The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Policing black Americans is a long-standing, and ugly, American tradition

An 1858 fugitive slave ad for Lavenia. ( and Freedom on the Move/(Credit: Freedom on the Move))

Vanessa Holden is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. Edward E. Baptist is a professor at Cornell University.

In recent years, news cycle after news cycle has focused on Americans, many of them white, who took it upon themselves to police their black neighbors. A white Yale graduate student called campus police officers to report a black student sleeping in a common room. A white golf course proprietor called the police on a group of black women because, apparently, playing a round too slowly is a crime. Twelve-year-old Reggie Fields was reported to the police for mowing a lawn. Stephanie Sebby-Strempel ultimately pleaded guilty to third-degree assault after harassing an African American teenager who dared to go swimming while black. And on Feb. 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood vigilante, killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

These incidents are not historically unusual. What’s new is the outcome, at least in some of the cases. For virtually the first time, white Americans have faced social disapproval for being caught on camera in the act of treating utterly normal behavior by black people as criminal. But people like “BBQ Becky” are not new. They continue a long tradition that began in slavery. From the 1600s to 1865, white Americans watched Africans and African Americans, checked to see if they fit the description of specific fugitives from slavery, stopped, questioned and seized them — and got rewards for doing so. The pattern established by white policing of African Americans’ movement during slavery is something that many remain all too eager to continue.

Together with three other historians, we’ve been helping to build a free and interactive database of all the fugitive slave ads from U.S. and colonial history. The ads reveal how white Americans trained and incentivized themselves to police black Americans’ movements.

Take a look at this ad for Lavenia, from a December 1858 newspaper. Her enslaver, D.G. Hughes, noted that Lavenia had run away back in May and may have been trying to return to Richmond. If Lavenia had family in Virginia, no wonder she was trying to return. Lavenia’s escape testifies to her resistance and perseverance, but her attempt to go where she wanted to go was by definition illegal. The point of the ad, which said she was “18 years old, black, rough skin, thick lips, good teeth” and “walks awkwardly,” was to get any person to read it to look closely at any African American adolescent or young woman. Perhaps they could be Lavenia, and you could get a $50 reward — a couple of months’ pay, for a working man — for catching her.

These ads were part of a system for policing Lavenia, one that stretched far back into the first days of slavery in Britain’s American colonies. Some of the earliest colonial laws about slavery protected white settlers who killed black people in the process of fugitive recapture. Nor could whites be charged if they killed enslaved Africans who resisted punishments that we would describe today as torture. In fact, less wealthy white colonists and other outsiders could wield power by helping to police enslaved Africans — defining themselves as part of the in-group by using violence against black people.

Other laws not only permitted but also required whites — called “inhabitants” of the colonies — to stop any “Negro” they saw to check for a pass from an enslaver. Without a pass, whites could assume that “suspects” were fugitives. Later, the U.S. Constitution would require states to return “persons held to service or labor” who escaped from one state to another. This agreement helped cement together the new nation. Even as the new Northern states ended slavery within their borders, they remained legally committed to surveilling, seizing and returning black fugitives. This, of course, made black life in those “free” states perilous and unstable.

Law and practice empowered white people to act as the police when it came to black people, including stopping, questioning and searching possible fugitives, which could mean any black person who vaguely fit the description. Many ads contained intimate details about bodies, including descriptions of whip scars, brands or birthmarks. These could only be checked by forcing people to remove their clothing. According to the law, those who resisted this kind of invasive violation had no right to live.

If every African American was a potential fugitive, every white American was a potential slave-catcher. In our own time, white people often rely on professionals to carry out the confrontation, interrogation, arrest, search and even killing of black people who seem “out of place.” But civilians drive the system, whether by calling armed police or taking the killing power of law enforcement into their own hands.

Lavenia probably did not think of herself as a “fugitive.” She was someone’s daughter. Like Trayvon Martin, she seemingly was just trying to go home. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, as 911 tapes reveal, claimed that Martin seemed like a criminal — a fugitive — because he was walking through his father’s apartment complex. “These a------s they always get away,” Zimmerman told the operator. In the end, Zimmerman got away with it — he was acquitted on murder charges at trial, claiming self-defense. Today he still walks wherever he chooses. Only when those who insist on policing African Americans as if they are fugitive slaves face real and consistent punishment for their behavior will this country have any chance of addressing the way slavery continues to shape daily life.

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