Site of Yates & Harrison Auction House on O'Donnell's Wharf

Site where the business of slavery once took place.

While nothing remains to indicate what once transpired here, we pinpoint this location to memorialize the victims of enslavement in America.

Baltimore was one of the nation’s largest seaports by the early 19th century. In addition to receiving raw goods from the recently opened Northwest Territory (area northwest of the Ohio River) and shipping them around the world, it was also a major hub for the transport of enslaved people. Packet boats arrived regularly from the Eastern Shore with an array of products, including people to be sold to the many local traders. The enslaved would be sold from the ships or the nearby auction houses. Yates and Harrison (located on this wharf) was one of the auction houses on and near the docks that took advantage of the proximity to ships. More than 20,000 people were “sold south” from here.

After its incorporation in the late 18th century, the population of Baltimore grew very quickly along with the expansion of the new country. One of the many “trades” that grew along with the city was the sale of people. There was a strong market in Baltimore in the early 19th century for enslaved workers. Several things contributed to this development. First, local Maryland farmers had shifted from a labor-intensive tobacco crop to the growing of cereal grains, which required less work and contributed to a surplus of slave labor in the area. Secondly, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, which quickly and easily separated cotton fibers from their seeds. The cotton industry then became incredibly profitable and that fueled a desire for more land and forced labor in the South. The third factor was that the importation of people for sale was outlawed in 1808, meaning enslavers could only obtain enslaved workers from other places within the United States. Farmers in Maryland began to sell their surplus enslaved people to enslavers in the South and West.

This internal slave trading, known as the Second Middle Passage, replaced the international slave trade and became a cornerstone of the new nation’s economy. Historians estimate that about one million enslaved people were sold and moved around the country between 1808 and the abolition of slavery in 1865. About one-third of all marriages between enslaved people were broken up by these forced relocations. About one-fifth of enslaved children were separated from their parents. The trauma of these forced separations was devastating for the people who suffered through them.