Black History Month this year has coincided with a steady stream of news about racist practices that have not gone away. From politicians caught in blackface, to designer sweaters and shoes inspired by minstrelsy, to the persistence of police violence, reminders appear every day of racism’s grip on American life and culture.
Foundational to the current crisis is the legacy of slavery, which denied the full humanity of enslaved black people by categorizing them legally as chattel. But the stories of enslaved people who appear in fugitive slave advertisements placed in U.S. newspapers before the Civil War refute the degrading logic of slavery. Instead, they reveal a constant struggle for self-liberation at the core of the experience of slavery, one that carries forward to today’s battles for dignity, respect and justice.
When enslaved people tried to escape slavery, they took with them both their labor and their monetary value as property, and thus provided their enslavers an incentive to try to retrieve them. A common component of that effort was the placement of newspaper advertisements that described fugitives and announced rewards for their capture. Placed both by enslavers and by jailers, who policed the free and enslaved black population in search of runaways, the ads appear in nearly every issue of every newspaper published in a place where slavery existed. Combined, they create a composite portrait of men, women and children who fled from every spot on the map and from all spaces of forced labor, whether they were plantations or small farms or towns and cities.
These ads often paint a vivid picture of their subjects. James was a shoemaker. Davis was a blacksmith. Eighteen-year-old Sarah Ann spoke quickly and was readily embarrassed. Albert, known to some as Alfred, had unusually large, full eyes. Mary’s English was as good as her French. Ellis was nearly six feet tall. Turner was a slow walker but a good cook. Betsy had high cheekbones, and Cassey was a veteran marketeer who wore bright clothes. Fanny was the mother of two daughters. All of them ran away from the people who enslaved them.
Individuals with diverse skills, personalities and life stories, they are just a few among tens of thousands of fugitives. In most cases, we do not know whether James, Davis, Sarah Ann and the others succeeded in eluding capture. But because they ran, we know much more about them than we might have. Slaveholders and their allies crafted the advertisements with the goal of returning their subjects to bondage, and they surely never imagined the people they enslaved might be remembered by future generations. But each advertisement lets us say the names and tell the stories of those who endured and resisted chattel slavery.
Freedom on the Move (FOTM), which officially launched last week, is a digital project that aims to recover, collect and share the stories of fugitive slaves. At launch, we have uploaded some 20,000 fugitive-slave advertisements. Thousands more will be added soon, with the ultimate goal of making available to the public every such ad published in a newspaper from the Colonial era through the age of emancipation. With the help of citizen historians, professional scholars, students, genealogists and other researchers, fugitive-slave ads now can be transcribed through a crowdsourcing website and mined for details about the enslaved people they document and the people and places associated with them.
FOTM is a new tool for studying the history of slavery in the United States. The growing database will allow users to ask questions about enslaved people and their environs: about language and material culture, gender differences and racial classifications, geography and seasonal mobility, physical and mental health, skilled labor and family relationships, violence and the slave trade, and policing and surveillance. Indeed, because fugitive-slave advertisements provide such a wealth of information that sheds light on the experiences of enslavement and flight, they contain answers to questions that we cannot yet predict.
Significant troves of source material rooted in the perspectives of black people themselves illuminate the history of slavery in the United States. The narratives of fugitives such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and interviews with formerly enslaved people published in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration deliver us the voices of those who experienced bondage. These are not straightforward sources: 19th-century narratives appealed to the sensibilities of white abolitionists, and the interviews from the 1930s must be read with an eye on the white questioners who conducted them. Nonetheless, these sources reveal the experiences of those who endured slavery and in some cases escaped it.
The fugitive-slave advertisements gathered through FOTM complement and augment those materials. The ads reflect the perspectives of enslavers and jailers, rather than those of the enslaved people they describe. But they have particular and unique advantages as sources.
Imagining that more information would help other white people identify and apprehend fugitives, those who posted the ads included a wealth of details about the people they described. Enslavers and jailers publicized physical features and personality traits of fugitives. They described their histories of sale and their special skills, specific facts about their families and friends to whom they might have fled and ideas about how they might try to elude capture.
With portraits of individuals, we also gain the traces of self-liberating journeys that did not follow the more studied paths of the Underground Railroad. Many of those with valuable skills — such as James, Davis, Turner and Cassey — were suspected of running away and finding paid work. Fanny was suspected of having left, perhaps only temporarily, to visit one of her daughters. Many other fugitives were likely to hop aboard a steamship, if they were lucky enough to be near water, but those ships might not have been bound for the free states. Indeed, finding maritime work might double as a source of income and a place of concealment.
There was a veritable army of fugitives in the Deep South, meanwhile, for whom escape northward was impractical. But they could hide in nearby cities or maroon communities (small enclaves where fugitive slaves settled) or escape not to Canada and the free states of the North but southward to Mexico or the Caribbean.
What remains to be learned from these ads, of which we estimate there are more than 100,000, is as exciting as it is unknowable. Although crafted by enslavers, they spotlight the historical experiences of brave and heroic people who defied their enslavement. We hope the public will join us in this collaborative effort to document and study the lives of those who ventured to make their own liberation.
The authors are the co-directors of Freedom on the Move, which can be found at freedomonthemove.org.