From the 17th century through the Civil War (1861-65), millions of black people were enslaved in America. They picked cotton on Southern plantations, toiled as carpenters and blacksmiths, and tended to their masters’ homes and families.
Some of them ran away, hoping to escape to a place where slavery had been abolished. Others were sold by their masters, never to see their parents, children, or siblings again.
Who were these people, and what were their lives like? For a long time, historians had only partial answers, relying on a limited scope of primary sources, like diaries and autobiographies written by a small number of literate slaves, or transcripts of interviews with former slaves conducted in the 1930s. But now, new searchable digital databases of old newspaper ads—placed by masters looking for escaped slaves or by former slaves looking for family members—are filling in some of the gaps. The ads are helping historians identify patterns about slavery that had been lost to history; they’re also helping genealogists and descendants of slaves to begin reconstructing the missing pieces of family trees.
Among the new databases are:
• Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery (informationwanted.org), which collects ads placed by former slaves trying to locate family members after the Civil War.
• The Geography of Slavery in Virginia
(http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/gos), which features
18th- and 19th-century ads for runaway and captured slaves from Virginia.
• Freedom on the Move, which aims to digitize up to 200,000 ads by slave masters looking for escaped slaves, from colonial times to 1865. (The project is slated to go live later in 2018.)
Edward Baptist of Freedom on the Move, which is based at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, says the new projects will be extremely valuable to a variety of audiences. They come at a time when many schools are examining their own ties to slavery (see “Slavery & Schools,” below).
“[The ads] are going to be a massive broadening of the primary source material that’s readily available for not just scholars, but also teachers, students, and the general public to understand the history of slavery in a really immediate way,” he says.