In 2000 I had the good fortune to shoot pictures of a UNESCO conference called, “Breaking the Silence: Teaching the Transatlantic Slave Trade,” hosted by Tulane’s Deep South Regional Humanities Center. One of the featured events of the conference was a tour led by Walter Johnson, author of the 1999 book Soul by Soul*. He took us to major sites of the slave trade in New Orleans, as well as a tour of Evergreen Plantation. I recently came across those negatives and decided to finally read his book. Here are a few excerpts:

John M. Tibeats

In the winter of 1842, in Rapides Parish along the Red River, (John M.) Tibeats bought a man who was then called Platt but who turned out to be none other than Solomon Northup, the kidnapped free person of color from New york who recorded his experiences in Twelve Years a Slave. As Northup remembered him, Tibeats “was a small, crabbed, quick-tempered, spiteful man. He had no fixed residence that I ever heard of, but passed from one plantation to another, wherever he could find employment. He was without standing in the community, not esteemed by white men, nor even respected by slaves.” In Tibeats, Northup was describing the mobile and marginal nonslaveholding white men who lived all over the slaveholding South–figures of uncertain reputation and imperfect respectability. For men like Tibeats, buying a first slave was a way of coming into their own in a society that had previously excluded them.

Northup was probably the first slave Tibeats had ever bought, and so the sale marked Tibeat’s passage from nonslaveholder to slaveholder. The market in slaves held the promise that nonslaveholders could buy their way into the master class, and the possibility that they might one day own slaves was one of the things that kept nonslaveholders loyal to the slaveholders’ democracy in which they lived. But Tibeats remained the holder of an incomplete share in the society of slaveholders–Northup’s old owner still held a mortgage on the unpaid portion of Tibeat’s new slave. Thus Tibeats was a man suspended in the midst of passage: the mortgage he owed extended his transition from nonslaveholder to slaveholder in a way that allows us to examine in detail the meaning of his movement into the master class.

Tibeats proved to be a hard master: he drove his new slave mercilessly from the break of the day and was still unsatisfied with his progress at its close. The progress Tibeats imagined–his own passage into independence and full citizenship perhaps–may have been more than any slave could have produced, but what finally brought things to a head was a dispute over a keg of nails. Tibeats had a contract to build a corn mill, kitchen, and weaving house for Northup’s old master and had put Northup to work helping him (in all probability Solomon Northup was building the building that represented the final portion of his price). One night after work, Tibeats instructed Northup to get a keg of nails from the plantation overseer in the morning and start work on the last building. When Tibeats awoke he found Northup hard at work, but was not satisfied with the size of nails he was using. Northup tried to explain that the overseer had provided the nails, but Tibeats cursed him and went to get a whip. When Tibeats returned, he ordered Northup to strip for a beating. Northup refused, Tibeats attacked him, and Northup fought back, wresting the whip from Tibeat’s hand, pinning the white man to the ground, and flogging his owner until his arm ached. And there they stood when the plantation overseer arrived: Tibeats, the owner, picking himself up off the ground; Northup, the slave, warily standing over him with whip in hand. Tibeats rode away to gather a gang, and when he returned he bound Northup–wrists, elbows, and ankles–and prepared to murder him. He would reassert his authority, his property right, over Northup by hanging him. And Northup expected to die: he was a slave on the wrong side of his master, alone, easily disposed of.

Northup, however, did not die that day, for the plantation overseer intervened, reminding Tibeats that Northup was mortgaged to another man: to kill the slave would be to rob that man of his property. While that may have been merely a financial matter for Northup’s former owner, for Tibeats it was a matter of the greatest personal urgency. When Tibeats prepared to murder Northup, he was staking his claim to full participation in the regime of racial slavery. He was a white man and a slaveholder: no slave should be allowed to attack him and survive. But Tibeat’s assertion of the rights of master was constrained by his incomplete transition from nonslaveholder to slaveholder: although he was a white man, he could be publicly beaten by a slave under his command and still find himself on the wrong side of the law, because he was not the slave’s owner. For nonslaveholding white men like Tibeats, buying a slave was a way of coming into their own in a society in which they were otherwise excluded from full participation, in which even the independent exercise of the privileges of their whiteness was constrained by the property regime of slavery. (p. 80-82)

Jefferson McKinney

For Jefferson McKinney, a man who inhabited the same world as Tibeats, buying a first slave was an act of conscious self-transformation. In 1856 when he sat down to write to his brother about slave buying, McKinney had spent most of his life as a Red River overseer. He confessed that he had agreed to pay “a big prise,” much of it yet to be paid, for the woman he had bought, but he went on to describe what he thought he had gained: ” I have bin trying for seberel years to lay up money and find at the end of ebery year that I have sabed but little and probably being in debet will cause me to do without many things taht I would otherwise buy and can do without.” For McKinney, the purchase of a slave was not the result of past frugality but the guarantor of such in the future. Buying a slave was a question of personal responsibility, and Jefferson McKinney was buying his way into the class of men who were responsible for themselves rather than to others. Jefferson McKinney had bought a slave in the hope of effecting the capitalist transformation of himself. McKinney’s was a fantasy of economic independence and bourgeois self-control.”

