When the international slave trade was abolished in 1807, a new “second middle passage” was created from the Atlantic coast to the Port of New Orleans as the domestic slave trade grew.
The West Baton Rouge Museum examines the local effects of the domestic slave trade with its exhibit, “Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865,” which is on display until March 31.
Approximately 2 million slaves were sold from the upper Southern states toward the deep South as scenes of families being ripped apart and sold “down the river” became increasingly common.
Runaways also became more frequent as they attempted to return to families and loved ones. “Purchased Lives” is intended to help visitors understand the emotional and personal effects of the slave trade.
The exhibit features five panels from a larger version created by The Historic New Orleans Collection and is supplemented with local documents and artifacts from WBRM’s own collection.
These local additions include newspaper clippings of runaways and lost-friend advertisements, chains used to transport slaves farther south and ship ledgers documenting slaves transported to New Orleans.
One slave shackle on display recovered from a West Baton Rouge plantation is covered with carvings done by a slave on their way south to be sold in Louisiana.
“Purchased Lives” also looks at the effects of the domestic slave trade after the Civil War. One newspaper ad on display written by former slave Sterling Williams addresses friends and family in Kentucky where Williams lived before being sold down the river.
“I suppose you all think I am dead by this time, and I think the same of you all,” the ad reads.
WBRM focuses on slave populations at local plantations such as the Allendale and Westover plantations of West Baton Rouge, whose populations changed and broke from Catholic-French families to single, protestant men and women as a result of the domestic slave trade.
“Telling a West Baton Rouge story is a big part of our everyday mission,” Curator of Collections Angelique Bergeron said.
Bergeron picked quotes and documents that highlight the horror of the domestic slave trade, aiming to help patrons understand.
“It’s far away but still so close in that these are real people who experienced it,” Bergeron said about the exhibit’s time period.
In a haunting video recreation of one local woman’s slave narrative, a former slave tells her 1930s interviewer, “I have a daughter, but I don’t know where she is now.”
By offering personal stories of slaves who once lived in the same cabins featured at WBRM, Bergeron said she hopes patrons can better understand and connect with the horrors of the domestic slave trade.
“This happened all around us. People are still searching for their family,” Bergeron said.
The exhibit also recognizes that effects of the domestic slave trade are still felt today. The sparse documentation and dividing of families as a result of the domestic slave trade makes it challenging for many African Americans to trace their genealogy today.
WBRM often organizes events in correlation with their exhibits, such as a presentation by genealogist Jari Honora on March 30. Honora will identify methods for tracing enslaved ancestors back through generations of captivity. The event culminates the end of the exhibit and more information can be found on WBRM’s website.
Other stops on the exhibit’s year-long panel tour include Jonesboro, Bossier City and Lake Charles. Admission is free for residents of West Baton Rouge Parish, $2 for students and $4 for adults.