Potential racism of "auction block"

Wed Jul 31 03:00:37 UTC 2002

        How much support is there for your premise, that "auction block" refers specifically to slaves?  I took a quick look at the cases.  The earliest use I saw, from 1865, does indeed give some support to the slave theory:

        >>A new profession had been created who cheated their victims, stole and kidnapped men and put them on the auction-block and sold them, in shameless defiance of all decency.<<  Speer v. Borough of Blairsville School Directors, 50 Pa. 150 (1865).

        But the next cite, seven years later, implies that the auction block is equally usable for auctioning other types of property:

        >>The pleadings and adjudications have become records; the stentorian voice of the judge is hushed to the mere scratch of a pen, and the gentlemanly clerk quietly attests the seal of authority which consigns the unfortunate suitor's goods and chattels to the auction block. And so the footprints of progress are discovered even in the chambers of Westminster.<<  Gamble v. Jacksonville, P. & M.R. Co., 14 Fla. 226 (1872).

        And we do see a figurative sense in the third use, from 1881:

        >>Is it possible that the General Assembly [i.e., the legislature] may put up such [tax] exemptions on the auction block, and knock them down to the highest bidder, or may, on a pretended or fictitious consideration, bind themselves and succeeding legislatures never to resume the power to impose just taxes on the property of the individual or corporate body?<<  City of East St. Louis v. East St. Louis Gas Light & Coke Co., 98 Ill. 415 (1881).

        Note that none of these uses actually are from a slave state at a time when slavery was legal.

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: Jesse Sheidlower [mailto:jester at PANIX.COM]
Sent: Tuesday, July 30, 2002 10:02 PM
Subject: Potential racism of "auction block"

The expression "auction block" originally refers to the block on
which slaves stood when they were sold. This sense dates back to
the mid-nineteenth century, at least. The earliest example I've
seen of the figurative sense 'the open market' or some such, as
in "MegaCorp is putting their Foobar division on the auction
block," is from the 1940s or so.

Jesse Sheidlower

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