New Year, New Fears for Enslaved Families

Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. New Orleans, La., old slave block in St. Louis Hotel. [Between 1900 and 1910] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress

The dawn of a new year, those last few days in December and the first week of January, have been considered by most Americans to be a fresh start and a time to build habits and foundations that will help fulfill New Year’s resolutions. However, January 1, for enslaved families in America was the most heartbreaking time of the year.

Historically, there have been some victories of freedom for enslaved Black Americans on New Year's Day, too.

On New Year’s Day, January 1, 1808, the U.S. officially banned the importation of slaves from Africa.

President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in Confederate states on New Year’s Day in 1863.

When I was younger, I remember a saying that my mother repeated every New Years Eve, “Whoever you spend your New Year’s with, is who you will be spending the rest of the year with.”

I just thought it was an old Black saying, one of the dozens I can remember hearing as a child. For example, when my siblings and I were rough-housing too loud, we might hear “this ain’t romper room!” Or if I expressed my desire for clothing or a trinket that was expensive or outrageous, I might’ve heard my mom say, “people in hell want ice water.” If one of my cousins tried to leave the house before washing the dirty dishes in the sink, my grandma might’ve said, “you must be cruising for a bruising.”

But this saying, “who you spend your New Year’s holiday with is who you will be spending the rest of the year with,” has a dark history attached to it that I don’t think my mother or grandmother knew about when they were passing it down to us.

Black enslaved Americans were often sold and contracted out for the year on New Year's Day, the day was widely known as “Hiring Day” according to the book “Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South” by Jonathan D. Martin. That’s where the saying “whoever you are spending your New Year’s with is who you will be with for the rest of the year,” comes from.

The contracts usually lasted for the year to settle a debt or because a yearly contract was profitable and easier to manage for slaveholders. So New Year’s Day was a joyous and inspiring occasion for white people and a devastating doomsday for enslaved people because it was the day when families were separated, oftentimes for good.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. "Negroes for sale"

A formerly enslaved man named Lewis Clark detailed the devastation of “Hiring Day” in his narrative “Leaves from a Slave's Journal of Life”:

“Separation of families? Yes, indeed...Of all the days in the year, the slaves dread New-Year's day the worst or any. For folks come for their debts then; and if anybody is going to sell a slave, that's the time they do it; and if anybody's going to give away a slave, that's the time they do it; and the slave never knows where he'll be sent to. Oh, New-Year's a heart-breaking time...!"

Another formerly enslaved man named Israel Campbell wrote in his memoir, “An Autobiography. Bond and Free: Being the Story of My Life in Bondage, and My Life in Freedom”:

“On New Year's day, we went to the auctioneer's block, to be hired to the highest bidder for one year. This scattered my old associates far and wide, casting each among strangers, and perhaps hard masters.”

Harriet Jacobs, a Black woman born into slavery also details the horrors of “Hiring Day” in her memoir, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”:

So that saying that my mother recalls every year around this time comes from the anticipation of the auction block. If you were lucky enough to stay with your family, then you may be granted another year with them. But if you were contracted out to a new slave owner, you couldn't pack up the family and take them with you, you were ripped from your loved ones and placed on a foreign plantation, under bondage for the rest of the year. If a man refused to leave his family, he was beaten and jailed.

It wasn’t a New Year for our Black ancestors, it was a new fear. Their version of Auld Lang Syne’ sounded more like, may all your family be forgotten and never brought to mind.

American History. It just gets shittier and shitter every fucking year.

Happy New Year.

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