A London auction house has removed a 19th-century bill of sale for two human beings from its website, saying the practice of selling slavery-era artifacts for profit is immoral.
“We don’t feel right selling a slave document. You can say it’s a moral decision. We don’t want to profit, make our commission, selling something related to this,” said James Gardner, the director of online auctions at London’s Gardner Galleries.
“You read the names and it really should be in a museum. We don’t feel right selling it, that’s the bottom line.”
The original handwritten document is dated Jan. 4, 1876 and describes a transfer of ownership of two human beings, who are described in the text as “a certain negro woman named Caty, 19 years of age and a boy child named Berry, 10 months old.”
‘It was a shocker to see something like this turn up in London, Ont.’
The agreement is between the family of William C. Young of Washington County to the family of William Patton in Wayne County for the sum of $550 U.S. However, it’s unclear exactly where in the U.S. the transaction took place, since the ink is faded and the geographical location of the counties involved is referred to simply as “the territory aforementioned.”
“We say it’s ‘indistinct’,” Gardner said. “It’s very hard to read.”
While it isn’t illegal to sell historical artifacts that relate to racial injustice such as slave documents, or Nazi memorabilia, it is widely seen as being in poor taste.
The artifact had been on the Gardner Galleries website for a number of days and had fetched a bid of $210 at the time it was pulled from the auction house website on Thursday, following an inquiry by CBC News.
Gardner said the family-run business reconsidered its decision to sell the item after a discussion with his brother and father, who also run the business.
Gardner said unfortunately, since the practice of slavery was so widespread in the 19th-century U.S., documents such as this are relatively common. What surprised Gardner however, was the fact it surfaced in London, Ont.
“This was a shocker to see something like this turn up in London, Ont., which you would think would be more prevalent in the U.S.”
While most Canadians like to think slavery was something that only happened south of the border, it also happened here. New France had thousands of slaves when it was conquered by the British in 1763, while Nova Scotia and Upper Canada also practised slavery even after it was made illegal.
Toronto recently debated whether to change the name of Jarvis Street based on the fact its namesake was a slave owner on top of the fact he was a city builder.
‘God bless him for doing that’
Justine Turner is a London activist and historian who thinks Gardner Galleries deserves credit for having the courage to admit it was wrong.
“I think that is 100 per cent the right thing to do and I take my hat off to James Gardiner. God bless him for doing that.”
She said to profit from an historical document of this nature would be immoral.
“In a sense, it’s like you’re selling these people again. Caty and little Berry, may you rest in peace.”
Turner is a mixed-race woman who is widely known for her work organizing the city’s Black History Month events for years. A number of years ago, she and Mark Dewe co-produced Finding Freedom in the Forest City, a documentary about the history of London’s Black community, tracing from its roots from escaped slaves to the present day.
A history of slavery you likely didn’t learn in school
Turner said what struck her about the bill of sale was the fact it’s dated more than a decade after the United States issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves regardless of where they were in the country.
“This is a real bill of sale. It’s a history lesson, it’s a humanity lesson,” she said. “The document is dated 1876, which is 13 years after the abolishment of slavery.”
Turner said unlike what many people believe, the practice of slavery continued for decades.
“Slavery was still continuing on in the South, even though they had the Civil War,” she said, noting despite what many people want to believe it also continues to the present day in a different form.
“Look at human trafficking, which we’re still dealing with in the 21st century. It’s happening right now and it’s women, it’s children, it’s men.”
Turner said Gardiner Galleries made the right choice, but she would like to see the owner of the document, whoever they are, to try to make things right.
“Maybe make a copy, but the original should be buried,” she said. “These are people. These are children of God. These are human beings.”
“They need their dignity back.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.