The Weeping Time: A New Book on the Largest Slave Auction

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History was recently published by Cambridge University Press.


The author of The Weeping Time is Anne C. Bailey, a writer, historian, and a tenured professor of History and Africana Studies at Binghamton University, State University of New York. In her work, she combines the elements of travel, adventure, history, and an understanding of contemporary issues with an accessible style. Her works range from adult non-fiction to children’s historical fiction, and include African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame, (Beacon Press, 2005) and You Can Make A Difference: The Story of Martin Luther King Jr. (Bantam/Doubleday/Dell). Professor Bailey is committed to a concept of “living history” in which events of the past are connected to current and contemporary issues. She is also concerned with the reconciliation of communities after conflicts like slavery, war and genocide. This is best evidenced in her newest book, The Weeping Time. Drawing on victims’ accounts and descendants’ memories, The Weeping Time uses the largest slave auction in U.S. history as a lens to explore the legacies of slavery, diaspora and the Civil War. Follow her on Twitter @annebailey63.

In 1859, at the largest recorded slave auction in American history, over 400 men, women, and children were sold by the Butler Plantation estates. This book is one of the first to analyze the operation of this auction and trace the lives of slaves before, during, and after their sale. Immersing herself in the personal papers of the Butlers, accounts from journalists that witnessed the auction, genealogical records, and oral histories, Anne C. Bailey weaves together a narrative that brings the auction to life. Demonstrating the resilience of African American families, she includes interviews from the living descendants of slaves sold on the auction block, showing how the memories of slavery have shaped people’s lives today. Using the auction as the focal point, The Weeping Time is a compelling and nuanced narrative of one of the most pivotal eras in American history, and how its legacy persists today.

The black body on slavery’s auction block was at once commerce, exhibit, and spectacle; it was also the stuff of mourning, memorialization and mobilization. Such is the grand and grave subject of this absorbing book on the mother of all slave auctions in the United States, a tale told with verve and an eye for detail. A bedrock work.” –Michael West, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Julie Hawks: Did you face any challenges conceiving of, researching, writing, revising, publishing, or promoting this book? If so, please share those challenges and how you overcame them? 

Anne C. Bailey: The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History is a story of fragments – fragments of history and narrative that periodically break the silence on the period of slavery. This is why the auction seemed so significant to me when I first stumbled upon the topic in 2006 while perusing the website of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Though at the time, I was more interested in learning about Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, I read the short biography of his life and the last lines literally jumped off the page: “As for the rest of his slaves- 140 men, women and children because Jefferson was heavily indebted, they were to put up for auction.” Fixated on the term, I decided to bring this fragment of the African American experience front and center.

One of my first major challenges was finding descendants of the auction through a perusal of African American genealogy sites such as AfriGeneas. Otherwise, I asked my university library to purchase the Bulter Plantation Papers and spent a great deal of time at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

I think the most challenging aspect was finding the right publishing home for the book. Auctions were as almost as common as stock trades yet most of the general public can hardly point to one. That fact alone spurred me on in the hopes of finding a publisher that also felt that the full machinery of slavery and its underlying roots should be brought to light. Furthermore, I wanted to be sure that as much as possible the perspective of the enslaved on the auction block would be showcased. This perspective along with the oral histories of the descendants of the auction is my take on “history from below.”

These voices must come from out of the shadows and have their own say and this is what I hope has been achieved with The Weeping Time. In the end, Cambridge University Press bravely took this project on and should be commended for their support for such an approach.

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Julie Hawks

Julie Hawks is a Ph.D. student at American University where she focuses on how Americans remember and commemorate traumatic events related to slavery, war, and labor. Her research interests include the politics of memory, antiracism, material culture, and anti-communism/anti-New Deal campaigns. Follow her on Twitter @justjuliehawks.