Freedom on the Move

A database of fugitives from North American slavery

Throughout the 250-year history of slavery in North America, enslaved people tried to escape. Once newspapers were common, enslavers posted “runaway ads” to try to locate these fugitives. Such ads provide significant quantities of individual and collective information about the economic, demographic, social, and cultural history of slavery, but they have never been systematically collected. We are designing and beginning data collection for a database that will compile all North American slave runaway ads and make them available for statistical, geographical, textual, and other forms of analysis. Some elements of data collection will be crowdsourced, engendering a public sense of co-participation in the process of recording history, and producing a living pedagogical tool for instructors at all levels, in multiple disciplines.

Historical background

Between the seventeenth century and 1865, millions of African-American people were enslaved in the thirteen colonies and the United States. One of the most common ways to resist slavery was to escape. At one point or another, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people tried to run away.

When fugitives escaped, enslavers often placed runaway notices in newspapers. Such ads included any kind of information that might help readers identify the fugitive: the name, height, build, appearance, clothing, literacy level, language, accent and so on of the runaway. Often the ads speculate on where the escapee might be headed and why, when they were most recently sold, and what kinds of scars and marks they had.

The advertisements

Each ad sketches the contours of an individual life, a personality, a story. Taken collectively, the ads constitute a detailed, concentrated, and incredibly rare source of information about a population that is notably absent from most official historical records of the time. We are fortunate that there are an estimated 100,000 or more runaway ads in newspapers that survive from the colonial and pre-Civil War U.S.

If we could collect and collate all of these ads, and make the information in them accessible, we would create what might be the single richest source of data possible for understanding the lives of the approximately eight million people who were enslaved in the history of the U.S.

Freedom on the Move

The Freedom on the Move project answers this challenge by creating a database that digitizes, preserves, organizes, and enables analysis of all surviving runaway ads from the historical period of North American slavery. This database will be flexible enough not only to permit multiple kinds of analysis—biographical, textual, statistical, geographical—but even to allow types of analysis that we cannot yet imagine. Most importantly, both its creation and its use will be accessible to the general public.

Crowdsourcing

We will use crowdsourcing to enable the general public to take part in creating the database. Though the data collected will be invaluable to academic researchers, we also see this as a collective public history project: the crowdsourcing platform will provide an opportunity for people in all areas of life to engage with the history of slavery in the US in a concrete and meaningful way, by excavating small details of enslaved peoples’ lives, bit by bit. Each contribution will add to a larger understanding of how America’s history of slavery has shaped the present and future United States.

Crowdsourcing is both a method for speeding the gathering of data, but also a way to undermine the barriers between professional historians and the historically-inquisitive public. The key technological tool will be our website, which will be a portal and a rich user interface. Registered users can access the existing database for research purposes, and also add to it, expanding the range of usable data for future researchers.

The site experience

On entering the data-entry section of the website, users will see a PDF of the original ad and a “text” field populated by an OCR (optical character recognition) engine. The user’s first task will be to ensure that the OCR version accurately matches up to the PDF version. They will be able to make any corrections necessary. Then, they will be prompted to record key information about the person in the ad, through a series of question-and-answers that sort key pieces of information into the database. Users will also have the opportunity to “tag” database entries with information that they know, or that points to relevant information on the web—what our programmers call “rich semantic data.” This tagging can happen during the data-entry process, or during later use of the database.

Potential applications

The world of academic research will unquestionably benefit from the new kinds of analysis enabled by the sheer mass of data accumulated and verified through crowdsourcing as part of this project. Beyond this benefit to professional researchers, the project suggests two primary streams of engagement with this project.

The “History Lab” model

In this, a professor in a college class or a teacher in a high school history class can require students to enter data as part of an assignment or classroom exercise. Much like experiments in a chemistry lab, this work introduces students to actual historical research, which could be pitched to nearly any educational level. The database will afford students hands-on experience in interpreting documents, attempting to understand them through context, and using the evidence they gather to question and reinterpret their understandings of the past.

The “Citizen Historian” model

Individuals might approach the database through the web on their own, or might encounter it in an institution like a museum. The citizen historians’ experience of the site might be framed through a community context like a church group or interest club; they might be pursuing an individual project, like tracing their own interest in history or genealogy. Through any number of routes, individual people might come to the site and begin contributing document checking and analysis. In a later phase of the project, they could even search their local repositories for additional runaway ads, which they could contribute to the larger database.

No matter what pathway brings users to the database, the website will provide background and interpretive context to help participants to understand their work as part of a much larger, collaborative historical project.

Get involved

In either of these use models, we see multiple opportunities for other institutions to get involved, but also for graduate students interested in public history. The project already has a small number of research assistanceships for graduate students at Cornel, and may soon have funds to support more student researchers and postdoc or predoc interns. We welcome partnerships with faculty and graduate students both within and beyond the Cornell community, and public history institutions nationwide.

For more information about the project, please contact Ed Baptist at eeb36@cornell.edu.

Institutional support and contact

This database is a joint project of three entities as Cornell:

Key personnel

Edward E. Baptist, Associate Professor, Department of History
450 McGraw Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853
607-379-9049
eeb36@cornell.edu

Mary Niall Mitchell, Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies
Department of History, Liberal Arts 135
University of New Orleans
New Orleans, LA 70148
504-280-6144
molly.mitchell@uno.edu

Bill Block, Director, CISER (Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research)
block@cornell.edu

Madeleine Casad, Cornell University Library, Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services
mir9@cornell.edu

Jason Kovari, Cornell University Library, Metadata Services
jak473@cornell.edu

Michelle Paolillo, Cornell University Libraries, Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services
map6@cornell.edu

Jeremy Williams, CISER
jw568@cornell.edu