Sometimes it’s the everyday things that touch and teach us, and this envelope from 1860 – stationery used every day for business correspondence – really gave me a jolt, more than any statistics or written history could.
The envelope held a letter, in which a business man calmly noted, “Our market is fair at this time, several here who wish to buy some good negroes…”
Before and during the Civil War, Richmond was a center of the slave trade, with more than 60 slave dealers and auction houses. But the business was no different to most than the trade in salt or tobacco. And slaves weren’t just bought and sold; they were bred, leased, traded, even used as collateral for loans. There was a futures market in slaves. Tens of millions of dollars changed hands.
Nor was this purely a southern enterprise. In the early days of the Civil War, slavery was still legal in six Union states—Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee and West Virginia—and the sale of slaves in these states was taxable.
This chilling piece of history is from an exhibit at the U.S. Postal Museum, which also includes documents that bear federally-issued revenue stamps as proof that the tax on a slave sale was paid, all very routine and official.
You will find the exhibit online here: http://postalmuseum.si.edu/freedom/p2.html
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The site of the Odd Fellows Hall noted on the envelope is today a part of the Richmond Slave Trail, marker #3 at North 15th Street & East Main Street. The marker notes that the slave auctions took place in the basement.