Lesson Plan: Overview

Examining Slave Auction Documents

This lesson was originally designed for a high school African American Studies course.

Grade Level: High School

Excerpt from Porcher & Baya Slave Auction Broadside 1859

Academic Standards

Standard USHC-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the causes and the course of the Civil War and Reconstruction in America.

USHC-4.1 Compare the social and cultural characteristics of the North, the South, and the West during the antebellum period, including the lives of African Americans and social reform movements such as abolition and women’s rights.
Social Studies Literacy Elements
P. Locate, gather, and process information from a variety of primary and secondary sources including maps

Historical Background Notes


In Frederic Bancroft’s book, Slave Trading in the Old South, he explained the buying and selling of slaves. Selling and buying slaves was considered a business.  City residents generally were very interested in attending public auctions. Slave traders who lived in the city were listed in public directories (Bancroft 1996, 96). Slaves were often advertised the same way we see advertisements for homes and cars. The slave auction document often listed the names of general agents, brokers, commission merchants and auctioneers. Slaves were viewed as commodities. Slaves advertisements could be seen all over the city of Charleston, especially in places were large crowds of people were known to congregate.  

The buying and selling was done in areas of downtown. The following streets were well known selling points: Broad Street, Chalmers Street, Queen Street, and Meeting Street. The Custom House and The Old Exchange buildings were also selling points. The Old Slave Mart, also known as Ryan’s Mart, located on Chalmers Street was one of the main selling points for slaves.  Chalmers Street is a cobblestone street located off Meeting Street. Several of the slave auctions that we will examine were held at Ryan’s Mart.  The City of Charleston purchased the slave mart in 1975.  It will be opened as museum.  The name of it is The Old Slave Mart Museum. Nearly all of the buying and selling was done in this small section of the city.  The Old Exchange Building at the foot of Broad Street was the place were thousands of Africans and slaves were displayed for prospective buyers to see the quality of their potential purchases. “Negroes were displayed individually and in groups at the front of the building as auctioneers, planters, traders and curious onlookers watched” (Bancroft 1996, 164-166).  At the end of the 1850’s, Charleston surpassed Richmond as a selling market. On page 175 of Bancroft’s book, he lists the names of Charleston traders, auctioneers and brokers from 1859 to 1860. (Bancroft 1996, 175).

Many of the slave auctions that we will examine include lists of qualifications and a disease that the slaves may have had. Many of the slaves were stripped naked for prospective buyers to inspect for signs of diseases and scars. “Slaves were inspected at Ryan’s Nigger Jail on Queen Street or The Charleston Jail on Magazine Street” (Bancroft 1996, 178).


As the practice of slavery grew, so did the price of slaves. Prices were comparative. Slaves labeled as "superior" commanded between $1000 and $1200 at auction (Bancroft 1996, 177).

Many families were sold and separated during slave auctions. Some slaves were sold in lots others were sold individually. Slave women in good health were sold for $300 to $500.   Healthy young male slaves were sold for about $100 to $1500. Children of slaves sold for $150 to $200  (Black History 2004).


Slave masters usually gave names to their slaves. Many of the given slave names were contained on the slave auctions. Slave parents generally named their own children. Many times, this right or privilege was taken away from them. Eugene Genovese writes in Roll, Jordan, Roll that on patriarchal plantations, "oftentimes there were large numbers who were given pompous, classical or comical names" (Genovese 1974, 447). Many slave parents resisted these comical names. The slave auction lists contained these types of names less frequently.

Many of the names that seemed strange or ridiculous to whites had African origins. Many Africans would name a child after a day of the week or the month of birth. South Carolina slaves rarely gave up this practice. “For example, a slave with the name Quack would be taken by whites unfamiliar with the name would interpret it to be in bad taste or the punishment of some slave master” (Genovese 1974, 448). The real meaning of Quack is derived from Quaco in African, which means a male child born on Wednesday. A girl named Squash probably got the name from Quashee, which means a female born on Sunday.  Cuffe is common name seen in the slave auction documents. The origins of Cuffe are African also. It means an African born on a Friday.

Over time, Africans anglicized many of the names in their own unique way. So a person unfamiliar with the naming of slaves and the origin of slave names may look at an auction list of names and conclude or assume that many of the names are nonsensical or comical but in all actuality, they are deeply rooted in African culture and tradition.


