America’s forgotten migration – the journeys of a million African-Americans from the tobacco South to the cotton South
By Edward Ball; Photographs by Wayne Lawrence
When Delores McQuinn was growing up, her father told her a story about a search for the family’s roots.
He said his own father knew the name of the people who had enslaved their family in Virginia, knew where they lived—in the same house and on the same land—in Hanover County, among the rumpled hills north of Richmond.
“My grandfather went to the folks who had owned our family and asked, ‘Do you have any documentation about our history during the slave days? We would like to see it, if possible.’ The man at the door, who I have to assume was from the slaveholding side, said, ‘Sure, we’ll give it to you.’
“The man went into his house and came back out with some papers in his hands. Now, whether the papers were trivial or actual plantation records, who knows? But he stood in the door, in front of my grandfather, and lit a match to the papers. ‘You want your history?’ he said. ‘Here it is.’ Watching the things burn. ‘Take the ashes and get off my land.’
“The intent was to keep that history buried,” McQuinn says today. “And I think something like that has happened over and again, symbolically.”
McQuinn was raised in Richmond, the capital of Virginia and the former capital of the Confederacy—a city crowded with monuments to the Old South. She is a politician now, elected to the city council in the late 1990s and to the Virginia House of Delegates in 2009. One of her proudest accomplishments in politics, she says, has been to throw new light on an alternate history.
For example, she persuaded the city to fund a tourist walk about slavery, a kind of mirror image of the Freedom Trail in Boston. She has helped raise money for a heritage site incorporating the excavated remains of the infamous slave holding cell known as Lumpkin’s Jail.
“You see, our history is often buried,” she says. “You have to unearth it.”
Not long ago I was reading some old letters at the library of the University of North Carolina, doing a little unearthing of my own. Among the hundreds of hard-to-read and yellowing papers, I found one note dated April 16, 1834, from a man named James Franklin in Natchez, Mississippi, to the home office of his company in Virginia. He worked for a partnership of slave dealers called Franklin & Armfield, run by his uncle.
“We have about ten thousand dollars to pay yet. Should you purchase a good lot for walking I will bring them out by land this summer,” Franklin had written. Ten thousand dollars was a considerable sum in 1834—the equivalent of nearly $300,000 today. “A good lot for walking” was a gang of enslaved men, women and children, possibly numbering in the hundreds, who could tolerate three months afoot in the summer heat.
Scholars of slavery are quite familiar with the firm of Franklin & Armfield, which Isaac Franklin and John Armfield established in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1828. Over the next decade, with Armfield based in Alexandria and Isaac Franklin in New Orleans, the two became the undisputed tycoons of the domestic slave trade, with an economic impact that is hard to overstate. In 1832, for example, 5 percent of all the commercial credit available through the Second Bank of the United States had been extended to their firm.