Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Refreshing My Memory

After writing a few days ago about blackface and, tangentially, the "slave auctions" that occurred at my Florida high school in the early '80s, I began to doubt my own memory. Did we really buy and sell our own classmates?

I dug my old yearbooks out of the box in the closet where they are stored, and looked for photographic evidence of the auctions and "Slave Day." I found none. (And also, in case you're wondering, no evidence of anyone in blackface on that or any other occasion, although I was pretty sure that never happened.)

So that concerned me a bit. I sent a message to one of my high school friends on Facebook and asked what he remembered. Fortunately, his memory matched mine, although he also couldn't remember who sponsored the auctions or how they worked. So I wrote to one of my former teachers, thinking it would be interesting to get an adult perspective.

She replied that she did, indeed, remember the auctions, which she believed were a fund raiser for Student Council.

"Back then I didn’t see it as awful as I might today -- it seemed like a mild event to raise cash and make people laugh," she wrote. "Most of the 'slaves' did things like carry books for their owners, bring lunch, etc. These were usually popular people, so buyers got street creds (I thought) for making fun of their slave, but I never saw cruel or debasing behavior. However, I was pretty young then, and I recall (a colleague) regularly speaking out against this event, as a reminder of the slavery past in the South."

The event imposed social pressure on some students, who wanted to 'buy' their boyfriend or girlfriend but didn't have the money, she said. And although it was a successful money-maker, she said it ended not long after I graduated in 1984, after continued complaints from some teachers.

So that was very interesting -- hearing that there was some resistance to the idea at the time, which I obviously didn't know.

I'm glad to hear that my memory is accurate. I wish I knew what the handful of black students at the school thought of that fundraiser. Unfortunately, I don't know them well enough to ask.

Oh, and like me, my teacher said she doesn't remember anyone at our school ever doing blackface. So at least that's something.

(Photo: A sandwich shop in Islington, with some kind of old ghost sign beneath the more modern ones, early January.)


  1. It's nice that you can still communicate with one of your old teachers after all these years. Part of my reason for being Yorkshire Pudding is to stop past school students from tracking me down. I guess that the dynamics are different in the American school system. Here I was a representative of the "haves" on a council estate that catered for the "have nots". I often had to deal with nasty animosity.

  2. I'm happy to hear that there were teachers against it at the time. I'm amazed that you were able to find and contact an old teacher from so long ago and she remembered who you were.

  3. You definitely still have your reporter skills!
    Wow. Very interesting to hear your old teacher's thoughts on that matter.
    Good job of investigative journaling, Steve.

  4. Mystery solved! That's cool that you were still able to contact a teacher from your past!
    I like that old sign.

  5. I like that you pursued this story and communicated with old classmates and a teacher. Confirming a memory gets harder year after year. I am glad that there were teachers who were against it at the time.

  6. I don't recall anything like that happening at my high school but, that certainly doesn't mean it didn't happen. I graduated twenty years ahead of you so it's even more likely. I do know that I took four years of drama classes at school and no one ever did blackface for any skit or production. Kudos to you for checking back with your past teacher.

  7. I remember black face here. I also remember liking Amos and Andy.

  8. That is great that you could get your teachers perspective on the matter. I grew up in rural Idaho and we also had a "slave sale" every year. The freshmen class was always "sold" to adults! They bid on each of us and we went to work for them. I believe we just owed them one day of work (or a half day or something). I worked a Saturday for the hardware store, sorting bolts or some other mundane task. My friend washed a classmates mom's windows one day. Things like that. It was a way for the freshmen class to build up some money to pay for events. Each class was required to pay for a school event, I think just the decorations and set up. As sophomores, I believe we were asked to decorate the gym for senior graduation. So, we needed funds, and the slave sale was just one way we did that. We also worked concessions and had other fund raisers. I've wondered if they still do that at my little school, and I should ask around to see if they do. I do remember being nervous about the whole thing, mostly because it would be mortifying if no adult wanted to bid on you, or I'm sure there was some rumors about being made to do horrible cleaning jobs or something. It was tied into a whole Homecoming week as I recall and there was a lot of hazing activities of the freshmen, some truly awful. Homecoming week was an exhausting and emotionally challenging week for freshmen in my school. I do hope times have changed at my old school, but sometimes those traditions keep hold in those rural areas.

  9. I remember we never missed "Amos 'n' Andy" on the big Philco radio when I was a kid. But I didn't realize they were supposed to be black people for years. I guess that was naivety on my part. I didn't realize until fairly recently that they're doing "blackface" on t.v. later was something they should be ashamed of. We've come a long way but we still have so far to go.

  10. I'm glad to hear that there were some folks at the time who spoke up. I would expect that they were few and far between at the time, though. It's good that things have progressed, although as Catalyst said, we still have a long way to go.

  11. interesting that you are in touch with one of your high school teachers!

  12. There were "slave" auctions at my private high school in Atlanta, but they were done by the Latin class to mimic slave auctions in Rome. I went to college in North Carolina, though, and I can remember many a kid donning blackface at parties. Many didn't, though, so I'm not buying the argument that it "was the eighties." These "kids" learned it from somewhere, no? The fact that the history of blackface wasn't taught to children in school is a sticking point --

  13. YP: I'm Facebook friends with this teacher, actually! I maintained contact with two teachers following high school, but sadly, the other one died a few years ago. Probably a good idea to keep your blog relatively anonymous! The fact that my name is so common helps keep me hidden -- I'm lost in a sea of Steve Reeds.

    Colette: I was happy to hear that too!

    Ms Moon: I wish the colleague who protested the practice at the time was still alive. I'd love to get her take on it.

    Patty: It's a great old sign, isn't it? I love it when shops take down their signs and bits of their former lives are revealed.

    Robin: It's funny how I began to doubt my own memory!

    Sharon: Interesting. I wonder if that was because you lived in a more racially aware area?

    Red: I have never seen Amos N' Andy, actually!

    Dee: So interesting that your school had a similar event -- and being "sold" to adults, no less! Interestingly, it's mainly the idea of a "slave" that's a problem. If they'd called the same event "rent-a-kid" it wouldn't be a problem at all, you know?

    Catalyst: Apparently Amos N' Andy on the radio were voiced by white people, but on TV they were played by black actors. So that's something, anyway. I think the problem with the TV show played into the stereotypes it reinforced. (As I said above, I've never actually seen it myself.)

    Jenny-O: Yeah, I'm also glad to hear that it was at least questioned.

    Ellen: Yeah, and I hear about others through her, which is nice!

    Elizabeth: Interesting! I must admit I hadn't really considered "slave" in the context of anything other than American slavery. I suppose the Latin/Roman theme at least helped relieve the auction of any perceived racial burden. I think your point about blackface is absolutely true -- the fact that I didn't see it in suburban Florida and you did in North Carolina suggests that it absolutely had roots in the culture there.

  14. Steve, that is a very good point, calling it "rent-a-kid" would have been appropriate and perfect. The word "slave" always bothered me along with all the hazing that happened Homecoming week. I'm glad I don't have to live through that again.

  15. I'd left a comment here, but don't see it now. I cant recreate it all, but I remember I was relieved to learn that some adults in the school had misgivings and that the practice ended as a result. You still have your reporting chops I see.