Remembering the Slave Market

Even though this occurred in Wilmington, NC and not in South Carolina it does deal with the Bellamy family. This excerpt from the John Bellamy (1854-1942) memoirs about his father John Bellamy (1817-1896) who was born in Horry County, SC and still had plantations in South Carolina.


I recall very vividly the old Slave Market in Wilmington that was situated on Front Street, at its intersection with Market. A wooden platform was temporarily erected in the street just in front of the old Market House. A number of slaves would be seated thereon—men, women and children—and an auctioneer would cry out the subject of his sale, giving the age, sex and capability of the slave to be sold, just as they sold livestock, then and now. A good female would bring about three hundred dollars; children, according to their age, from fifty to one hundred dollars each; and a capable male from five hundred to one thousand dollars. I know that my father, being moved by the entreaties of a slave wife to prevent her husband being carried to Mississippi, paid one thousand dollars for the husband, a good cooper. There was nothing cruel in the treatment of the slaves to be sold, for they were well cared for, the only objection was that human beings were traded as merchandise. Many of the slaves sold found good Christian masters and received the kindliest treatment in their new homes and became civilized and elevated from their former savage condition. I say today, having been reared among the negroes, that they and their white owners became reciprocally fond of each other, and the slaves in many instances were allowed to buy their own freedom at a nominal price. I knew a free negro, James Sampson, who lived in a splendid two-story dwelling, in Wilmington, and reared a very respectable family. He actually owned twenty-five negro slaves, whose freedom he had bought and held in his name.

In speaking of the Slave Market, I once knew of a very well-to-do planter, who lived at Scott’s Hill, who came to Wilmington and bought a negro woman at the auction on Market Street. Being a fine cook, he paid five hundred dollars for her. One day, about six months after her purchase, he was passing the same market and the auctioneer offered for sale three negro children; he could not get a bid for them, and looking at the gentleman, said: “I am going to sell these children at any price I can get. How much will you give?” “One hundred dollars for the three,” offered the man. The auctioneer said, “They are yours!” They proved to be the children of the cook he had previously bought, and the reunion brought much joy and delight. The farmer had not the slightest idea that they were his cook’s children when he made the bid.

Afterwards, when peace was declared and my father had received his pardon for his participation in the so-called Rebellion, we moved from Robeson County and came back to our home in Wilmington, and took possession of all our property again. It was in a terrible condition.

Grovely Plantation, in Brunswick County, is located on Town Creek and consists of nearly ten thousand acres, my father having bought a great many adjoining tracts to keep settlers from coming too near—to interfere with his negro slaves. This old estate was entered by Maurice Moore, in 1750, and was called, by him, “Spring Garden.” He afterwards sold it to John Baptista Ashe, who changed its name to Grovely Plantation, which name it still bears. It is remarkable that Grovely is composed of a number of tracts of land generally consisting of about 640 acres each.

The plantation had, beside the manor house, many other buildings—overseers’ houses, barns, stables, and the like.

The manor house, in which we spent a great part of our summers, must have been built in Colonial times and was a very substantial and comfortable structure. Near the home was a dairy and the turkey, peafowl and chicken yards, also large orchards and vineyards. My father generally ran over fifty mules and plows; he raised from six hundred to eight hundred heads of cattle, and a like number of sheep, and never killed less than fifteen hundred heads of hogs per annum, with which he used to feed his slaves in Brunswick County, Columbus County, and the slaves of his plantation in South Carolina. He planted, during the Civil War, about two hundred and fifty acres of wheat, which seemed to thrive in that soil equally as well as in the wheat growing section of the state. Having no rice fields on Grovely, I have known him to get, at one time, three thousand bushels of rough rice, which he bought from Colonel Thomas C. Miller, at Orton Plantation; this was hulled by his slaves in wooden mortars, with wooden pestles, and winnowed on elevated platforms.

In the heyday of Grovely Plantation my father cultivated twenty-four hundred acres of arable land, worked by his negroes, who lived in cabins on “The Line.” He raised wheat, oats, corn, peanuts, and other grains, and his barns were always filled to overflowing and groaning under their weight.

The Wesleyan Methodist preacher (employed by the year by my father) held his services on each alternate Sunday, baptising infants and marrying the slaves.

On Sundays, when I was a boy about eight or ten years of age, contemporary negro boys, at least fifty in number, would come down from “The Line” to the dwelling where we lived. They were always neatly dressed in the woolen and cotton cloths produced by the spinners and weavers on the hand looms of the plantation. My parents permitted me to go with these boys into the woods and on the streams until church time, when I would accompany them to “The Line,” and attend their religious services. There was no shouting, no emotional outbreak at these services. I can truly say I have never seen a more attentive religious audience, than that composed of the slaves; nor have I ever heard more stirring music than their native spirituals. However, on the Sundays that the white minister did not come, they frequently had their own preachers, and it was at such times that the services became extremely emotional, having the mournings and shoutings that so often occur at camp meetings.

During the week, the girls and boys held their dances every night, having among themselves negro musicians who played the banjo and guitar very well. You could hear the figures of the square dance called, and the loud and boisterous singing and dancing for miles off! It often continued till quite late—but not after twelve o’clock! There was much innocent merriment and joy. Both young and old slaves were very contented with their lot. During the entire Civil War, not one of the slaves on Grovely Plantation ran away, but remained happily there, until the war was over. Even then, they were permitted to continue occupying their old dwellings without any charge, until they started purchasing homes elsewhere—when they began to realize their freedom. Many remained for years, however, and were hired to cultivate the soil, until a great fire raged and swept over the ten-thousand-acre tract, destroying every negro cabin, barn, every loom-house and spinning-house, every overseer’s dwelling, carpenter and cooper shops, and even the manor house! Not a building of any kind was left on the whole plantation!

Crops were devastated, and hundreds of negroes were homeless! This made me very sad. It was the charm of my life to hear the singing and dancing at the old slave-quarters at night! Remembrance of the wild, weird music, and the rhythmic, swaying shadows cast a fascination that has remained deep within me, always!

My father had bought, in Charleston, a slave known as Nero. He was a splendid specimen of humanity, very black, about six feet three inches in height, and as strong a man as I ever saw. He was never married, but his reputation was that he had about forty illegitimate children. He was foreman of the slaves under the overseer. This Nero claimed he was an Arabian Prince who had been kidnapped on the coast of Africa and sold into slavery. Nero wrote Arabic, or some other language, which we did not understand. He was a great astronomer and at night would go out and look up at the stars and approximately tell the correct time. He could also accurately predict rain. Altogether, he was a very intelligent man and seemed to appreciate my father’s kindness, because he always looked after his interests very faithfully. Nero was the most unmerciful slave foreman I ever knew. He would whip the slaves with cowhides and they would complain to my father of his cruelty. When my father learned of Nero’s acts, he always sent for him and disapproved and condemned them. Nero was allowed to make money by odd jobs, which he hoarded and buried.

My father, being a Wesleyan Methodist, always employed a Methodist minister to preach to his slaves on Sunday, bury them when they died, and perform their marriage and baptismal rites. This minister was a young college graduate from Alabama, by the name of Morgan C. Turrentine, who had been preaching to the negroes and Indians in Alabama, and whom my father brought to Wilmington and paid a good salary to perform the services for his slaves. My father, being a physician, always attended to their physical needs himself, assisted by his skilled mid-wives. Mr. Turrentine was an educated gentlemen, highly recommended by Dr. Whiteford Smith, of Wofford College, South Carolina, and was the progenitor of the Turrentine family now living here.


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