Vanessa Holden and Ed Baptist have a typically excellent article placing the recent spate of news stories about random white people calling the police on black people for doing basically nothing in the historical context of policing and slavery.
These incidents are not historically unusual. What’s new is the outcome, at least in some of the cases. For virtually the first time, white Americans have faced social disapproval for being caught on camera in the act of treating utterly normal behavior by black people as criminal. But people like “BBQ Becky” are not new. They continue a long tradition that began in slavery. From the 1600s to 1865, white Americans watched Africans and African Americans, checked to see if they fit the description of specific fugitives from slavery, stopped, questioned and seized them — and got rewards for doing so. The pattern established by white policing of African Americans’ movement during slavery is something that many remain all too eager to continue.
Together with three other historians, we’ve been helping to build a free and interactive database of all the fugitive slave ads from U.S. and colonial history. The ads reveal how white Americans trained and incentivized themselves to police black Americans’ movements.
Take a look at this ad for Lavenia, from a December 1858 newspaper. Her enslaver, D.G. Hughes, noted that Lavenia had run away back in May and may have been trying to return to Richmond. If Lavenia had family in Virginia, no wonder she was trying to return. Lavenia’s escape testifies to her resistance and perseverance, but her attempt to go where she wanted to go was by definition illegal. The point of the ad, which said she was “18 years old, black, rough skin, thick lips, good teeth” and “walks awkwardly,” was to get any person to read it to look closely at any African American adolescent or young woman. Perhaps they could be Lavenia, and you could get a $50 reward — a couple of months’ pay, for a working man — for catching her.
These ads were part of a system for policing Lavenia, one that stretched far back into the first days of slavery in Britain’s American colonies. Some of the earliest colonial laws about slavery protected white settlers who killed black people in the process of fugitive recapture. Nor could whites be charged if they killed enslaved Africans who resisted punishments that we would describe today as torture. In fact, less wealthy white colonists and other outsiders could wield power by helping to police enslaved Africans — defining themselves as part of the in-group by using violence against black people.