The first courthouse in what was then Washington, Kentucky (now part of Maysville) often was the site of auctions of enslaved Black individuals on the courthouse grounds. In 1833, while visiting one of her students, Harriet Beecher Stowe took a walk with her hosts to the courthouse where the family was to watch the auction for entertainment. There, Stowe witnessed the sale of human beings, an act that often separated enslaved families. It was a pivotal experience that, along with the death of her own son in 1849, later inspired her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published first as a serial set of articles, it later became a novel that depicted the harshness of American slavery. Stowe wrote to a newspaper editor, “I feel now that the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak . . . I hope every woman who can write will not be silent.” Auctions of enslaved people continued to happen on the grounds after her visit, including on New Year’s Day.
An abolitionist, educator, and writer, Stowe was born in 1811 into a deeply religious Calvinist family that wanted to end slavery in the United States. Educated at the Hartford Female Seminary in Connecticut, Stowe was unusual for her time; she was a woman who received a formal classical education. Installments of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were published weekly from June 5, 1851 to April 1, 1852 before being assembled into book form. Published as a book in 1852, it would sell more than 300,000 copies in its first year of publication alone, becoming popular in the United States as well as abroad.
Eliza’s story of impending separation from her child in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not unlike what many enslaved people of African descent who were sold at auction here suffered through. Having no legal right to her own body or her child’s left Eliza powerless. Escape north was the only way to stay together. Eliza’s choice was brave. There were many enslaved mothers like her not as fortunate who were separated from their children hoping to reunite. Even after the end of legal slavery in the US, many parents were never reunited with their children.