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‘My mother was sold from me’: After slavery, the desperate search for loved ones in ‘last seen ads’

Mary Bailey searches for her children. Her ad ran Nov. 24, 1866, in the Daily Dispatch newspaper in Richmond.

Ten months after the Civil War ended, an enslaved woman who had been ripped away from her children started looking for them.

Elizabeth Williams, who had been sold twice since she last saw her children, placed a heart-wrenching ad in a newspaper:

“INFORMATION WANTED by a mother concerning her children,” Williams wrote March 17, 1866, in the Christian Recorder newspaper in Philadelphia. Her ad was one of thousands taken out by formerly enslaved people looking for lost relatives after the Civil War.

Those ads are now being digitized in a project called “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery,” which is run by Villanova University’s graduate history program in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church.

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In four column inches, the mother summed up her life, hoping the rich details would help her find the children. She listed their names — Lydia, William, Allen, and Parker — and explained in a few words that she last saw them when they were “formerly owned together” by a man named John Petty who lived about six miles from Woodbury, Tenn.

She explained how her family was split apart when she was sold again and taken farther south into captivity.

“She has never seen the above-named children since,” the ad said. “Any information given concerning them, however, will be gratefully received by one whose love for her children survives the bitterness and hardships of many long years spent in slavery.”

The “Last Seen” ads started appearing around 1863. By 1865, when the Civil War ended, they were coming out in streams. Black people torn away from family members by slavery placed thousands of “Information Wanted” notices in black-owned newspapers across the country, seeking any help to find loved ones.

In the ads, mothers looked for their children; children looked for their mothers; fathers placed ads for lost sons; sisters looked for sisters; husbands sought their wives; wives tried to find their husbands. The ads showed in real time the destruction slavery wrought on black families, tearing people apart and scattering generations like leaves in the wind.

The ads often gave detailed physical descriptions of the missing, names of former slave owners, locations subscribers “last saw” family members and sometimes maps, tracing how many times they were sold from one owner to the next until they so far from family members all they had to cling to was sketchy memories.

Many of the Last Seen ads, dating from 1863 to 1902, were placed in the Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the African Methodist Church. Others ads were placed in the Black Republican in New Orleans, the South Carolina Leader in Charleston, the Colored Citizen in Cincinnati, the Free Men’s Press in Galveston, Texas, and the Colored Tennessean in Nashville.

Judy Giesberg, the graduate program director at Villanova’s History Department, began noticing the newspaper ads while researching the story of Emilie Davis, a free black woman who lived in Philadelphia during the Civil War and kept a diary while there.

“Emilie Davis would write about a lecture she would see or some event in Philadelphia,” Giesberg said. “If she said she went to see Frederick Douglass, we would look in the newspaper to see where he was. It was hard to overlook these ads.”

Sometimes the ads took up columns and columns that would make up whole pages, which captured the weight of the missing and the desperation of subscribers to find them.

Giesberg started collecting the ads with the intention of one day making them available to people online. “I started with the AME Church newspaper,” Giesberg said. “It was the first place I noticed the ads. When I started looking in other black newspapers, I found this was a common phenomenon to include ads taken by people who were one step out of slavery.”

Last August, Giesberg created the “LAST SEEN: FINDING FAMILY AFTER SLAVERY” website, where genealogists and other researchers can search for specific names and locations. Two graduate students — Margaret Strolle and James Byrd — read microfilm to find the material. The site uses volunteers to help transcribe the ads. There are now more than 2,000 ads on the site, of which 1,500 have been transcribed. Since January, the site has been visited by more than 1 million unique visitors.

“There are comparable projects that have collected runaway slave ads,” Giesberg said. What is unique about Last Seen ads, she added, “is they were taken out from the other perspective. They were taken out by the enslaved people.”

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The Last Seen ads break down what genealogists and researchers call the “1870 Census Wall.” Before the 1870 Census, there were very few official records of black people.  Enslaved black people were often listed as property, by a check mark, a number or by a gender. They were often listed on bills of sale, like chattel. When researchers try to get information on enslaved black people, they often hit a brick wall when searching for information before 1870.

“What the ads do is reach from the other side of the 1870 Census Wall,” Giesberg said. “The ads place people together in a time before 1870.”

