Research into runaway slave advertisements sheds light on history

August 3, 2013 6:51:08 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Christian Friar has developed a close relationship with microfilm this summer. The senior history major at Mississippi University for Women has spent much of the past two months poring through newspaper archives from Mississippi and Alabama at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. The 22-year-old has been researching runaway slave advertisements, interning with a larger project called "Documenting Runaway Slaves" at the University of Southern Mississippi. 


"Slavery has been covered in many aspects, and a lot of people don't want to hear about it," the Booneville native said Wednesday at the library. "But I believe that, even though it's a very tough pill to swallow, it was part of American history, and it's important to look at different aspects of slavery to understand how we dealt with it." 


The collaborative effort to document advertisements seeking the capture and return of runaway slaves is the brainchild of lead researchers Dr. Max Grivno and Dr. Douglas Chambers, faculty members in the Southern Miss Department of History. While their pilot project is focused on Mississippi, plans are already in place to expand the research to the larger Gulf South, the rest of the Southern United States, the Caribbean and Brazil. 




Mining the past 


Friar began her work in early June, concentrating primarily on a period from the 1830s to the early 1850s. She studied microfilm and hard copy archives from more than 20 county newspapers. 


Her work yielded more than she expected -- about 125 advertisements. Many opened a window into the past. 


The advertisements personalize history, providing insight into the lives of slaves and the culture of the period. Notices might include first and last names, possible destinations, clothing, special skills or talents and personality features, a post from Southern Miss at explained. 


"I was surprised by the details some of them had, like violence between master and slave," said Friar. "I came across a very interesting advertisement for a runaway slave. As it turns out, the slave was actually stolen from Georgia and brought to Lowndes County. Another slave ran away after allegedly killing his master's wife, but was later captured." 


Friar was also surprised by the general breadth of information in the aged newspapers she searched through. 


"I thought I would find farm reports and that type of thing," she said. What she discovered were news items from across the country, as well as Europe, indicating that newspaper readers were more widely informed than she first assumed. 




Trends revealed 


Friar observed several trends among the advertisements she chronicled. 


"Slaves mainly ran away in June and July, less often in winter," she said. Men ranging in age from 17 to 45 were more likely to run away than women. The oldest man sought, however, was 70. 


If females did run away, they tended to leave in groups; their ages ranged from 14 to 40.  


Library archivist Mona Vance said, "This study is important to help build the knowledge of African-American history for this area. (Christian) is creating a transcription of the advertisements' text as well as capturing a scanned digital image of each entry."  


The overall research project will incorporate Friar's findings into a full-text searchable online resource for academic researchers, genealogists and anyone who wants to learn more about this time period. 


The W senior concluded her research for the Southern Miss initiative Friday, but her interest has been sparked. She hopes to continue her efforts as a possible Capstone Project for her upcoming history courses. 


"I hope to take this deeper, to look into courthouse records for court cases and see if I can find any connections to the newspaper advertisements," she said. "I've already learned a lot on just how newspapers viewed slavery by how they described the runaways and the articles in the papers about slavery." 


For more information about the local research, contact Friar by emailing [email protected]

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.