As McKinney transformed himself from dependent laborer to independent debtor, he was making a direct connection between the bodily capacity of the woman he bought and his own happiness taht was ordinary by the standards of the antebellum South. “She is sixteen years old in May and is verry wel grone,” he wrote to his brother, and on that growth he staked his own future: “If she should breed she wil be cheap in a few years and if she does not she wil always be a deer Negro besides it is getting time that I should begin to think of old age as my hed is past silvering and if eber I can get her paid for and then git a boy I intend then to quit Red River and return to St. Helena or somewhere East up the Mississippi Ribber and settle myself for life . . . Ower years of boyhood was spent together, the bloom of life far distant apart, but I hope it may be gods will for us to spend our aged years together.”

Like most first-time slave buyers, McKinney chose a lower price and the promise of reproduction when he decided to buy a young woman instead of a man. The account he gave of his reasons, however, went well beyond the economic. The young woman’s body was McKinney’s future: he had made a match between her life cycle and his own; her purchase was to underwrite his happy old age; her reproduction–her “breeding” he would have said–held the promise that he and his brother might once again live like a family. For McKinney, the family he had left behind when he had followed his fortunes to the Red River could be put back together in the slave market. (p. 82-83)

John Knight

In 1844, as he made plans for a plantation he had just bought, John Knight appended an exegesis of his intentions to one of the long lists of ages, sexes, and body parts that he sent to his father-in-law, who was buying slaves for him in Marylnad. “This number (say 60),” he wrote, “Will enable me to make a full crop on my land now in cultivation by working them very moderately and giving them every necessary indulgence.” Knight was no stranger to the language of commercial necessity; his slave-market order seemed to grow up out of the land’s need to be cultivated. But there was more to Knight’s plans than simple planting. In subsequent letters Knight lovingly detailed his plans for his new slaves: their lodging (“I am now having built a number of first-rate additional Negroe quarters . . . where they can keep themselves clean, comfortable, and I hope Healthy”), their working conditions (“during the heat of the day, say from 11 O’Clock A.M. to 4 O’Clock P.M> they must be in their quarters or in the shade”), health care (“there is a good physician residing . . . on a removed but very convenient part of my plantation”), and oversight (“I derive much satisfaction from the knowledge that I have a humane and just manager to take charge of them”). With the exception of hiring the overseer, all of these plans were made and publicized before John Knight had even chosen or, still less, bought the slaves he was planning to treat so well. Along with an age-tiered and self-reproducing labor force to till his open land, John Knight was buying a fantasy of just and scientific management, of humane treatment and reciprocal benefit. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity; no reason to doubt, either, that by telling his father-in-law about the personal satisfaction he derived from his plans he intended to exchange his dream for a substantial reputation.

The distance between John Knight, with his lofty language of managerial benevolence, and John Tibeats, with his frustration at not being able to claim a full share of the brutal prerogatives of whiteness and mastery, measures the breadth of meanings that buying agricultural slaves had for white men. None of these men ever lost sight of the bottom line of their slave-market speculations: they were buying slaves to clear and till their fields, to plant and harvest their crops, to build their houses and their holdings. They bought more slaves to plant more cotton, and planted more cotton to buy more slaves. But their economic choices had broader cultural meaning. Some were outsiders buying their way into full participation in the political economy of slavery and white masculinity. Some were old men planning for the end of their lives or young men plotting their future. Some bought as brothers and fathers, sons and husbands. Some bought with the savvy of men on the make, others with the measured purpose of men long made. Some bought as businessmen, planters, or managers. As they narrated their upwards progress through the slave market, slaveholders small and large were constructing themselves out of slaves. Whether slave buyers figured their independence as coming of age or coming into their own, as investment, necessity, or benevolence, it was embodied in slaves. (p. 87-88)

(image: portrait from Evergreen Plantation)

* Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. (1999). Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA; London, England.