Ashley’s sack: the bag revealing the horrors of slavery including the slave sale of a 9-yr-old girl

Stephen Nartey November 18, 2022
Photo courtesy Middleton Place via Wikimedia Commons under public domain

It was a gesture initiated by an enslaved woman named Rose to ensure her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley, who was being sold into slavery will remember her roots. In 1850 in one of the plantations of South Carolina she gave her daughter a sack filled with a few items but most importantly the memory of motherly love to carry along as their slaveowner separates them. 

As the years passed and Ashley became conscious of her roots, she embroidered the family history on the sack bag including her mother’s last words – “it be filled with my love always.” This was captured in an awe-inspiring book written by historian Tiya Miles after she discovered the sack made of cotton fabric dating to the mid-19th century and measuring about thirty-three by sixteen inches. 

Ashley’s sack as has now become known is stitched in three colors of cotton embroidery with heartfelt inscriptions made by the nine-year-old girl with her last known text made in 1921, according to Southern Spaces. Ashley’s sack was found at a flea market in Springfield, Tennessee in 2007. It was placed on public display from 2009 to 2013 at Middleton Place in South Carolina, which drew a lot of emotional connection with the thousands of patrons. 

Ashley’s sack is now on loan to the Smithsonian museum and keeps attracting millions of visitors having an engagement with the historic relic. Historian Miles said her reconstruction of the myth surrounding Ashley’s sack before 2007 took a lot of research into historical records.  She said many of the details put out about the sack may be possibilities but it offers enough lessons for future researchers. She indicated that the message embroidered in the cotton fabric is to a large extent true. 

Miles said the archival research enabled her to appreciate the historical context of the sack given the practice where a premium is not paid to the relationship and bonds among slaves and their family lineage. Ashley’s sack is symbolic of the 150-year history of the entrenched systems that robbed enslaved Africans of an opportunity for freedom and inheritance and exhibit their ability to earn proper conditions of service. 

Miles explained that the timeframe with which the embroidery was etched on the cotton fabric is telling of how it meant to Ashley and how long it remained in her possession. It must have been a generational token which Ashley handed over to her child who in return handed over to Ruth Middleton, believed to be a granddaughter. In 1921, Ruth Middleton decided to transfer the oral tradition passed onto her through tales onto the sack bag.

The archival records suggest that Rose and her daughter, Ashley, may have been owned by a prominent Charleston merchant and planter, Robert Martin, whose wealth was valued at $300,000 at the time of his death in December 1852. According to surviving Charleston inventory records, his palatial household in Charleston at 16 Charlotte Street held seven slaves, among them a woman named Rose, valued at $700.

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