  Primary Sources
  • Porcher, P.J. & Baya. "List of A Prime and Orderly Gang. . ." 21 January 1859. 11/260/1. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Shingler Brothers. "For Sale by Shingler Brothers. . ." 1 November 1859. 11/260/1. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, South Carolina.
    Shingler Brothers. "Prime Gang of 235 Negroes. . ." 9 January 1860. 11/260/1. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, South Carolina.
  • Tupper, James. "Under Decree in Equity. . ." 24 January 1860. 11/260/1. South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston, South Carolina.
    Secondary Sources
  • Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, reprinted 1996.
  • Black History: Journey of Inspiration.  Black History Month Supplement. The Post & Courier (Charleston, SC). February 2004.
  • Blassingame, John W.  The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
  • Chomsky, Marvin J. and David Greene, dir. Roots. Warner Home Video, 1994.
  • Genovese, Eugene. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1974.
  • Wood, Peter. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.
    Other Materials
  • What's in a Name? Mini Project Worksheet, Page 1 & Page 2
  • Map of Charleston, SC
    Pictures of Old Slave Market in Charleston, SC
    Slave Auction Group Worksheet

    Lesson Plans

    Prior to this lesson, students were taught about the Middle Passage and the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

    1. Students were given the "What's in a Name?" Mini Project, in which they were required to conduct research on the meaning of their names.  Students had to list the characteristics of their name, tell who named them, and list all of the unique qualities of their names. (See Materials)
    2. Students are given background information from the historical background notes on slave auctions.  The teacher will point out several of the locations where slaves were bought and sold in the city of Charleston. 
    3. Show the students pictures of the Old Slave Mart located on Chalmers Street in downtown Charleston, discussing the economic reasons of slavery.
    4. Students are shown volumes 1 & 2 of Alex Haley’s 1977 TV Mini Series Roots.  Through viewing Roots, students are able to witness what life was life in Africa prior to the slave trade.  Students also see how Africans were auctioned, bought and sold. The auction scene in Roots resonate with students because they are able to see how families were split and how the Africans were “inspected” and given labels such as prime, not prime, superior etc. Students also viewed the scene in Roots when Kunta Kinte was born and how his father held him up to the sky and said the words “Behold the only thing greater than yourself.” Students saw how important naming was to Kunta’s family and his village.

    Throughout this lesson, students learned the significance of naming Africans.  We referred to the scenes in Roots where Kunta Kinte desires to hold on to his African name.  I taught students how plantation owners named their slaves. There were times when slaves were “allowed” to select names for their children, but usually, the slave owner named   them.  One example shown to the students was the whipping scene in Roots where the overseer flogged Kunta unmercifully until he accepted the name Toby.
    5. Students were divided into groups of 5.  Each group was given a set of slave auction broadsides to examine. (See Primary Sources). Students were given a set of questions to answer according to the slave auction broadside.  (See Materials). Students were instructed to look for specific details: names of slaves, price sold for, qualifications, ages of slaves in the list, unusual names, the place of the auction, the terms of the sale, and types of jobs held by the slaves.

    Teacher Reflections

    I really enjoyed teaching this lesson.  I realized that the students have never seen an actual slave auction.  Several students asked was it “real.” The facts that these auctions took place right here in Charleston was fascinating to the students. The students were able to make the connection once they watched Roots and were able to see an actual auction take place. Students discussed how important it was and is to hold on to one’s African Heritage. Students will view their names in a whole new light. I told the students about how some African Americans who want to reconnect with their African roots will participate in naming ceremonies. Some African Americans have also changed their names in order to identify with their African heritage. The name project was fun for the students. It resonated the importance of their names on a personal level.  Students, all of whom are African American, understood how important their names are.  The students were also able to see how the meaning of their names reflects certain personality traits.  Students enjoyed presenting their name projects in front of the class. Students seemed real proud to have a name that was uniquely theirs. When students expressed to the rest of the class what their names meant to them smiles shone on the faces of the students in the audience.  Students were also able to see the importance of selecting your name because historically, African Americans and Africans were given names by the slave master. Students thought about the scene in Roots were Kunta and Belle got married and had a daughter. Naming her after a relative in Africa gave them a sense of pride. They named her Kizzy. Kizzy was taught how special her name was and she let others know that her name had roots in Africa. I enjoyed the research for this lesson.  I really feel that it was a “hit” because the students were able to see streets in the city of Charleston that they have traveled unbeknownst to them that these may have been places where their ancestors may have been bought and sold.  I will be teaching this lesson this spring to the Second Semester African American studies class.  I feel that I will be more knowledgeable about the subject as a result of the research I conducted. John Christiansen was very helpful in assisting with tweaking the lesson. I was able to find all of the sources that he suggested that I take a look at. I went to the Charleston County Public Library and found all of the books I needed. His thoughts and suggestions were very helpful to me.

    Student Assessments

    The performance assessments were done individually. As the groups of students were examining the slave auctions, I walked around the room and answered questions. I also gave the students additional information about slave auctions and how slaves were bought and sold. A class discussion followed the lesson.

    Examples of Students Work

  • What's in a Name? Mini Project, Page 1 & Page 2
  • Slave Auction Group Work


    Techa Bryant
    North Charleston, South Carolina