Historian Receives Grant for Digital Slavery Project

Dr. Joshua Rothman
Dr. Joshua Rothman

From the September 2017 Desktop News | Can you imagine opening a newspaper and seeing an advertisement for a runaway slave? In today’s world, it’s hard to fathom what it must have been like to live in a time when slavery was accepted. Dr. Joshua Rothman, a professor of history and chair of the Department of History, is on a mission to make understanding that world—and the many things we can learn from it—a lot easier.

Rothman is a part of a team that received a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of their current project, “Freedom on the Move: A Database of Fugitive from North American Slavery.” The project, which Rothman co-directs and has been working on alongside colleagues at Cornell University and the University of New Orleans, aims to digitize every advertisement for a runaway slave in North American newspapers; he estimated that there were anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 such advertisements. “Runaway ads thus not only can tell us a lot about the institution of slavery from a scholarly perspective, but they also are valuable for genealogists and are incredible teaching tools,” he said.

“All at the same time, they provide evidence of widespread resistance to slavery, detailed personal information about enslaved people who fled, and graphic demonstrations of the lengths to which whites would go to try and retrieve people who they considered lost property.”

Rothman’s primary role in the project centers around exposing high school and college classrooms to the project, which will hopefully aid students in grasping slavery in a more concrete way. “Runaway ads tend to be brief, miniature biographies of enslaved people,” he said. “They’re very accessible for students who are as young as middle schoolers and as old as undergraduates, and we find they make slavery come to life in the classroom in ways that few other documents do.”

One way he brings students into the project is by involving them in the process of gathering ads. “Frequently, the only way to be sure we’ve collected everything is to look at a newspaper on microfilm or in a digital archive, issue by issue, collecting every ad as we find them,” Rothman explained. “As you might imagine, it can be very time-consuming, as there are thousands and thousands of newspaper issues that carried these ads. But it also makes great research experience for undergraduates and graduate students, whom we are sometimes able to pay or give course credit for their work.”

Rothman and his colleagues will also consult with the design team as the database is created, with an eventual goal of a database accessible to the public. The NEH grant makes this even more of a reality.

“We’ve been able so far to collect thousands of ads and to do some preliminary showing of what we’ve got at scholarly conferences and in some classrooms,” Rothman said. “But we’ve been a bit stuck at the tech side of things and have needed funds to pay programmers and other computing folks who really have the expertise necessary to get the data model and the user interface working properly. The NEH grant should enable a major leap forward.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the project is that the team is inviting the public to help by crowdsourcing some of the information in the database. “People can read and transcribe the ads, and that’s really the most effective way to start extracting the data in each advertisement,” Rothman said. “We are hoping to bring in as many ‘citizen-historians’ from among the general public as possible. This is a project we see as belonging to everyone, and we want participation from as wide a range of interested people as possible.”