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Nothing hits me harder than these three words.

Some version of this phrase is often found in the wills of enslavers, designed to give away children who were not even yet conceived.

from William Sanders will, 1810 Sumpter, SC

Enslaved women’s wombs enriched generations of enslavers, both giving life and bringing death in so many ways. It’s a concept that still haunts me, as I watch my beautiful son grow up. Millions of mothers did not get the opportunity to do the same.

Sometimes the will says “all her issue.” The uninitiated might read right past such phrases, unaware of its awful meaning. The gifting of human beings were often included the same sentence with the bedding and the silverware, the hogs and cows.

Researching slavery is a harrowing task. Not just for descendants of the enslaved searching for the pieces of ancestors that slavery attempted to destroy. Historians often talk about the emotions they feel while researching in the archives for their books, theses, and dissertations.

from 1825 Leonard Waller will, Abbeville SC

I still feel the same sickening in my stomach even after decades of research.

Seeing the horrible and confusing juxtaposition of human beings spoken of as livestock, in the same wills that opened with fanciful flourishes conveying the enslaver’s belief in God.

There’s such violence hidden in those words, because slavery couldn’t continue without extraordinary amounts of violence.

We see it in many of the sources that discuss the enslaved:

  • The slave schedules with no names, like a page full of ghosts
  • The bills of sale, and inventories that attach dollar values to a life (especially the ones that show $0 for elderly slaves)
  • The failed mortgages that used the bodies of men, women and children as collateral, who were sold when the mortgage wasn’t paid
  • The forced “breeding” and the use of terms (like breeding and increase) typically used when discussing animals
  • The well-documented torture and maiming, meant to extract maximum profit

It never gets easier. But it does drive me to tell their story, reclaim their names, and in some small way give a voice to those who had no voice in their time.

Because I am a descendant of their increase.

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