A Trip to West Virginia’s Slave Market in Wheeling

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In the days leading up to the American Civil War, Wheeling, Virginia, grew into an important stop along the underground railroad, standing as it does between Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Many runaway slaves would enter into the city by darkness of night and find lodging courtesy of the A.M.E. Zion Church and the proprietor of the Wheeling House Hotel, who would arrange safe houses for runaways.

One local family, the McKeever’s, would hide fugitive slaves in their poultry wagon and drive them to freedom in Pittsburgh.

Despite these gems of humanity, slavery existed in this Virginia region which stretched farther north than Staten Island.

At the epicenter of slavery in this peninsula of bondage was the Wheeling Market House, where weekly slave auctions were held

Located along the National Road and on the banks of the Ohio River, Wheeling, Virginia was ideally suited for slave trade, as purchased individuals would often be barged down the Ohio to places in the Deep South.

Thomas B. Seabright, in his history of the National Road, wrote: “Negro slaves were frequently seen on the National Road. They were driven over the road arranged in couples and fashioned to a long, thick rope, or cable, like horses.”

Joseph Bell, born in 1819, remembered seeing on Wheeling streets, “gangs of slaves chained together, women as well as men, on their way south. As a little boy, I remember standing on the sidewalk with my brother when such a gang was passing. We were eating an ear of corn apiece, which some of the slaves begged from us.”

According to historians, the ringing of the market bell would signify to the community of Wheeling that a slave trade was about to begin.

Judge John Cochran, wrote of his early visits to the slave auction as a young child:

“Saturday morning in June while attending this market at the age of ten years and while gratifying our idle curiosities as boys will sometimes do I with a neighbor boy sauntered to the upper end of the markethouse and there beheld a sight which I shall never forget and which afterwards changed my whole political thought and action. It was a slave auction.

The auction block was on the west side of the upper end of the market about where the city scales are now located. It was a wooden movable platform about two and a half feet high and six feet square approached by some three or four steps. The auctioneer was a little dapper fellow with a ringing voice and an air of self important bustle which to a boy bespoke him a man of surprising importance. Not a very large crowd was surrounding the auction block. On top of it was a portly and rather aged negress and the auctioneer. She was a mulatto had a broad full face a soft matronly eye and gray hair. Her look was all kindness and affection though now it wore a sad and troubled expression, I liked her as soon as I saw her.

Grouped together on the ground at the side of the block stood three other negroes two men and one woman. They were all about the same age the woman, being probably two years younger than the men and aged about twenty. She was also a mulatto, as was one of the men, while the other who was her brother was quite dark with features and expression like his mother on the auction block. In outline of form and face the girl looked like her mother and darker brother though here as to the brother the resemblance ended. She was tall and slender with a queenly grace and voluptuous swell of chest and gave evidence of refinement not looked for in a slave. Her lips were thin as those of a white person and her eyes quite dark. They were full of tears.

I thought her lovely. She was almost white and her hair while wavy was not short and tight curled like her brother’s, but long and jet black. Had she been in Spain, no question would have been made that she was a Spaniard.

In my childish innocence, I could not reason how this girl could be the sister of that black brother. Subsequent knowledge has taught me my mistake, though only half a mistake after all. It arose from the conditions of American slavery. What a contradiction of words American slavery. And yet it was true!

Then her head fell again and when I quietly slipped around in front of her and looked up into her face the tears were freely rolling over her cheeks down onto her blue checked apron. I knew something was wrong and I wanted to give relief. I pulled the coat tail of an elderly gentleman and when he stooped down to know what I wanted he answered my inquiry by saying this was a slave auction and they were going to sell these four colored people.

He told me they would likely be purchased by different buyers and be separated for life — that the woman on the block was the mother of the black man and mulatto girl and that the other mulatto man and they all belonged to one master who had broken up and they were being sold to pay creditors. This elderly gentleman seemed so kind. He had a light brown broad brimmed hat and was dressed in drab colored clothes with clean white shirt and close fitting standing collar. His coat came up and fastened close to the neck like that of a minister He seemed educated and refined. His clothes, I noticed, had some flour on them. When he began to talk to me I saw at once he was a Quaker and for the first time I looked at his face and knew him at once…

When I asked why they were selling these poor people he replied, ‘For money, my child, the price of human blood.’  His words were subdued and low, as though he wanted no one but me to hear, but I noticed the young mulatto girl caught every word he said and her face lighted up with a strange hope.

‘What will they do with them, Mr Cope, when they buy them?’ I asked, ‘Take them away to the South and work them like beasts just as we do horses and oxen without pay or reward,’ he replied, ‘Some of them are cruelly beaten and mistreated, though this is not often done by the masters, as it is not to their interest to do so. It is ordinarily done by their slave drivers without the knowledge of the owners. They are mere employees who work on a salary and try to make a big showing at the end of the year by increased crops at the physical expense of the slaves in order to retain their positions. One of the worst features of this accursed traffic is the separation of families husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister. But this is not all my child,’ here his voice dropped to almost a whisper, ‘this is not the worst, would to God it were!’

‘You do not know now, but you will when you are older Some masters are not content to own the bodies they are ruining the souls of their female slaves. Oh my boy, God is gathering a swift and terrible judgment to the people who are doing these things. If you live, you will see terrible times for these wrongs. Be a man when it comes.’  

For further reading on this subject, Check out “West Virginia: The Illegal State” Click here to find on Amazon.

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