Sharing the Stories of Fugitive Slaves

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Freedom on the Move is a digital project that shares the stories of fugitive slaves.  Learn more about it here.

Five of the historians involved with the project introduce us to the project in a recent piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

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.

Read the entire piece here.

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