There is a universal desire among people to be free.
This overarching message consistently rings loud and clear through thousands of runaway slave advertisements published in newspapers in antebellum and colonial America. Wherever enslaved people lived, enslaved people ran away, and their enslavers advertised in an attempt to recapture them.
“You still sometimes hear among Americans the suggestion that enslaved people should have resisted more,” said Dr. Joshua Rothman, a historian at The University of Alabama.
The South’s “lost cause” ideology sometimes envisioned enslaved people as happy, but these were stories white people told themselves to avoid dealing with the ramifications of chattel slavery of Africans and their descendants, he said.
“What these ads tell you is that the notions of complacent or even happy enslaved people are false,” Rothman said. “What the stories embedded in these advertisements indicate is that the resistance of enslaved people was a constant.”
Rothman is part of an effort to complete a comprehensive database containing every runaway slave advertisement in American newspapers prior to the Civil War. The digital humanities project, called Freedom on the Move, began about five years ago at Cornell University and is a partnership with UA and the universities of Kentucky and New Orleans.
Although the idea to create the database existed for some time, it started developing after researchers at several universities discovered iterations of it were underway at multiple institutions. The professors combined efforts into a single project, Rothman said.
Thus far, the cross-university team of historians has collected about 50,000 ads for the database but believe as many as 200,000 ads will be available when the project is complete.