In the fall of 1968, an article in the Gunston Ledger, a student newspaper at George Mason College, began: “If you saw some weird-looking people wandering around last Friday, don’t worry that you’re losing your mind, because…[it] was Slave Day.”1 Just a few years earlier, in 1965, a similar article from Old Dominion College’s student newspaper began: “Slavery returned to ODC Dec. 7 in the form of the ODC Young Democratic Club’s Second Annual Slave Sale.”2
What were these campus events at GMC and ODC, and what were their larger meanings? Comparing instances of mock “slave sales” at both colleges from the 1960s and early 1970s shows these past events were highly visible, condoned by faculty, and regularly occurred at other institutions throughout Virginia and the United States. Through re-enacting a traumatic history, white students romanticized and mocked a period of dehumanization for African Americans, oblivious to both the ways that structural racial inequities continued in the present and how their participation contributed to it. Mock campus “slave sales” were just one example of larger cultures of racial ridicule at Mason and elsewhere, as demonstrated in recent research by the Center for Mason Legacies’ Black Lives Next Door project. Mock “slave sales” exhibit how white Americans promoted cultural and racial dominance over, and at the expense of, African Americans throughout the United States.
What were these events? On both campuses, students hosted mock “slave sales” as public fundraising events for different student groups and fraternities. The event involved students offering payments for other students to do whatever they wished for a day. This re-enacted historical events where African and African American people were dehumanized, sold in the antebellum slave trade, and forced to do whatever enslavers wished. At ODC, most of these events fundraised for the Young Democrats Club, while at GMC, one event fundraised for a school dance in 1963 and another covered a student’s hospital expenses in 1971.
Who participated in them? Female students were mostly “auctioned off” to male students. Auctioneers described women at ODC as “capable of typing, cleaning, baby sitting, and conversation.”3 Some women were even taken out on dates. The frontpage of GMC’s Broadside in 1971 pictured a woman standing proudly holding a sign that read: “please buy me.”
It was offensive for white women to be jokingly “bought” for dates and domestic labor, but the racial implications of these events were far more troubling and dehumanizing for African Americans in each campus community. White women jokingly “sold” as dates especially mocked the horrific sexual abuse many African American women faced during and after slavery.
Faculty also participated in and supported the mock “slave sales” on both campuses. In 1965, a faculty member at ODC “bought” a student, and a few male faculty members agreed to be auctioned off at GMC. One of these faculty members was James Shea, a professor popular with students but unpopular with the administration due to his anti-Vietnam stances. Faculty and staff condoned mock “slave sale” events financially and culturally by participating in offensive re-enactments. These fundraisers went beyond the students who organized them and were institutionally supported by people of all ages and roles within the college system.
Where did these events occur on campus? The mock “slave sales” occurred in public spaces on both campuses, most likely to increase visibility and participation. GMC’s events were most likely hosted outside the main quad and inside the basement of the South Building. Students gathered in this area before the SUB One student center was built, and it was a highly trafficked and used space on campus.
“Slave sales” occured in similar places at ODC, also in highly trafficked areas in the center of campus. As at Mason, these events at ODC took place in a central, visible space predominantly used by students outside of the Administration building. One student reported that they spontaneously participated because they walked out of the student center. The Administration Building was used for other social, and presumably political, student activities, as the building included a snack bar and gym. Both campus spaces were highly visible sites of student life, learning, and racial ridicule, which suggests how visible racial ridicule was on campuses during this time.
Were “slave sales” unique to these colleges? “Slave sale” fundraisers occured at other institutions throughout Virginia and the United States. For example, “slave auctions” were organized as early as 1961 at Fairfax’s Lee High School and Scottsville High in Scottsville, Virginia.4 Some Virginia colleges such as Clinch Valley College in Wise, Virginia, organized similar events as late as 1984.5 Even churches in Virginia participated: St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Falls Church advertised a “slave auction” in 1970.6
Newspaper articles typically mention faculty support or adult supervision, indicating that these fundraisers often enjoyed institutional support and adult leadership. Mock “slave sales” at GMC and ODC were far from unique; they were part of a larger phenomenon of racial ridicule in Virginia and beyond.
