Photo courtesy of The Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation.
By Colton Williams
The Sewanee Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation recently brought Dr. Joshua Rothman, a professor of history at the University of Alabama and one of the foremost scholars on the domestic slave trade in the United States, to lecture on the life and historical significance of John Armfield. The lecture, titled, “‘He has been for many years engaged in the traffic of human flesh’: John Armfield and America’s Domestic Slave Trade” explored Armfield’s career and his connections with the University of the South.
Director of the Project and professor of history Woody Register (C’80) opened the event by saying that Rothman “is making history here” at Sewanee, taking special note of the fact that Rothman’s lecture was the first public event to acknowledge and consider Armfield’s legacy with the University.
“I’ve been teaching at Sewanee for many years, and for many of those many years, I’ve been telling my students about John Armfield,” Register said. “So to me this history has been one that any student of Sewanee should or even must know. I feel very strongly about that.”
Armfield was the operator of the largest slave trading firm in the United States, and he was an integral figure in the establishment of the University. He pledged $25,000 to the University’s endowment in the years before the Civil War, developed Beersheba Springs, and is the namesake of Armfield Bluff in Sewanee.
Rothman began his lecture by describing an advertisement posted by John Armfield in which he claims he would pay “the highest price” for a group of enslaved people.
Rothman described Armfield’s career as unique in the domestic slave trade. The firm he ran with Isaac Franklin utilized sea travel to transport enslaved human beings rather than just land routes, and the firm established what was essentially a prison compound to hold people to prepare for sale. Rothman called the duo “the most successful slave traders the United States had ever seen.”
Rothman attributed Franklin and Armfield’s success in part to luck, as the U.S. was in an unprecedented economic boom when the men got into the business of selling human beings, as well as to their understanding of the importance of slavery’s brutalities. The slave-traders understood the necessity of creating a genteel facade for their business while maximizing profits and power by subjugating and dehumanizing the people they trafficked.
The men “transformed the domestic slave trade,” said Rothman, making it “integral to the transatlantic financial system.” In revolutionizing the slave trade and its centrality to the burgeoning American economy, Rothman noted that “the damage they did to the lives and families of the thousands of people they trafficked is too enormous to calculate.”
The lecture emphasized the horrors of what these men did and acknowledged that Armfield is a character in the Sewanee story worth mentioning. Rothman noted that being involved in the slave trade was always considered a dirty business, and while Franklin and Armfield acted the part of Southern gentlemen, they were callous and cruel, and nothing suggests they were ashamed or repentant.
“They’re very publicly careful, but they had no illusions about how to treat the enslaved if you wanted to be successful in trafficking them,” Rothman said. “Armfield could sweet-talk the visitors at the Alexandria jail, but all you had to do was look at the ship manifest…his claims about not separating families were lies. Outright lies. Franklin buried dead slaves at night and dumped them in a ravine…and then joked about it in a letter.”
Rothman ended his lecture on the great injustice of slavery and the inability of the enslaved to ever be free.
“Buried alongside Armfield more than 40 years later was a black man named Nathan Bracken. Born into slavery, Bracken was Armfield’s body servant,” Rothman said. “Like so many black people unfortunate enough to be drawn into the orbits of John Armfield and the slave trade, Bracken could not entirely escape it, even in death.”