Prof. Felicia Thomas, history and geography, Morgan State University, has concentrated her academic research on the lives of voiceless figures in history — African American female slaves in colonial Massachusetts.
Thomas said that her goal in doing so has been “to put a human face on an inhumane practice.”
Thomas described her research of African American girls and women who were enslaved in colonial Massachusetts and the value of the labor these females produced in a lecture on Monday.
Thomas’s research is unique: she analyzes colonial newspaper for-sale advertisements for female slaves. So far, she has found over 1,000 advertisements for women in colonial Massachusetts alone.
“Through my research into the newspaper notices, I am able to develop a portrait — a profile — of African American females as versatile and skilled workers,” Thomas said. “I’m working to better understand how and why enslaved women and girls’ adaptability, flexibility and skill as laborers was valued in colonial markets.”
When asked how she arrived at such a unique research topic, Thomas said it came from curiosity about black women’s perceptions of liberty within colonial America, motivated by teaching about Baptists.
After reading the work of Philis Weatley — the first published African American female poet — in colonial Massachusetts newspapers, Thomas began a search for runaway slave advertisements.
While she did not find any fugitive advertisements, she found a good sample of for-sale advertisements. Thus, she began sifting through to find women for-sale advertisements in particular.
Thomas emphasized that while at times many colleagues told her that her research was either impossible or unimportant, analyzing these advertisements are important, as they humanize female African American slaves.
Since enslaved women did not often document their lives in a diary, there are scant primary sources that delve into the lives of female slaves. These advertisements, however, form a collection of primary sources, from which Thomas can deduce information about the characteristics and value of labor of female slaves.
“This work is crucial I believe because most African American women in colonial Massachusetts did not possess sufficient literary skills or personal resources to leave a documentary footprint in traditional archive records,” Thomas said. “The females I am studying rarely have ever kept day books, or diaries or wills.”
Despite the lack of primary sources from the women themselves, Thomas was able to discern information about the lives of these women.
The names of the slaves were generally omitted and the ages of the slaves were only mentioned in about 50 percent of sources. Some advertisements included that slaves were immune to fatal diseases such as smallpox or measles.
Thomas also discovered from these advertisements the variety of work women were sold to do — “a wide range of tasks in their daily work,” which Thomas said was possible to “identify three distinct — yet at times overlapping — kinds of work that black females performed in the colony.”
These three distinct types of work included: household service, rural labor and versatile labor . According to Thomas, this reveals that some women were in fact skilled laborers, as jobs such as laundry were not easy tasks.
Thomas finally discussed the criticism that many pin on her work and the study of slavery. While some dismiss the study of slavery as unimportant and unnecessary, Thomas strongly defends her research and its value to society.
“This matters because it tells us something very interesting and perhaps important about the ways that this market, these economies, this society is evolving,” Thomas said. “I think that slavery gives the region a head start that is not accounted for in our national historical narratives.”