Why and how were mock “slave sales” offensive? These events were offensive because they not only re-enacted but also mocked traumatic historical practices. In a forthcoming book titled The Souls of White Jokes, sociologist Raúl Pérez argues that white Americans have historically used humor as a way to racially exclude and ridicule African Americans and people of color from society.7Campus “slave sales” were key examples of such racial ridicule. They recreated the degradation and trauma of antebellum slave auctions with an air of mockery: student auctioneers called people “slaves” and “masters” at these events, and participants dressed up with props such as banjos and sheets over their heads.
Historically, “slave auctions” sold enslaved people to white enslavers, which immorally and inhumanely placed economic values on enslaved human beings.8 The historical “auction block” was a site of trauma, pain, and family separation for enslaved people.9 No doubt white college students joking about this painful history was deeply troubling and psychologically harmful to African Americans. Printed on the very same frontpage of the Broadside that featured an advertisement for a TKE fundraiser with a female student holding a sign that read “please buy me,” was an article about the Mason student “Anarchist Club” calling for legal action to stop campus “slave sales.” Though the fundraisers were common throughout campus, not every student condoned them–some recognized they were offensive and even tried to stop them.
What were other examples of racial ridicule on campus? As research from the Black Lives Next Door project has shown, “slave sales” were just one example among other acts of racial ridicule on GMC’s campus, including the use of blackface. Blackface originated on the minstrel stage and was popularized by the 1830s in the U.S. White people used theatrical makeup to darken their skin and performed racist caricatures of African Americans as comedic routines for white audiences. By the late twentieth century, the practice of blackface moved off the theater stage but continued in social settings. At Mason, students dressed up in blackface for Halloween, as BLND research shows. In the 1960s, Mason students also mocked an African American neighbor of the university, Andy Smith, who was forcefully pushed off of campus later by administration.10 These are both instances of racial ridicule outside of “slave sales” on Mason’s campus.
How does this relate more largely to racism on campus? Racial ridicule occurred within a wider context of racial exclusion institutionally on these campuses. Faculty were involved in “slave auctions” at both GMC and ODC, which points to the troubling way professors also participated and condoned racial ridicule on campus. At Mason in the 1960s and 1970s, students and faculty were predominantly white, and the college faced legal challenges for not complying with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as seen in the 1971 Civil Rights Report conducted by United States Commission on Civil Rights Virginia State Advisory Committee.11 These circumstances provided a troubling backdrop and show that the issue of racism at both colleges was bigger than the “slave sale” events themselves–and the students who organized them.
What do these events mean for us today? As the first English colony established in 1607, Virginia has a long history of slavery.12 Its legacies continue in material ways today, specifically through racial inequity. For example, recent projects of George Mason’s Black Lives Next Door and Old Dominion’s Mapping Lambert’s Point describe racial consequences of campus construction such as displacement. Culturally, Virginia’s legacies of slavery also continue to reverberate today, specifically through white supremacy and racial ridicule. In 2019, Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam faced public criticism over a photo of him in blackface from the 1980s.13 The history of lesser known forms of racial ridicule such as mock “slave sales” are also important to study today. College events such as “slave sales” had both cultural and material significance on campuses, and this history reminds us that racial ridicule remains a troubling issue today.
Thank you to Dr. Yevette Richards Jordan, Associate Professor of History, Women and Gender Studies, and African and African American Studies at George Mason University, for consultation and collaboration on this essay.
Laura Brannan Fretwell is a graduate research assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and a History PhD candidate at George Mason University. She researches race, gender, and memory in the American South.
Please use the following as a suggested citation:
Laura Brannan Fretwell, "Mock 'Slave Sale' Fundraisers at Mason and Old Dominion," Mapping the University, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University (2022): <https://mappingtheuniversity.rrchnm.org/narratives/slave-sales/>.
Gunston Ledger, November 15, 1968. ↩︎
The Mace and Crown, Dec 13, 1965. ↩︎
The Mace and Crown, Dec 4, 1964. ↩︎
Farmville Herald, March 31, 1961. ↩︎
Highland Cavalier, March 5, 1984. ↩︎
Northern Virginia Sun, April 25, 1970. ↩︎
Raúl Pérez. The Souls of White Jokes: How Racist Humor Fuels White Supremacy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022). ↩︎
See more on the “chattel principle.” Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Trade Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 1999) ↩︎
Daina Berry, Price for a Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (London, UK: Penguin Random House, 2017). ↩︎
The Washington Post, May 9, 1970. ↩︎
Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (University of North Carolina Press, 1985). ↩︎
The New York Times, May 22, 2019. ↩︎