Digital Slavery Archive Receives $750,000 Grant

From the January 2021 Desktop News | Dr. Joshua Rothman, professor and chair of the department of history, is part of a team of researchers that was recently awarded a $750,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant for a project, “Freedom on the Move,” which works to collect and digitize advertisements for runaway slaves that appeared in American newspapers before the Civil War.

This is the second NEH grant for the project, which also received $300,000 in 2017. The most recent grant is a matching challenge grant, which is designed to stimulate private, state, and local funding for the humanities. Matching funds are being raised through the project’s headquarters at Cornell University.

Rothman co-directs the project with historians Dr. Edward Baptist, at Cornell University, Dr. Molly Mitchell, at the University of New Orleans, Dr. Vanessa Holden, at the University of Kentucky, and Dr. Hasan Jeffries, at the Ohio State University. Together, the team hopes to create a large, public archive of advertisements that will help researchers, teachers, genealogists, and students learn more about the history of slavery, the surveillance of enslaved people, and the “constant resistance of the enslaved to their bondage.” Moreover, Rothman hopes that this archive will help bring to light the stories of the enslaved.

“Runaway ads tell the stories of enslaved people who often left no other mark or record in the historical archive,” Rothman said. “Each advertisement was intended by slaveholders as a kind of wanted poster for people whose only ‘crime’ consisted of wanting to be free, but in the process of describing the people they were trying to recapture, slaveholders also provided brief biographies of those people.”

According to Rothman, these advertisements can range in length, from very short with only physical descriptions, to longer advertisements that include personal backgrounds, family histories, skills possessed by enslaved people, and more.

The “Freedom on the Move” archive is available to the public, with more than 30,000 advertisements already available on the database.

Rothman hopes that, by making this archive public, the team can provide a resource that impacts the way that enslaved people are understood by historians, students, researchers, and more.

“We hope the project will provide an ongoing resource for educators from middle school through the university levels,” Rothman said. “That it aids researchers examining the institution of slavery. That it opens doors for genealogists and family historians to make new kinds of connections. Ultimately, we hope that it retrieves the stories of resistance and flight by the enslaved that were a steady undercurrent of the American past.”