Slaves being sold in Havana, Cuba, 1837

Using only their own data, there are abundant and compelling reasons to dismiss F + E’s assertion that the “economic forces” which led “planters [more properly slaveowners] to destroy rather than to maintain slave families” were “relatively infrequent” and that “the emphasis put on the sanctity of the slave family by many planters, and the legal status given to the slave family under plantation law, cannot be lightly dismissed.” An accurate reading of their data – a reading that involves just a different but quite simple computation – reveals that about two millions slaves (men, women, and children) were sold in local, interstate, and interregional markets between 1820 and 1860, and that of this number perhaps as many as 260,000 were married men and women and another 186,000 were children under the age of thirteen. If we assume that slave sales did not occur on Sundays and holidays and that such selling went on for ten hours on working days, a slave was sold on average every 3.6 minutes between 1820 and 1860. —Slavery and the Numbers Game: A Critique of Time on the Cross,” by Herbert George Gutman. Reprinted by the University of Illinois.

This is the passage that inspired W. Caleb McDaniel to create a shell script for his class on Civil War History that reminded the students, every 3.6 minutes in class, that a slave was sold. His script was this:


while [[ $COUNT -gt 0 ]]; do
    echo "A slave was just sold."
    sleep 180
    let COUNT=COUNT-1

McDaniel’s shell script would display, “A Slave Was Just Sold” to his class. McDaniel, from Rice University, explained on his website:

Every three minutes, that code printed A slave was just sold to the screen—a subtle reminder of the Damoclean sword that hung over every cornpatch, Sunday wage, or home that an enslaved man or woman had won.

Reflecting on that experiment after the class, I started to wonder about a similar experiment using social media. In a previous collaboration with my digital history students, I had built a “Twitter bot” called TexasRunawayAds, which automatically tweets an excerpt from a runaway slave advertisement about twice a day. By slightly modifying the script for that bot, could I create a new Twitter bot to emulate the shell script above?

The result of those musings is Every3Minutes, which tweets a reminder of an antebellum slave sale once every three minutes.

If you “follow” this bot, you’ll be reminded every three minutes of a slave being sold or auctioned off between 1820 and 1860. If you consider that this bot must run for 40 years, the repetition of the rhetoric becomes unfathomable. It reminds me of atrocities that exhibit so many deaths that the human mind can’t feel anguish or pain, just staggering amazement: Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Bashar al Assad, Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin, etc.

But the way the repetition is broken up into three minutes – the fact that slaves were sold, broken from their families, stripped of all rights and property, and turned over to a life of labor and abuse – we are allowed to keep the topic prevalent in our minds, even thought these events happened in the mid-19th century. It is a reminder of our “privileges,” said McDaniel.

Slave Sales and Auctions African Coast and the Americas/Buying Slaves, Havana, Cuba, 1837.jpg. Source:



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