Saturday, December 29, 2012

St. Augustine Slave Market Postcard with Racist Message on Back

Many of you will know I am working on a book dealing with St. Augustine, FL and the place/role of the city in the Civil War. I'm always on the lookout for photos I can use in the book. During a brief weekend shopping trip in St. Augustine to the outlet malls we went into the old city for a bit and wandered through some antique shops just to see what was there. 

I managed to come across a nice postcard from the 1930's of the "Old Slave Market". Now there is of course plenty of discussion to be found as to whether the structure was truly a slave market and some background history may be in order here.

St. Augustine was never a slave selling city in the way New Orleans or Charleston were. However there is documentary evidence showing that slaves were in fact sold in the city and that the market house area was used for auctions of humans. Historian David Nolan has uncovered advertisements such as this estate sale from 1834: "at the market House in the City of St. Augustine...A very prime gang of 30 Negroes, accustomed to the culture of sugar and cotton." He also provides evidence that the market was used as a place of public punishment for slaves as in 1840 slave Peter was "to receive fifteen lashes, in the market, on his bare back."

While Mr. Nolan does show that the "market" was used for the sale of slaves it is perhaps a bit dramatic to call it a "slave market". This term implies that was the major focus and that slave sales were a regular event. I have not seen evidence of such. The market was regularly used for the sale of meats and vegetables however. To not acknowledge the slave owning history of the city however does a disservice to the legacy of these men and women and also distorts history rather than face truth.

W. J. Harris
One of the main origins of the term "slave market" can be traced to photographer W. J. Harris. Harris was born in England in 1868 and immigrated to the United States in 1870 with his family. His early years were spent in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Around 1890 he began his career as a photographer. In the late 1890's he moved to St. Augustine opening Acme View Company which was located near the city gates on St. George St. Here he sold prints and postcards.  Perhaps his most famous card depicted the "old slave market"; a term which has stuck. In a later release of the card he included the following line on the reverse: "The old slave market in the east end of the Plaza is an interesting landmark of antebellum days. Called "slave market" by an enterprising photographer to make his picture sell." The Harris postcard is pictured below.
 State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

NOW back to the main part of the story. The postcard I discovered features "The Old Slave Market" on the front. What is most interesting about the card however is the inscription on the back.

Written July 10, 1939, postmarked in Miami Beach, FL, and being sent to Cleveland, OH the inscription reads: "We are wishing we had the skins of some of the slaves. It would be a little easier on us. Have done very little but loll & laze around. We are leaving Tuesday night for Havana. DZ & AH."  I was amazed but had to remember this was from a different time. For $4 I couldn't leave it.  Please see the scans of the front and back of the card below and make your own opinion .

Courtesy Christina and Robert Redd collection

Courtesy Christina and Robert Redd collection

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