The woman pleaded for God’s mercy, Henry Bibb, a former slave, recalled in an 1849 narrative that is part of “The Weeping Time” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, which documents the tragic U.S. history of enslaved children being separated from their enslaved parents. “But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart-rending shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other.”
Her mother was sold to the highest bidder.
Enslaved mothers and fathers lived with the constant fear that they or their children might be sold away.
“Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming … ma, pa, sister or brother … taken without any warning,” Susan Hamilton, another witness to a slave auction, recalled in a 1938 interview. “People was always dying from a broken heart.”
The Trump administration’s current crackdown on families that cross the border illegally has led to hundreds of children, some as young as 18 months, being separated from their parents. The parents are being sent to federal jails to face criminal prosecution while their children are being placed in shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services. Often, the children have no idea where their parents are or when they will see them again.
The policy has generated outrage among Democrats and immigration advocates. And it has conjured memories of some of the ugliest chapters in American history.
“Official US policy,” tweeted the African American Research Collaborative over the weekend. “Until 1865, rip African American children from their parents. From 1870s to 1970s, rip Native American children from their parents. Now, rip children of immigrants and refugees from their parents.”
Henry Fernandez, co-founder of the collaborative and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said he drafted the tweet based on his research into several periods in U.S. history when government officials sanctioned the separation of children from their parents, including during slavery.
Another period of family cruelty, Fernandez said, began in the late 1800s and lasted well into the 1970s, when indigenous children across the country were forcibly separated from their families and sent to “Indian schools.” At the boarding schools, the children were required to assimilate. They were stripped of their language and culture. Often they were physically and sometimes sexually abused.
“In each case, we look back at the programs as barbaric,” Fernandez said. “History will similarly consider the Trump administration’s ripping children from their parents as an unconscionably evil government action.”
According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, beginning in the late 1800s, thousands of American Indian children were sent to government-run or church-run boarding schools.
“Families were often forced to send their children to these schools, where they were forbidden to speak their Native languages,” according to the museum.
The exhibit includes a quote from Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School: “In Indian civilization I am a Baptist,” Pratt wrote, “because I believe in immersing the Indian in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.”
At boarding schools, “children were forced to cut their hair and give up their traditional clothing,” according to the museum. “They had to give up their meaningful Native names and take English ones. They were not only taught to speak English, but were punished for speaking their own languages. Their own traditional religious practices were forcibly replaced with Christianity. They were taught that their cultures were inferior. Some teachers ridiculed and made fun of the students’ traditions. These lessons humiliated the students and taught them to be ashamed of being American Indian.”
“They tell us not to speak in Navajo language. You’re going to school. You’re supposed to only speak English. And it was true. They did practice that, and we got punished if you was caught speaking Navajo,” John Brown Jr., a Navajo who served in World War II as a code talker, using his Navajo language for tactical communications the Japanese could not decode, told the National Museum of the American Indian in a 2004 interview.
“When we got talking, ’cause we’re not allowed to talk our tribal language, and then me and my cousin, we get together and we talk in Indian, we always hush up when we see a teacher or faculty coming,” Charles Chibitty, a Comanche code talker, told the museum in 2004. “And then we always laughed and said, ‘I think they’re trying to make little white boys out of us.’ ”
Until the end of the Civil War, it was common for slave owners to rip families apart by selling the children or the parents to other slave owners.
“Along with ongoing rape and the use of the whip to discipline human beings,” Fernandez said, “destroying families is one of the worst things done during slavery. The federal government maintained these evils through the fugitive slave laws and other rules which defined African Americans as property with which a slave owner could do whatever they wanted.”
Each of these U.S. policies, Fernandez said, begins with the assumption “that the idea of family is simply less important to people of color and that the people involved are less than human. To justify ripping families apart, the government must first engage in dehumanizing the targeted group, whether it is Native Americans, African Americans or immigrants from Central America fleeing murder, rape, extortion and kidnapping.”
Trump, he noted, dehumanized immigrant children by saying, “ ‘They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.’ ”
“There is no question these children are innocent,” Fernandez said, “but Trump associates them with the idea that these are not like your children and thus less than human.”
Slave narratives reveal the heart-wrenching stories of children taken from families.
According to the Maryland State Archives: “For most slave children, the separation from their parents and the siblings was the hardest aspect of being sold. Slaves went to great lengths to keep their family together, but there was often limits to what they could do.”
The report includes a narrative from Charles Ball, who was enslaved as a child and remembered the day he was sold away from his mother.
“My poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me,” Ball recalled. “My master seemed to pity her and endeavored to soothe her distress by telling her that he would be a good master to me, and that I should not want anything.”
Still, his mother would not let go. She walked beside the horse, begging the slave owner to buy her and the rest of her children.
“But whilst thus entreating him to save her and her family,” Ball recalled, “the slave-driver, who had first bought her, came running in pursuit of her with a raw hide in his hand. When he overtook us, he told her he was her master now and ordered her to give that little Negro to its owner and come back with him. My mother then turned to him and cried, ‘Oh, master, do not take me from my child!’ Without making any reply, he gave her two or three heavy blows on the shoulders with his raw hide, snatched me from her arms, handed me to my master, and seizing her by one arm, dragged her back towards the place of sale.”
After the end of the Civil War, thousands of former slaves looked for lost relatives and children who had been sold away from their families. They placed thousands of ads in newspapers.
Those ads are now being digitized in a project called “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery,” which is run by Villanova University’s graduate history program in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church.
The ads started appearing about 1863. By 1865, when the Civil War ended, they were coming out in streams, thousands of “Information Wanted” notices in black-owned newspapers across the country, seeking any help to find loved ones.
Mothers looked for their children; children looked for their mothers; fathers placed ads for lost sons; sisters looked for sisters; husbands sought their wives; wives tried to find their husbands.
The ads often gave detailed physical descriptions of the missing, names of former slave owners, locations where family members were last seen, and sometimes maps, tracing how many times they were sold from one owner to the next until they were so far from family members all they had to cling to were sketchy memories.
Elizabeth Williams, who had been sold twice since she last saw her children, placed a heart-wrenching ad in the Christian Recorder newspaper in Philadelphia:
“INFORMATION WANTED by a mother concerning her children,” Williams wrote March 17, 1866.
In four column inches, the mother summed up her life, hoping the details would help her find the children. She listed their names — Lydia, William, Allen and Parker — and explained in a few words that she last saw them when they were “formerly owned together” by a man named John Petty, who lived about six miles from Woodbury, Tenn.
She explained how her family was split apart when she was sold again and taken farther south into captivity.
“She has never seen the above-named children since,” the ad said. “Any information given concerning them, however, will be gratefully received by one whose love for her children survives the bitterness and hardships of many long years spent in slavery.”
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