold to speculators. Children was separated from sisters and brothers and never saw each other again. Course they cry; you think they not cry when they was sold like cattle? I could tell you about it all day, but even then you couldn’t guess the awfulness of it.”
These words from a former slave that remind us of one of the great horrors of slavery, the breakup of families, are found in Heather Andrea Williams’s new book, “Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.”
Williams’ descriptions of mothers and children being separated and sold to different owners are heartrending persuasions that the worst part of the horrible American system of slavery was not the backbreaking work; it was the destruction of personhood that accompanied the ever-present possibility of breakup for every enslaved family group.
Using memories of former slaves, the UNC-Chapel Hill history teacher describes the wrenching partings. For instance, Thomas Jones recalled being taken away after being sold to a new owner in distant Wilmington. “I was very much afraid and began to cry, holding on to my mother’s clothes, and begging her to protect me, and not let the man take me away… Mother wept bitterly and in the midst of her loud sobbings, cried out in broken words, ‘I can’t save you, Tommy; master has sold you, you must go.’ She held me, sobbing and mourning till [the man] came in, snatched me away, hurried me out of the house where I was born, and tore me away from the dear mother who loved me as no other could.”
How did white participants in the slave system deal with these horrors? Williams introduces us to Obadiah Fields from Rockingham County, who “spent much of his time on the road purchasing people…for sale in South Carolina.”
Fields’ letters to his wife expressed his love for her and their four children. In the same letters he reported the results of his sales, “Rachel $400, Steven $525, Henry $525…”
Williams writes, “Fields was evidently a loving husband and father, and he was a man who broke up other people’s families. …He longed to see his wife and children, …yet he probably did not give a thought to the fact that the people he was selling on the road would likely never find their way back home again.”
Slaves who were separated by sale almost always lost track of their family members forever. Williams says, “Psychologists call this sort of separation ambiguous loss…” It is similar to the disappearance of a loved one when the body is never recovered. No one knows whether the loved one is dead or still alive. Such situations can be even worse than when death is certain. It is, says Williams, the type of loss that thousands of African Americans experienced during slavery.”
Williams chronicles efforts of slaves and former slaves, before and after the Civil War, to contact family members. After the war, newspapers were filled with ads like the following published in the “Colored Tennessean” on March 24, 1866:
“Information wanted of our five children, whom we have not seen for four years. Their names are as follows, viz: Josephine, aged 20 years, Celia, aged…They were in Charlotte, N.C., or at Rock Hill when we last heard from them. Any information concerning these children will be thankfully received by their mother.”
Most of these reconnection efforts were unsuccessful, and not all the successful reunification efforts worked out happily.
Williams’ powerful descriptions of the pain of separation and the determined efforts to reunite require us to reflect with humility on this unfortunate chapter in our history.