BOOK REVIEW:

Cash for Blood Details City’s Sorry Slavery History

by Alice Cherbonnier

This is history with an inhuman face.

Ralph Clayton, Pratt Library research assistant and freelance writer, has published over the years a number of stories uncovering Baltimore’s hidden history, especially regarding the city’s role in slave trafficking.

Now Clayton has taken a major step forward with the publication of Cash for Blood (heritagebooks.com, 680 pages, $48.50), which documents in chilling detail the who, what, why, where, when, and how much of the ongoing practice of slave trading between Baltimore and New Orleans from the early 1800s to the Civil War. This trade became more active as Maryland became less dependent on slaves; owners sought to sell their “surplus assets” further south, where there was still a demand.

This is not easy reading. Luckily, Clayton writes powerful and well, sweeping the reader down the still-existing streets of Fell’s Point, providing images of a very different, very repellent era of our civic history.

Clayton lays out the language and practice of slave trading with admirable simplicity, letting the facts, and the well-chosen contemporaneous historical statements, speak eloquently for themselves. Imagine what it means for would-be slave buyers to “read bodies.”

Not only were there slave auctions here; there were even slave brokerage houses and slave agencies. Of course, this is in addition to the private sales of slaves. The prices brought show the slave trade was big business—and potentially very profitable. Except, of course, for the slaves.

Clayton names names. Were any of your ancestors involved in slave trafficking in Baltimore—as buyers, sellers, ship captains, antislavers? Were any of your ancestors on the Slave Manifest or Vessels rosters? Clayton lists it all.

He’s footnoted every chapter, and referenced early newspapers and journals and a number of history books; cited early manuscripts; and gathered information from visits to historical societies and libraries.

This book is the culmination of an enduring interest—passion?—of one person—a caucasian married to an African-American—who is determined to set the record straight for future generations. It will prove invaluable to researchers and genealogists.

We salute Ralph Clayton for his extraordinary accomplishment, and urge our readers to seek out his book.

The public’s interest in Cash for Blood has already proven to be more than casual. At a Feb. 1 book signing in the Poe Room of the Pratt Library, Clayton was confronted with an overflow crowd of 125 persons—reportedly the largest crowd ever to gather in that august venue.

What’s next for Clayton? He’s already at work researching Baltimore’s role in the underground railroad.


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This story was published on March 5, 2003.