In an easily overlooked corner of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, dwarfed by surrounding exhibits, is a yellowed cloth sack. It lies under glass, embroidered with 10 lines in red, pink and green thread.
At the museum’s recent preview, many visitors walked right past it, but those who read the description tended to stop in their tracks and linger, studying the 150-year-old scrap of fabric.
It’s known as “Ashley’s Sack,” and it belonged to an enslaved woman named Rose at the Middleton Place rice plantation in Charleston, South Carolina.
When her daughter Ashley was 9 years old, their owners sold the girl away.
Acting quickly, Rose placed a tattered dress, three handfuls of pecans and a lock of her hair in the bag for her daughter to take along.
Told her it be filled with my love always. She never saw her again. Ashley is my grandmother. Ruth Middleton, 1921
“Told her it be filled with my love always. She never saw her again,” the careful embroidery on the sack reads. “Ashley is my grandmother.”
The story was stitched onto the sack in 1921 by Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth Middleton. It is on display at the new museum, on loan from the Middleton Place Foundation.
“I’m sure 50 or 100 years from now it will still touch parents the same way that it touches parents today, that it touched parents who read it in the 1950s, and this happened in the 1850s,” Middleton Place Foundation vice president Tracey Todd said in an interview in Washington. He and the foundation’s president, Charles Duell, attended a preview of the museum last weekend.
The sack was discovered in a Nashville, Tennessee, flea market in the early 2000s, and made its way back to Middleton Place.
Who did all this? It was slaves. Charles Duell, Middleton Place Foundation president and CEO
“Much of African-American history is not written down; it’s oral history. So the fact that this young girl in 1921 went through the trouble of embroidering the story – she wanted it written down,” Duell said.
Although the fates of Rose and Ashley are lost to history, the simple lines on the cloth make it one of the more human, emotional pieces in the museum.
“The important thing is not really its provenance but its universality,” Duell said. “It represents the spirit of a lot of people who were separated by slavery and the way of doing business at the time, which was horrific.”
Today Middleton Place is a designated National Historic Landmark, known for having the oldest landscaped gardens in America. Historians started highlighting the role of slaves in its history only a few decades ago.
You can imagine the story, how her mother, Rose, acting very quickly, tried to provide some sort of comfort giving the sack to her daughter. Tracey Todd, Middleton Place Foundation vice president
“Who did all this? It was slaves,” Duell said. “Not long ago, people did not want to talk about slavery here. . . . I’m talking about the 1970s and 1980s, people would look away or down at their feet if it came up.”
The foundation started investing time and resources into researching the role of Middleton’s slaves in as much detail as possible, to interpret them “not as a group, but as individuals,” Duell said.
In order to do that, a display at Middleton Place lists the individual names of all the slaves who were property of the Middleton family from the 1730s until the Civil War.
There are almost 3,000 names.
“The one thing that really has an impact on people who visit Middleton Place is always that panel with the list of names,” Todd said. “It has a similar impact of when one visits a place like the Vietnam War memorial.”
The Smithsonian told them that Ashley’s sack is one of the most exciting items in their collection, Todd and Duell said.
The new museum has amassed over 37,000 objects, but very few of them were owned by slaves. That makes the humble sack, made out of the rough cotton that was known as “negro cloth,” a rare family heirloom, surviving the separations of several generations before coming back to South Carolina – and now the nation’s capital.
“You can imagine the story, how her mother, Rose, acting very quickly, tried to provide some sort of comfort giving the sack to her daughter,” Todd said.
Visitors to the museum will be glad that “several generations later, before that oral history faded, her (great-granddaughter) made sure it was recorded,” he said.