Readers of the May 24, 1796 Pennsylvania Gazette found an advertisement offering ten dollars to any person who would apprehend Oney Judge, an enslaved woman who had fled from President George Washington’s Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon. The notice described her in detail as a “light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair,” as well as her skills at mending clothes, and that she “may attempt to escape by water … it is probable she will attempt to pass as a free woman, and has, it is said, wherewithal to pay her passage.” She did indeed board a ship called the Nancyand made it to New Hampshire, where she later married a free black sailor, although she was herself never freed by the Washingtons and remained a fugitive.
The advertisement is one of thousands that were printed in newspapers during colonial and pre-Civil War slavery in the United States. The Freedom on the Move (FOTM) public database project, now being developed at Cornell University, is the first major digital database to organize together North American fugitive slave ads from regional, state, and other collections. FOTM recently received its second of its two National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) digital humanities grants.
“Ironically, in trying to retrieve their property — the people they claimed as things — enslavers left us mounds of evidence about the humanity of the people they bought and sold,” Dr. Mary Niall Mitchell, professor of early American history at the University of New Orleans and one of the three lead historians on FOTM, told Hyperallergic. The other two historians are Joshua Rothman of the University of Alabama and Edward E. Baptist (author of the 2016 The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism) of Cornell University.
As with the ad for Oney Judge, these classifieds did not only include meticulous information on appearance, but also skills, personalities, mannerisms, scars from whips or brands, history of sale, and where they might flee to based on the locations of friends and family. While the database is still in progress, examples of the ads are being shared on the @fotmproject Twitter account. One for a woman named Sabina who fled with her son describes her “high cheek bones” and that she “walks parrot-toed”; another for a man named Griffin states he is “a very light mulatto (in fact some persons would mistake him for a white man).” An ad from 1840 offers a $20 reward for Aaron who “has been absent some weeks — he is about 27 years of age, 5 feet 7 or 8 inches high, and is a light mulatto; has a scar on one of his cheeks; speaks French and English, and stammers when speaking; is a painter by trade, and is no doubt at work on some of the buildings about the city.”
Maybe in the future, someone will put together a database of the people trying to flee American ethnic cleansing in Trump administration.