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  • Writer's pictureWes Hazard

A Haunting & Necessary Resource

Straight up: white Americans take slavery too lightly. I truly believe this is one of the core problems in this country: the broad lack of any meaningful appreciation for the utter horror and the intensity and the all-encompassing nature of what it was like to live in bondage as a slave in the U.S.

You see it all the time in whack school curricula that describe slaves as "servants" or "immigrants", in plantation tour group questions about whether the slaves of a given estate were "treated well", in ridiculous arguments about how slaves "didn't have it that bad" because they were fed and clothed while somebody else's white immigrant great great great great grandfather came to America "without a dollar to their name" but still managed to make something of themselves with "no handouts". You see it in plantation weddings, and antebellum-themed debutante balls, and slave traders being honored with busts in state capitals. So many people think of slavery, if they think of it at all, as nothing more than a "hard job" that yeah, was a "bad thing", but which was on par with the struggle of any immigrant group that came to America and which is long gone and which has no lasting bearing on America today. If you believe that nonsense you will fail to grasp the degree to which America has never had the racial reckoning that it so desperately needs and the degree to which the institution helped shape every single facet of this country.

I don't have the time or space here to detail the depths of slavery's evil, the way it chewed up generations of black people, and the way in which so much of that same harm is still being inflicted today (this book was one of the many many great resources I've personally spent time with if you want to get into it). However one central aspect of slavery that sometimes gets looked over amid the centuries of kidnapping, torture, murder, sexual assault, and the general treatment of people as cattle that went down on the soil of this land is the systematic destruction of families due to the slave trade. A slave had as many rights as a pig, which is to say none. They could be bought, sold, worked, and used in any manner their masters saw fit. If you killed another person's slave your main crime was property destruction, not murder. Slaves often "married" but these unions had no legal binding whatsoever and you could wake up on any given day to find out that you or your spouse or your children had been sold away and that none of you would ever see each other again and have absolutely no way to track or communicate with each other. I mean, just imagine: you're born in bondage, you do backbreaking labor 6.5 days a week from the time you're 5 until the day your body physically can't do it anymore, you're subject to oversight and punishment for every action and word at the whim of another person who literally owns you, you're forbidden to read, you might wear nothing more than rags, you might sleep on a dirt floor in a cold and windowless shack, and one day you find out that your 14 year old daughter got sold to cover a gambling debt for your master and poof, she's gone. You might never know where she ended up and you'll never see her again and you still have to go out into the fields that day and do the same body-busting work you've always done and always will do.

It wasn't quite death, but it was a kind of death, and SO MANY families were terminated in this way and the fact that this specific atrocity inherent in the institution isn't usually the very first thing that we think of when we do bother to think of the horrors of slavery should indicate just how diabolic the who whole enterprise was.

All of this is what makes me so grateful that a resource like Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery exists. In the project's own words:

Last Seen is recovering the stories of families separated in the domestic slave trade. You can search thousands of Information Wanted Ads taken out by former slaves to look for your ancestors, help us transcribe these ads, and find out how educators are using these family stories in their classrooms.

There are so many of these ads, each heartbreaking, each totally compelling. I spent a bit of time with the database and the organization and searchability is impressive. I threw my own name into the search bar and made this mini collage out of just a fraction of the 57 results that popped up so you get a sense of the scale of the tragedy. Check it out.

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