The new research out there in regards to exposing the horrors of slavery and segregation is quite revealing. Many folks, both black and white, think they know something about the horrors of slavery, they know nothing! In a book titled, ThePrice for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, by Daina Ramey Berry, the author reveals what happened to blacks on the auction block and what happened to their bodies in death. I am familiar with the horrors of what happened on the auction block; black mothers had their children torn away from them and sold literally like hogs by the pound. The price varied according to whether the slave was a male, female, or child. Dr. Berry makes it clear in her extensive research that the sale of black bodies did not end with the death of a slave but continued on after death.
We need to understand the horrors of slavery, especially since there is a conservative move to bury the truth about how this nation was developed. Some renowned scholars have even chosen to soft peddle slavery and the term “Slave” by referring to slaves as “Enslaved People.” I understand that calling slaves “enslaved people” sounds pretty, and one could argue that it provides some human dignity to individual slaves, but it also sugar coats the horrors of slavery. It is important to remember that people were enslaved and the horrors that go with it rather than some attempt to soften the reality of what being a slave meant. I use both terms, slave and “enslaved people,” but prefer the more straightforward. “Renowned scholars” have come up with good stuff and baloney as well.
The past still binds us to racism and injustice, and in understanding how we got to where we are now it is imperative that we understand the psyche of intolerance. According to Dr. Berry, slave owners turned black bodies into “commodities.” Black women were used as slaves and sex objects to service the needs of white men and their families, while black men were worked to death and whipped or killed if they did not produce. Even after death, black bodies were buried in black graveyards, dragged to rivers for the alligators, or chopped up for hogs on the plantation. What is generally not known is that black corpses were stolen from graveyards and sold to medical schools.
The medical schools of Virginia, Pennsylvania, John Hopkins, North Carolina and Maryland all engaged in body snatching. After blacks were executed or lynched, their bodies were dug up and taken to medical schools for dissections so that white medical students could learn about the human body. Where blacks simply died, black employees at the medical school were hired to do this dirty work and were paid different amounts depending on the sex and age of the body. According to Dr. Berry’s research, black adult bodies were sold at Charlottesville medical school for twelve dollars, while “infants from birth to 8 years” sold for four dollars. Mothers and infant corpses were sold for fifteen dollars in the late 1700s and in the 1800s.
The American hero, Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion for freedom in 1831, was also mutilated after he was hung. He was beheaded and his skin was used to make wallets. Nat Turner’s skull traveled across the country and was in the possession of various physicians across many years. Dr. Berry writes that immediately after his execution, “Witnesses note that Turner’s body was given to medical students (possibly from the University of Virginia or Winchester Medical School in Virginia) for dissection.” She goes on to report that, “A local doctor possessed his skeleton ‘for many years’; at some point, it was misplaced.” One man admitted to tanning the skin of Nat Turner and making it available to be seen in local shops. Several of the blacks that fought with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, after their execution, were dug up from the cemetery and turned over to medical schools. Black graves were often robbed by medical schools using blacks to do their dirty work. One such grave robber was Chris Baker who “was employed by the Medical College of Virginia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Pictures of this scoundrel can be seen in Dr. Berry’s book.
In modern times, the grave of one of the little black girls killed in the KKK 16th Street Church bombing, Addie Mae Collins, was robbed or paved over, and her body never recovered. This is why I prefer to continue to use the word “slave” as it paints a true picture of what happened. “Renowned scholars” are always coming up with terms that soft peddle the horrors of slavery, slaves, and enslaved people.