Even God Wept: Gullah Geechee NHA Remembers The Weeping Time

Some of the 436 chairs set out for the Weeping Time memorial service. Sunflowers are laid out on one chair.
Some of the 436 chairs laid out for The Weeping Time's memorial service.

Heather Hodges / Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

Savannah, GA (March 7th, 2020) –

On March 2nd and 3rd, 1859, over 400 African American enslaved men, women, and children were sold on a racetrack in Savannah, GA under torrential rain. The sale was so painful, enslaved people and others remembered afterwards, that the skies opened and even God “wept.”

Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor joined the Savannah community for a weekend of commemorative activities from March 6th to March 8th. A memorial service was held on March 7th, at the site of the sale. Attendees carried umbrellas and 436 chairs were set out to remember each of the individuals put up for sale. In the first official recognition of the tragic sale by the state of Georgia, State Senator Lester Jackson read a statement from Georgia Governor Brian Kemp at the service.

“The Weeping Time” was the largest auction of enslaved people in U.S. history, and was held so that slave owner Pierce Mease Butler could pay off his gambling debts. Butler, the grandson of one of the signers of the U.S. Constitution, Senator Pierce Butler, inherited half of his grandfather’s vast Georgia plantation. The family’s wealth was made possible through the efforts of the huge number of enslaved people who worked the rice and cotton fields. Over the many generations, those enslaved on the Butler Island plantation became very close, due to the fact that the Butler family had not sold or separated their enslaved workers.
Attendees carry multicolored, multi-patterned umbrellas.
Attendees of the memorial service carried umbrellas as a way to symbolically protect and memorialize those enslaved persons forced to endure The Weeping Time's torrential rains with no protection.

Heather Hodges / Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

Pierce Mease Butler, a socialite with a gambling problem, lost much of his family’s wealth within a few years of inheriting it. As a result, his financial advisors arranged for the sale of some of his belongings. This included Butler's “movable” property, or, 436 of the enslaved persons from the tightly-knit plantation community. The sale at the Savannah race track meant that parents, children, siblings, and friends, who had known each other for years, were separated over the course of a few days and likely never saw each other again.

Those intent on purchasing people at the sale, or simply eager to watch, made enslaved people jump, parade around, and undergo physical examinations before bidding. Butler made an appearance towards the end of the sale to give some families a dollar, as thanks for their generations of enslaved work.

A New York Tribune reporter, disguised as a prospective buyer, observed the ordeal and later wrote a detailed article about it. The reactions to the reporter’s account of the sale further convinced those opposed to slavery of its immorality. Meanwhile the journalist received death threats from pro-slavery Americans, including public officials in the south.
A dirt road through Butler Island plantation, which is now a wildlife refuge, with trees and spanish moss.
Butler Island, Georgia. Once the site of the Butler Island Plantation, the area is now a wildlife refuge.

Image Courtesy of Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

News of the sale prompted Butler’s British ex-wife Frances Kemble, who was appalled by slavery, to publish her own perspective of life on Butler Island. Her vivid account was thought to have disturbed British citizens so much that Great Britain decided not to provide the American South with funds for the Civil War.

The Gullah Geechee NHA interprets the history of the Gullah Geechee people, including those sold during The Weeping Time, and their lives in coastal Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. The Gullah Geechee people are descended from enslaved Africans, and due to the isolated setting of the coastal islands and plantations they were enslaved on, the Gullah Geechee culture retains a unique language, arts, music and food culture grown from their African heritage.

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Last updated: March 24, 2020