In my last post on Carter’s Grove, I found myself imaging what it would be like to inhabit a landscape so thoroughly imbued with slavery. This train of thought led to my wondering about Fredericksburg’s landscape of slavery. Slavery is an obvious presence in the fabric of Fredericksburg’s colonial and antebellum streetscape, with the Auction Block being only the most obvious example. But I have also inhabited that landscape in a direct and personal way. This is a first in a series of posts about my first-person encounters with the ghosts of slavery in Fredericksburg.
My first immediate, personal encounter with Fredericksburg’s landscape of slavery came out of a conversation I had last summer in St. Louis with Sharon Murphy, Associate Professor of History at Providence College. Sharon wrote a great JER article about slave insurance in the upper South in the antebellum period. When we were discussing her work, she mentioned that one of the major subjects of her research was Dr. Beverly Wellford, a Fredericksburg physician who also had a very profitable business insuring slaves against injury and death, obviously to the benefit of their owners. As a part of our conversation, it became increasingly clear to me that Brian’s office, which I knew was in a building that had been built by an antebellum physician as his office, was formerly Wellford’s. Upon returning to Fredericksburg, I rushed down to the office, checked the historic marker, and sure enough, he shared office space with Wellford, physician to slaves and insurer of slaves’ lives. It was a shocking and direct confrontation with the ghosts of slavery.
According to Murphy’s article, slave insurance was an increasingly popular and profitable sideline for doctors and insurance agents in the antebellum upper South, and Fredericksburg had a healthy market in slave insurance. As you can see from the 1849 Fredericksburg slave insurance advertisement at the left, the actuarial science behind slave insurance was remarkably sophisticated. The highly developed and profitable slave insurance industry, as well as its remarkable integration into medical practice through doctor-agents like Wellford, adds evidence to the interpretation of slavery that I’ve always found most persuasive, which is that far from being an archaic practice, it was actually at the cutting edge of capitalist innovation in the nineteenth century. With the enormous amount of capital tied up and slavery … and the enormous potential profits that that capital could produce … it could hardly be otherwise.