One day in the 1850s, after learning that her 9-year-old daughter would soon be sold, an enslaved woman named Rose filled a cotton seed bag with three handsful of pecans, a tattered dress, and a braid of her own hair, then gave the sack to her daughter, Ashley. Mother and daughter never saw each other again.
The sack, known now as Ashley’s Sack, has since journeyed around the United States, displayed in New York City, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The sack tells a powerful story of family separation under slavery and of love and perseverance. It also inspired a book by historian Tiya Miles, who saw the sack when visiting the Smithsonian in 2016. “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake” explores the family’s history and the emotional resonance of the sack and its belongings.
Currently, the sack is on display at the International African American Museum in Charleston, on loan from the Middleton Place Foundation, which operates Middleton Place, a plantation-turned-museum located about 20 miles inland from the museum.
How the foundation acquired the sack is a story all its own — an unlikely combination of coincidence and uncertainty surrounding the surname Middleton.
Jeff Neale, curator of research & collections at Middleton Place Foundation, said the foundation has strived over the years to incorporate more stories from the former plantation’s enslaved people and enslaved people in general. Objects such as Ashley’s Sack are invaluable to telling those stories, he says, adding he hopes they inspire more people to learn about the past.
“Slavery is a story of horror and violence and discrimination, but there’s an element of perseverance to it, survival as well, how these people survived it and retained the humanity that slavery tried to take away from them,” he says. “We are trying to expand that story.”
Filled with love
Ashley’s Sack measures 33 inches by 16 inches, its cotton fabric stained and yellowed.
Middleton Place Foundation acquired the sack in 2007 from the Tennessee woman who found it at a flea market. The woman noted the red, green and brown threads embroidered onto the front of the sack. The embroidery was signed by Ruth Middleton, who identified herself as Ashley’s granddaughter.
The woman did an internet search on the name “Middleton” and reached out to the foundation, thinking the sack may be connected to the former rice plantation.
Neale says the foundation’s leadership immediately recognized the sack’s significance as a historically and culturally significant object, although Rose and Ashley are not believed to have ever been connected to Middleton Place. Subsequent research suggests they may have been enslaved by Robert Martin, a 19th-century planter in Barnwell County, South Carolina. His heirs are thought to have sold Ashley after Martin died in 1852.
The foundation displayed the sack at the Middleton Place House Museum for several years. Then, in 2011, the Historic Charleston Foundation selected Ashley’s Sack as one of 70 objects that represented the city, and it was shown at the 57th Annual Winter Antiques Show in New York City. From 2016 to 2021, the sack was on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
When the sack was displayed in New York, Neale said, some viewers became so emotional that his predecessor, Mary Edna Sullivan, had to place a box of tissues beside it.
Alana Long works as the Foundation’s marketing and communications director and was introduced to Ashley’s Sack by museum leaders shortly after she started the job earlier this year.
“They told me that they have bespoke antiques and tiaras with sapphires that were worn in Russia, but if you ask them what the most important piece is in the collection, they will say it is Ashley’s Sack,” she says.
Long says many visitors may experience discomfort when viewing the sack, or when visiting a former plantation, such as Middleton Place. But she feels much can be gained by embracing the discomfort.
When people reach out to her on social media to say they will be visiting Middleton Place, she responds by wishing them the best and hoping they have a transformative experience.
“We don’t say ‘Enjoy your time here,’” Long says. “And while it can bring up negative emotions for myself, being African American, I choose to be happy and proud of the fact that I even have the chance to be here, as someone who is free, knowing that my ancestors were at sites similar to this and thinking about the backbreaking, hard, terrible work and lives they had to lead.”
Long said she chooses to think that her ancestors “at one time dreamed that their descendants could one day come to a place like this and not have to suffer like that.”
For some African Americans, she said, confronting the realities of Slavery can be a “hard task.” But “there is so much to learn,” she said, “and everyone’s journey is different.”
In 2021, Middleton Place Foundation was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to update two exhibitions: Eliza’s House and the Stableyards. Eliza’s House is a Reconstruction-era dwelling where visitors can see, among other things, the names of 3,200 people who were enslaved on the plantation between 1728 and 1865. (The foundation expects to add more names to the list this year.) The Stableyards provide a look at 18th- and 19th-century working plantation life and the work done by skilled enslaved artisans.
Part of Long’s job is to update signage in the Stableyards. She says she understands if visitors have conflicted feelings when viewing the exhibits.
“It’s easy to wonder if it’s pandering, but I feel like the foundation genuinely cares and is making a point to not shy away from that difficult history,” she says.
The foundation is using the grant money to tell more stories of the people who built, worked for and lived at Middleton Place. For example, viewers can now learn about Captain Thomas, the enslaved captain of the Middleton schooner. Or Jack, a coachman. Viewers also learn about their families.
“If we can say Henry Middleton (the plantation’s patriarch) served in the American Revolution, there is no reason why we can’t use the names of Quaco, a blacksmith, or Andrewina and Emanuel, who were gardeners,” Neale says. “We’re talking about people — people who made a difference, that have left a legacy here in so many ways.”
See Ashley’s Sack at the International African American Museum
Advanced timed tickets are required.
14 Wharfside Street — Charleston, SC 29401
About Middleton Place
Middleton Place is a National Historic Landmark, home to the oldest landscaped gardens in America. Owned and operated by the Middleton Place Foundation, a not-for-profit educational trust, Middleton Place uses historic preservation, documented research and interpretation to teach shared history and inspire a desire to learn more.