Slave Deeds Exhibit

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Ian Hammock
Staff Writer

Tucked away in the back corner of the High Point History Museum is an exhibit dedicated to one of the darker moments of U.S. history. The exhibit, “Deeds of Sale” is a collection of sales deeds of slaves between the settlement of the thirteen colonies and the Civil War.

On the walls that line the exhibit is a series of plaques that give information on and historical context to the documents on display. One of the topics is the Quaker’s ban on slavery, the breaking of which could result in one’s expulsion from Quaker society, and how they attempted to pass numerous bills to inhibit the sale of slaves in North Carolina, to varying degrees of success. At one time, the Quakers helped to pass a law that temporarily slowed the slave trade in North Carolina. Quakers also harbored escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, gaining them a reputation as abolitionists, which would follow them long after the Civil War.

Continuing around the room are glass displays with old, faded documents written in near-illegible cursive that documented the buying and selling of slaves as well as legal documentation of the freeing of slaves.

There were also displays about abolitionists. These displays told the tales of groups of abolitionists that bought many slaves with the express purpose of freeing them from slavery and moving them northward to areas of safety.

One person who bought and then freed slaves was George Cameron Mendenhall. Mendenhall was a former Quaker from Jamestown and a member of the Deep River Friends Meeting Quaker Group that was expelled for the act of buying slaves, despite his intention to set them free.

Another kind of tale told by these displays is that of former slaves that worked to – and eventually succeeded in – buying their families out of slavery, with the display nearest the door on one side being a simple voice recording of a man reading the journal of a former slave attempting to buy his family’s freedom and how the price was raised on him repeatedly, eventually costing the man upwards of 2,500 dollars.

At the back of the display is a wall with the outline of a comic book speech bubble that has the question “Why is it important to display these artifacts?” In the speech bubble, are a number of post-it notes answering that question, with things like “Because we can’t repeat the past,” written and stuck to the walls.

The documents themselves – the main part of the display – are, for the most part, all written in an almost-illegible cursive hand. They range from single sheets of paper no larger than a sheet of printer paper to much larger affairs, with several small books in the collection as well. Even through their glass display cases the yellowing of the paper is still clearly visible.

Each of the displays hold only two or three of the documents and grouped together by when and where they came from, with a plaque providing contextual information. The basic information given is the date and description with a summary of the document. For example, a book titled “Geography: Or, a Description of the World in Three Parts” is on display in one of the cases.

The plaque that accompanies it explains why it was written – in the case of the book listed, as a way to record the children of five enslaved women, with detail paid to genders, ages, birthdates and a series of doctor’s bills and personal letters. There are a couple dozen of these displays with about three documents in each of them scattered throughout the room.

The exhibit is on display at High Point History Museum now through April 15.

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