Tracey McKee * June 10, 2022
A cotton sack, three handfuls of pecans, a tattered dress, and a piece of braided hair. I have spent the past few weeks reading about these items that, at first glance, seem an oddly paired grouping. The key to understanding this group of things is to understand the context in which they were gathered together, and to do that, we must go back to Charleston, South Carolina, around 1850. There, in that time and place, a young enslaved mother learns that her daughter is to be sold. The simple cotton sack filled with a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans, and a braid of her hair are all that the mother can piece together for her daughter before she is taken away to the auction block. More important than the items themselves, the bag holds the mother’s love for her daughter. It is the mother’s hope that this simple bag and its contents will bring comfort to her daughter and act as a reminder of how fiercely she is loved.
Sit with that scene for a moment. Imagine the heartbreak, the worry, the fear of that mother. Imagine the daughter’s fear, alone and at the mercy of men who view her not as a human but as chattel. Sadly, this is not fiction; this is history, and today, you can find that simple cotton sack at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. The bag is named Ashley’s Sack for the daughter who was given that bag almost 175 years ago.
Tiya Miles has written a book about this special bag, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake. She has painstakingly pieced together the journey of this bag from enslaved mother to daughter all the way to a free great-granddaughter and to the Smithsonian. In tracing this bag’s journey, Ms. Miles lays bare the ugly, hard truths of slavery, especially the ugly truths for enslaved Black women – from the poking and prodding that she could be subjected to on the auction block to the sexual harassment and violence she could be victim to from her owner to the unbearable loss of her children when they were sold.
The extraordinary thing about this book, though, is that it is about love in the face of hatred and perseverance in the face of horrific conditions. By constructing the lives of the women whose hands this bag passed through, we are witness to an incredible love and strength. This simple sack ties generations of women together by preserving the initial act of love that validated the worth and humanity of a young enslaved girl in a world that neither respected her humanity nor valued it. To the descendants who inherited this bag, it is an affirmation of the noble character of their ancestor and the thousands and thousands like her; it inspires pride.
In 1921, Ruth Middleton embroidered the following words on the cotton sack that had been passed down to her as a family keepsake:
A careful examination of the bag’s contents gives us further evidence of the unwavering love, the quick-mindedness, and the practicality of Rose to offer some sort of protection for her soon-to-be-sold daughter. A tattered dress could provide additional coverage and warmth, pecans could nourish her or offer her a means of trade, and a braid of hair could be comforting in inhospitable circumstances. And, in all probability, it was difficult and even dangerous for Rose to have gathered these things, but she was undeterred.
Sadly, much of what has been learned about Rose and Ashley is based on what can be gleaned from the accounts of other enslaved people. As with the great majority of unfree people, very few records exist that detail the lives of Rose and Ashley. There are no birth records, no marriage licenses, no estate records, etc. Ruth and Ashley’s names and their ascribed values were found in their owner’s property listings. Finding Ruth amongst census documents and historical records proved easier. Ruth, it can be surmised, left the South searching for a better life. Rose and Ashley would be proud to know that Ruth was successful and, by 1940, was counted among the Black elite in Philadelphia. It is no far reach to conclude that Ruth’s success was set in motion years prior when Rose packed the sack for Ashley.
With summer often comes the chance to delve into a good book. All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake is a worthy read. It is a reminder that the best of the human spirit can exist and thrive even in the worst of circumstances. Slavery and its long-reaching effects plague our country to this day. May works like All That She Carried inspire us that acts of love are the way forward.