It was a gesture made by an enslaved woman named Rose to ensure that her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley, who was about to be sold into slavery, remembers her roots. In 1850, on one of South Carolina’s plantations, she gave her daughter a sack filled with a few items, but most importantly, the memory of motherly love to carry with them as their slaveowner separated them.
As time passed and Ashley became more aware of her ancestors, she embroidered the family history on the sack bag, including her mother’s final words – “it be filled with my love always.” This was captured in an awe-inspiring book written by historian Tiya Miles after she discovered the cotton fabric sack dating from the mid-nineteenth century and measuring approximately thirty-three by sixteen inches.
According to Southern Spaces, Ashley’s sack is stitched in three colors of cotton embroidery with heartfelt inscriptions made by the nine-year-old girl, with her last known text made in 1921. Ashley’s sack was discovered in 2007 at a flea market in Springfield, Tennessee. It was on public display at Middleton Place in South Carolina from 2009 to 2013, eliciting a strong emotional response from the thousands of visitors.
Ashley’s sack is now on loan to the Smithsonian Institution, where millions of visitors interact with the historic relic. Historian Miles stated that reconstructing the myth surrounding Ashley’s sack prior to 2007 required extensive research into historical records. She stated that while many of the details released about the sack could be true, it provides enough lessons for future researchers. She stated that the message embroidered in the cotton fabric is mostly accurate.
Miles stated that the archival research allowed her to appreciate the historical context of the sack, given the practice of not placing a premium on the relationship and bonds between slaves and their family lineage. Ashley’s sack represents the 150-year history of entrenched systems that denied enslaved Africans the opportunity for freedom and inheritance while demonstrating their ability to earn proper working conditions.
Miles explained that the timeframe in which the embroidery was etched on the cotton fabric reflects how much it meant to Ashley and how long she had it. It had to be a generational token that Ashley passed on to her child, who then passed it on to Ruth Middleton, who was thought to be her granddaughter. Ruth Middleton decided to transfer the oral tradition passed down to her through stories onto the sack bag in 1921.
According to archival records, Rose and her daughter, Ashley, may have been owned by Robert Martin, a prominent Charleston merchant and planter whose wealth was valued at $300,000 at the time of his death in December 1852. According to surviving Charleston inventory records, his palatial household at 16 Charlotte Street in Charleston held seven slaves, including a woman named Rose, who was valued at $700.