A dark-skinned woman holding a baby in her arms stands on a platform near the steps of a large, columned building. A man in a dark coat, slightly in front of her, gestures dramatically to the well-dressed crowd. Several more children and adults of various ages are standing, sitting, and kneeling in front of the platform. A drama is unfolding. In the surrounding crowd, children and their parents watch the man on center stage, an auctioneer, as he tries to sell his human commodities. On the left, a small group of men wearing hats talk amongst themselves, perhaps responding to what is going on behind them. What we don’t know upon looking at this painting for the first time is that it depicts the last sale of slaves in St. Louis, held on New Year’s Day, 1861, near the steps of the Old Courthouse—the same place where the historic Dred Scott case was first argued.
Slave auctions were a common occurrence in St. Louis and in many other cities up through the early 1860s, but more and more people were protesting the practice of slavery. This became the last auction in St. Louis after the jeering crowd repeatedly shouted “three dollars,” refusing the auctioneer’s efforts to drive the price higher. The scene demonstrates the citizens of St. Louis working together to protest the institution of slavery.
Auctions were one of the most common ways that slaves were sold once they made the perilous journey to the Americas. When the slaves arrived for auction, they were placed in a pen, washed, and covered in grease or tar to make them appear healthier. Auctioneers tried to get the highest bid by listing each individual’s skills and by pointing out desirable physical attributes. Young, healthy females fetched the highest prices (as high as $1,800) since their potential children would be born into slavery and eventually increase the available work force. Young, strong males were also considered desirable and sold for approximately $1,500. Potential buyers often pinched, prodded, and forced slaves to open their mouths so buyers could see their teeth.
Being sold by their masters was a terrible experience for slaves since there was no law to keep families together. William Wells Brown, once a slave himself, recounted an auction he witnessed in St. Louis. A man and his wife were for sale separately: “The slave was begging his new master to purchase his wife…the wife was struck off to the highest bidder, who proved not to be the owner of her husband. As soon as they became aware that they were to be separated, they both burst into tears; and as she descended from the auction-stand, the husband, walking up to her and taking her by the hand, said, ‘Well, Fanny, we are to part forever, on earth; you have been a good wife to me. I did all that I could to get my new master to buy you; but he did not want you, and all I have to say is, I hope you will try to meet me in heaven. I shall try to meet you there.’”
Thomas Satterwhite Noble, the artist who painted this image, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1835 into a family who owned a plantation and many slaves. According his granddaughter, “Thomas spent much of his boyhood among Negroes in their quarters, listening to their songs and stories.” Through these experiences he gained a deep understanding of those enslaved—his father freed the slaves on his plantation and rehired them before the start of the Civil War. Along with Noble’s understanding came his strong feelings about social justice. Noble believed in states’ rights and served as a captain in the Confederate Army in New Orleans. But he was also opposed to slavery and probably included his self-portrait in this painting—he and his wife Mary are in the right foreground of the painting next to the child—to make his views known.
Over his long career, he painted many works about slavery. One piece of artwork was of John Brown, an early abolitionist, blessing an African American just before Brown was hanged for organizing the capture of the United States Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 in order to lead a slave rebellion. Another moving image painted by Noble was The Price of Blood,, featuring a slave trader studying the contract between himself and a wealthy plantation owner who is selling his own son, born to one of his slaves. Opposed to the institution of slavery, Noble used his paintings to try to convince others to stand against the inhumane practice. This image is just one example of how artists use their talents to promote social change.
Note: The first rendition of Last Sale of Slaves, 1865, was painted in response to a slave auction that took place in front of the steps of the city courthouse in St. Louis. The first painting of the last sale, containing about seventy-five people, was displayed in the public library in Chicago until it was destroyed by an 1880 fire there. Noble created this painting, the second version, in 1870. This smaller and simpler replica of the first remained in the Noble family until it was donated to the Missouri Historical Society in 1938.