Cornell University Asks Public to Help Build Digital Database of Ads That Sought Fugitive Slaves

Freedom on the Move, a Cornell University online project devoted to fugitives from slavery in North America, is calling for the public’s help to create a database for tens of thousands of advertisements placed in newspapers by enslavers who wanted to recapture people they considered to be their property.

The ads offered monetary awards and included a wealth of personal details about the fugitives’ appearances, mannerisms, clothing, speech, family members, places of origin, and destinations. The insights the ads provide on the experiences of enslaved Africans and African-Americans are especially valuable because so little information about these individuals has been preserved.

The free, open-source site is available to the public. Users can set up an account and work on digitized versions of the advertisements. They can transcribe the text of an advertisement and then answer questions about the ad and the person it describes. They can choose to transcribe ads from a particular state or specific time period, depending on their personal interests.

The Freedom on the Move team will work with high schools, colleges, museums, libraries, and historic sites to make the resource widely available to genealogists, researchers, and students. Currently, the site has approximately 12,000 newspaper advertisements. Researchers at Cornell suspect that as many as 100,000 advertisements exist in one form or the other. They hope to attract more scholars, archives, and organizations who can contribute advertisements to the database.

“This is a crucial set of sources about Black people’s resistance to slavery, so we think it’s particularly appropriate to launch it during Black History Month,” said Ed Baptist, professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Anyone interested in viewing or contributing to the site can access it here.

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