For about $300, a 9-year-old girl named Ashley was sold as a slave.
Her mother, Rose, remained a house slave at a mansion in South Carolina.
This was the 1850s, roughly a decade before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, setting slaves free.
Before mother and daughter were separated, Rose gave Ashley a cotton sack. It contained a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans and a lock of her hair. Rose told Ashley it was filled with love — always.
Ashley never saw her mom again, but she kept the sack. It was handed down through the generations, along with her story, to her granddaughter, Ruth Middleton.
Ruth, a single mom in Philadelphia, stitched her family story into the cloth sack in 1921.
She was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my LOVE always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
Nearly 100 years later, the bag was found at a flea market in Tennessee. A woman bought it and donated it to Middleton Place, a famous plantation in South Carolina that refuses to shy away from its awful history.
Historians puzzled over the identities of Rose, Ashley and Ruth, where they came from and where their descendants ended up.
Mark Auslander, an associate professor of anthropology at Central Washington University, was among them.
“We have so many amazing oral stories that have come down in African-American history,” Auslander said. “But it's very rare that they're written down and I don't know of any case in which they were written down in needlework in this particular way.”
That rarity inspired Auslander to begin a search to find the family that once owned this bag.
He knew that based on the fabric it most likely came from the mid 1800s and the floss used to embroider the story was from the early 20th century. Next he used the clues provided by the bag itself. Rose is the most common name of enslaved women in the 1800s, but Ashley is one of the most unusual.
Ashley’s age, nine, provided another clue for where to look.
Young children were usually sold with their mothers or in large groups at estate sales after the death of a slave owner. It meant that there were records, thousands of them, that could lead him to Rose and Ashley. He searched through records online and in courthouses in South Carolina until finally finding a set of records copied down before the Civil War. They were saved from a fire that destroyed the originals.
On one page he found a “Rose” who was owned by Robert Martin Sr., the head of a vast and lavish manor in South Carolina. One hundred miles away were slaves owned by Martin who were sold when he died in 1852, and among them was a child named Ashley. With records that matched the names, location and dates of the story stitched on Ashley’s sack, Auslander knew they were on the right track.
But what about the embroiderer Ruth Middleton?
In the 1920 census there were 16 African-American women named Ruth Middleton. Through a process of elimination, Auslander was able to find a Ruth Middleton who had family roots in South Carolina, was the right age and literate. She was the single mom of a young girl named Dorothy in Philadelphia in 1921, when Auslander imagines she wanted to preserve the story of her grandmother and great grandmother by stitching it into the cotton sack.
According to Auslander, Dorothy passed away in 1988 in a Philadelphia nursing home. Her possessions were most likely taken to a Goodwill, which is how the bag must have ended up at a flea market 20 years later.
Auslander believes this bag is a national treasure. He says we often think of slavery in the terms of suffering but, “we have to remember the narratives of resilience, of courage and of family continuity. You can't imagine a family being more terribly torn apart than by then by a slave auction of a 9-year-old little girl, but this family story continued.”
To Auslander this bag and its story tells us something profound and intimate about a vital part of American history.
Today the bag has a place of prominence. It sits next to an old slave auction block in the new Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Mark Ausslander's research appeared in the academic journal Southern Spaces. Ashley's sack is on loan from Middleton Place to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Corrections 12/23/2016: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Ashley's appraised value, where her mother stayed, and where Ruth Middleton lived when she stitched this message.