The ads tell real stories of real people with real names, humanizing enslaved people, something slave owners often tried to prevent.

“Slave owners often painted a portrait of enslaved people as part of a happy family in which white men were patriarchs,” Giesberg said. The ads go “beyond that myth, the myth of the benign slaveholder who believes he was a good slaveholder and all the slaves belonged to him. These ads are where real truth lies.”

Enslaved people lived with the constant fear that they or a family member would be sold.

“Slave owners’ wealth lay largely in the people they owned, therefore, they frequently sold and or purchased people as finances warranted,” according to a report by the National Humanities Center, a nonprofit that collects primary historical resources. “An enslaved person could be sold as part of an estate when his owner died, or because the owner needed to liquidate assets to pay off debts or because the owner thought the enslaved person was a troublemaker.”

An exhibit entitled “The Weeping Time” at the Smithsonian’s African American Museum of History and Culture explains the circumstances that often split families apart.

“Night and day, you could hear men and women screaming … ma, pa, sister or brother … taken without any warning,” according to a witness account in the exhibit. “People was always dying from a broken heart.”

Another witness described an emotional scene at a slave auction. A mother clings to her baby while being whipped with a lash because she refused to put her baby down and climb an auction block.

The woman pleaded for God’s mercy, Henry Bibb recounted.

“But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart rending-shrieks from the mother and child on the one hand, and the bitter oaths and cruel lashes from the tyrants on the other,” Bibb recalled. “Finally, the poor child was torn from the mother while she sacrificed to the highest bidder.”

In a “Last Seen” ad placed on April 17, 1902, in the Christian Recorder newspaper in Philadelphia, a woman seeks information about “my people.”
“My mother was sold from me when I could but crawl,” the woman writes.

Since the sale, “I never saw any of my people. I was about 39 years old last March and am married and living at Panama, Vernon Co., Mo. My name is Mary Delaney; it used to be Mary Long. Address me at Post office: Panama, Vernon county, Mo.”

Nancy Moore searches for her children, Margaret and London Moore in an ad placed in the The Daily Dispatch of Richmond on Aug. 23, 1867. (Last Seen Project)

Years passed and seasons changed and the enslaved people lacking calendars measured the missing time with hope. In 1867, a woman places an ad in a Richmond newspaper. Her children, who were “formerly the property of Mr. William H. Brooks, of Essex county,” are missing.

“They were sent to Richmond last spring,” Nancy Moore writes, “since that time, nothing has been heard from them.”

Some of the ads were intentionally vague, masking details, and  mysteriously leaving out specific names and locations. These ads showed mental calculations of a people one step out of slavery. Even after Lincoln declared enslaved people in Confederate states to be freed, they were suspicious about the terms of that Emancipation, fearing that at any time they could be pulled back into slavery.

[Whether she’s on the $20 bill or not, Harriet Tubman made men pay for underestimating her]

In a June 7, 1883, ad placed in the Southwestern Christian Advocate in New Orleans, an unnamed man searched for his son. The ad is brief: “Mr. EDITOR,” the man wrote, “I desire to hear from my son. His name was Tony Jones. I have not seen him since the war. He lived with Thomas Jones. His mother was Julia Jones.”

If anyone should know Tony Jones — the enslaved man with the same name as his “master”— he asks them to write to him care of P.P. Brooks in Shelbyville, Tex.
The ad is unsigned.

Other ads gave insight into how people lived, their aspirations and successes.

In an ad placed June 28, 1883, in the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper in New Orleans, Betty Davis inquires “for my people.” Davis explained that she was separated from her mother when she was three years old.

“I am now 55 years of age,” she wrote. “I learned how to read when I was 50. I take and read the SOUTHWESTERN, it is food for my soul. I am anxious and would be glad to hear something of my mother or my brother Henry. Someone help me.”

Sometimes, the ads led to happy endings.

In an Aug. 26, 1886, ad that ran in the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper, which did not charge for publishing letters from subscribers, Alcy Boone wrote a letter to the editor saying she found who she was looking for:

“I have found my mother through the dear SOUTHWESTERN. God bless you and your paper; it resurrects the forgotten, the lost can be found.”

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