In 1840, George Shall, proprietor of the City Hotel at Camp and Common streets in New Orleans, was looking for “a yellow boy, named Jack or John Perry.”
To find the young man, who was “between 22 and 26 years old,” Shall, like many slaveowners of the time, placed a newspaper ad that described Perry’s clothing and appearance: about 5 feet 3 inches in height and “rather delicate in appearance” with “very small limbs” and a partially lame left leg. He spoke French and English, Shall wrote.
The 177-year-old ad was recently scanned by University of New Orleans students as part of a project called “Freedom on the Move.”
In a few years, when it’s finished, the project will turn nearly 100,000 fugitive-slave advertisements published in American newspapers into a collaborative, digital database that can be readily accessed by the general public, genealogists, educators and museums.
Freedom on the Move is one of several projects to compile fugitive-slave notices.
“These ads and the sheer volume of them change our understanding. We begin to understand how many people resisted the brutality of slavery on their own,” said Mary Niall Mitchell, 47, who co-directs the Ethel and Herman L. Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at UNO and is one of three historians leading the Freedom on the Move project, along with Joshua Rothman, of the University of Alabama, and Edward E. Baptist, of Cornell University.
History books typically focus on organized slave escapes, aided by abolitionists and networks such as the Underground Railroad. But fugitive-slave ads contain a wealth of biographical details and document a variety of support networks.
“It was in a slave owner’s interest to tell as much of the story as he could," Mitchell said. “So he may list an enslaved person’s past jobs or note that she has friends back-of-town and a spouse who lives elsewhere.”
The project recently received a $201,000 grant from the National Historic Preservation and Records Commission, a division of the National Archives. In August, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded it nearly $325,000.
Baptist has called the fugitive-slave notices “the tweets of the master class,” meant to alert “the surveillance system that was the entire body of white people in the South.”
The ads are “succinct and plentiful,” Mitchell said, “a way to communicate with others widely, through the newspaper. In that sense, it is their Twitter.”
The ads also give a sense of personal stories in place of the amorphous concept of “the slave,” Mitchell said. In some archives that genealogists rely upon to trace white ancestors, enslaved people remain anonymous.
For instance, the U.S. Census in 1850 and 1860 didn’t name individual slaves. They were cataloged by their owners’ names, along with their age, gender and complexion, with mixed-race slaves categorized under separate “mulatto” sections.
By comparison, fugitive-slave ads included information about known skills, level of literacy, scars or marks, and speculation about their whereabouts, as Shall wrote in the advertisement he placed about Perry: “It is possible he is loitering in the lower part of the city, as he has a number of acquaintances there, or he may try to get on some of the steamboats going up the river.”
Shall also announced that Perry had just been sold to Henry Bradley in St. Mary Parish but had lived in St. Louis until his late teens, when he was brought to Louisiana.
Such details of ownership usually mean the person had experienced a series of forced separations from family members and friends.
To begin the project, Mitchell and her student researchers have focused on newspaper ads from the 1830s through 1850s, when the South’s enslaved population was on the move.
“There was a mass forced migration from the Upper South to the Lower South,” Mitchell said. “While the Upper South had exhausted its soil with tobacco, cotton — along with sugar in places like Louisiana — was spreading further and further westward. That’s where the money was. So there was a huge demand for slave labor.”
Many enslaved people traveled through New Orleans, the South’s largest slave market. The local papers were packed with fugitive-slave bulletins. The notices, written in both English and French, came from two sources: owners seeking someone and jailers who had picked up alleged fugitives.
“Sometimes, the jailer ads basically say, ‘Come pick up your property: So-and-so says that he belongs to Mr. Bourgeois of Amite,’ ” Mitchell said. Other ads describe the person who had been jailed but offer little more information. “They’re interesting because of what’s not being revealed,” she said.
Often, the jailer ads came from St. James Parish, she said. A typical jailer ad, placed in February 1828, describes “an American Negro, who speaks English only; calls himself Henry Scott, a native of Virginia, says he is free, but without any papers to prove it.”
Mitchell said she has been fascinated to understand how much enslaved people could move around the city. Owners might describe the typical route that a slave took to go to the market or note that they had worked on steamships or as bricklayers and carpenters. “People with skills are often suspected to be doing this work somewhere in town,” she said.
The backdrop is a growing New Orleans. “That’s what makes these ads different than ads elsewhere,” Mitchell said. “There’s a high level of activity on waterways. We see the levee mentioned a lot: ‘He was spotted on the levee’ or ‘he might be trying to work on the levee.’ ”
Within the collaborative database, layers of other archives and narratives can be linked to the advertisements, though that work hasn’t yet begun.
For instance, the Race & Petitions Project at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro has an 1837 legal petition filed in Louisiana that sought payment of $1,200 from the captain of a boat called the Hercules, which carried away a 21-year-old slave named James owned by George Shall’s wife, Patsy Haynes Shall.
Being able to track an enslaved person to a well-documented owner may also provide more information. For instance, J.A. Braud placed this notice in February 1828 when a woman he owned ran away from his home at 227 N. Rampart St.:
“Absconded from the subscriber’s dwelling … the negro girl Fanny, aged about 50; speaks English and French; has lost her front teeth; very dark skin: took with her her daughter, a mulatto, aged about 7. She has a daughter on Girod Street, No. 183, and may go there at night. She has been seen at the St. Mary Market.”
City directories and his obituary provide much information about Braud, a prominent businessman.
But all of this research can begin because of information found in these small advertisements, meant to retrieve people who were seen only as property, like lost horses.
“Ironically," Mitchell said, "it was slaveholders and jailers who created a history of resistance, the very thing that they were trying to contain and quash.”