October 15, 1855, was unusually warm in North Carolina.
Thirty-four-year-old Washington was visiting the courthouse to
look for a file he thought might someday be of importance to the
family. The clerk was unable to locate the file, and Washington left
the courthouse disappointed. As he walked out of the front door
of the courthouse, he noticed a large number of slaves standing in
two groups, males to the right and females to the left. As he walked
between the two groups, he heard a woman call his name. He
turned and saw a beautiful slave woman who was close to his own
age. “Do I know you?” he asked.
She replied, “Don’t you recognize me?”
Washington studied her for some time and then finally saw a
familiarity that he could not identify. “You look familiar, but I don’t
recall where I know you from. What is your name?”
“Caroline,” she replied.
“How do I know you?”
“When we were very young you helped me move a heavy bag
of grain across the muddy street in Hillsboro. I have never forgotten
that day, and I have never forgotten you.”
Suddenly Washington remembered the young slave girl he
had protected from her abusive master during his own teen years.
“What are you doing at this auction?”
“I am being sold today. The man who was beating me the day
I met you died about three years after that. He was always drunk.
I think he drank himself to death. After he died, his son took over
the farm. The son was mean, like his father. He would beat us for
no reason, especially the girls. He died a few months ago, and now
his estate is up for auction to pay his debts.”
“I am sorry to hear about your hardship, Caroline.” Washington
paused for a moment and then asked, “What would you like to have
if you could have any wish?”
“I would like to be free,” she replied.
Washington nodded as he looked at the ground. “It was good to
see you again, Caroline,” he replied as he turned and walked away.
When the auction began, Caroline stood in the hot sun as the
slaves were sold one at a time. After standing from early morning
until late in the afternoon, a man finally came and took ahold of
her arm. He led her up the steps onto the platform where each slave
was to stand when the bidding began. The auctioneer said, “Look
at this fine female specimen. We always save the best for the last.
She would be a beautiful showpiece when the boys are over for a
drink, a true symbol of a gentleman’s prosperity.” Prying her lips
apart, he said, “See her perfect white teeth.”
Because of her beauty, the auctioneer opened the bidding at
$300, nearly twice the price of the average female slave in Hillsboro
that summer. Caroline did not look up to see the three or four men
who were bidding on her. Tears flowed gently down her cheeks
as she cried softly to herself. Soon only two voices competed to
purchase her. The bidders competed vigorously, raising the number
in small increments each time they bid. Finally the bidding stalled
at $600. The auctioneer said, “The highest bid is six hundred dollars.
Do I hear six hundred and one?”
Hearing no further bids, the auctioneer said, “Going once,
“Six hundred and one,” shouted a man from the back of the
crowd who had not previously participated in the bidding.
“Six hundred and one,” the auctioneer shouted. “Do I hear six
hundred two? Six hundred and two …”
“Going once, going twice … sold to the highest bidder, the man
in the back, for six hundred and one dollars. Come and claim your
prize, sir. She is a fine one for sure.”
A guard led Caroline down from the platform where she stood
waiting for her new master to pay the bill.
“She is all yours,” the guard said to her new owner. Caroline
looked up to see who had bought her. Washington Duke reached
out his hand to her. She was so overcome with emotion that she
almost fainted as she put her hand in his and buckled over in tears.
“Caroline,” Washington said, “you are now a free woman. You
will never be a slave again.”37
When Caroline finally regained her thoughts, she said, “This is
37 Caroline, a slave, was purchased and freed by Washington Duke for $601
on October 15, 1855. (Orange County Estate Records, Inventories, Sales and
Accounts [1853–1856], p. 390, North Carolina Department of Archives and
History.) The North Carolina Census of 1860 shows that there were no slaves
in the Washington Duke household at that time notwithstanding that a free
woman, Caroline Barnes, was living and working there. Caroline remained as
an employee in the Duke household for many years.
the happiest day of my life, but I don’t have anywhere to go. I don’t
know where I will live.”
“You can come and live with us while you decide what you are
going to do,” Washington replied. In time it became apparent that
Caroline would have no place to live if she left the Duke homestead.
Artelia and Washington offered to allow her to live with them
and draw a salary in exchange for helping Artelia with household
chores. Washington built an extra bedroom on the south side of
the house where Caroline lived. Caroline and Artelia became close
friends. Artelia taught her to read and write. In a short period of
time, she was reading books that Washington would pick up from
the traveling library that came to Hillsboro twice per month.