It is a simple sack. Measuring thirty-three inches long by sixteen inches wide, about the size of a long, narrow bed pillow, it is an unassuming piece of machine-stitched cotton. Stained and worn in a few places, it dates to the mid-1800s and was used to hold heavy contents like flour, seeds, or other food staples that supplied the enslaved workforce of a thriving plantation. It is a utilitarian and uninteresting object – until you take a closer look.
This sack is indeed very special, and it was made so by the work of a woman’s hands. By embroidering her family legacy onto the reverse, Ruth Middleton imbued this fabric with power, and with the memories of generations. Starting halfway down the front of the sack, Ruth’s skill with a needle reveals words stitched in brown, red, and green thread; a beautifully rounded script that runs evenly across one side. The ten-line writing forms a pleasing shape, centered on the bottom half of the sack. There are no tears or patches, and the words are spaced broadly enough that no viewer could miss their message, no matter how the sack might be folded:
My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfuls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my Love always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
The dress, pecans, and braid are gone, but where it once held tangible objects, it now contains a memory. It tells a story of generational love and loss; of past and present and future; a story that is at once personal and communal, for the individual tragedy it recounts is shared by thousands of others. And by telling this story, the sack transforms from a utilitarian object to a symbolic one. Historic objects can live many lives, and thanks to the care this one received, it has a new life as a storyteller, after over 160 years of being both treasured and tattered.
Once in danger of being relegated to obscurity, a history-minded buyer at an open-air flea market in 2007 rescued it from a dim fate. Instead, the intrepid buyer researched the Middleton name, South Carolina, and various plantations – she found the Middleton Place Foundation. Since her donation, “Ashley’s Sack” (as it has come to be known) has achieved a very prominent position in our museum’s collection. It was displayed at the Middleton Place House Museum for several years alongside other historically significant objects and artworks. In 2011, the Historic Charleston Foundation selected Ashley’s Sack as one of seventy objects that represented the city of Charleston at the 57thAnnual Winter Antiques Show in New York City. From 2016 to 2021 the sack was on loan to the Smithsonian Institution, displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In 2022, plans are underway for Ashley’s Sack to again inspire viewers from all over the world as it debuts at the International African American Museum here in Charleston, SC.
Ultimately, researchers have determined that Ashley’s Sack may not be historically related to Middleton Place, but its value as a collection piece is unparalleled. We get a glimpse of its original life as a container – a functional piece that enabled an enslaved workforce to complete their tasks; mundane and unoriginal. In the same way that enslavers attempted to forcibly remove all identity and agency from that community of captive Africans and African Americans, this object had no true identity of its own, one sack among thousands. However, much like the persistence of individual personal identity throughout the African Diaspora around the world, this sack was given new life, and survives to tell the stories that enslavers tried to erase. The writing on the sack symbolizes both the lasting bonds of family and the brutal nature of slavery; the embroidered lettering is a form of oral history. Before the story was written down, it was likely passed down orally from generation to generation – a long-standing tradition within the African American community that gives the story a degree of credence and relevance.
For the Middleton Place Foundation, “Ashley’s Sack” is arguably one of the most revered and relevant objects in our collection. The object’s story of a young girl being sold away from her mother is itself heartbreaking, and more than one person has been moved to tears after reading it. In fact, when the object was displayed at the Winter Antiques Show in 2011 here in Charleston, the emotional response shown by viewers prompted the exhibit’s curator to place a box of tissues beside the object.[i]
Yet, reactions to the sack have gone well beyond the emotional. For many, it seems to be the one object that embodies the meaning of slavery. As one viewer commented, “I never thought slaves had it that bad. They were fed, clothed, and had a place to live. . .doesn’t sound that bad. But the sack made me realize that they had no control over their own lives.”[ii]As it begins its next life on exhibit at the International African American Museum, our hope is that Ashley’s Sack not only continues to reveal the brutal nature of the institution of slavery, which must never be forgotten, but that it also illuminates how love and the perseverance of the human spirit can triumph over the cruelest circumstances.
[i]Mary Edna Sullivan, Middleton Place Curator, interview by author, April 29, 2015.
[ii]Comment relayed to author by a visitor at Middleton Place in Spring of 2014.
Register for The Distinguished Speaker Series, Featuring Tiya Miles miles discussing her new book on the Journey of Ashley Sack. Learn more here.