Chris Bentley / Sun Senior Photographer

The transcriptions of runaway slave ads will be of interest to historians and genealogists alike.

February 21, 2019

Inter-Department Project Collects Thousands of Slave Resistance Stories

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A team of Cornell researchers is collecting “thousands of stories of resistance” in the form of artifacts to shed light on part of America’s troubled past.

The project, entitled “Freedom on the Move,” aims to compile by digitizing and transcribing “runaway ads” that were once widely published in newspapers by enslavers looking to recapture fugitive slaves, according to Prof. Edward Baptist, history, who helped to found the project in 2013.

“The ads show an entire population demobilized,” Baptist told The Sun. “But you also see the stories of people trying to get away. It’s quite inspiring, actually.”

Taken collectively, they amount to “incredibly unique information” — which, up to this point, has never existed in the form of a searchable database — that could be of significant value to genealogists, historians and academics, the project’s manager, Elena Golobordko, said.

The advertisements’ ubiquity at the time — over 200,000 in total are thought to have been published, according to Baptist — combined with their strikingly detailed descriptions led researchers to conclude that forming a comprehensive database could offer an unprecedented portal into the lives of American slaves.

They show “great resistance to slavery,” but at the same time, “do not understate the violence or oppression,” Baptist said.

As the database continues to grow, “Freedom on the Move” aims to collaborate with museums, libraries, historical organizations and schools to grow exposure to America’s century-long experience with slavery and the once untold stories of the thousands of victims who managed to, at least temporarily, escape it.

The motivation for archiving fugitive ads was simple, according to software engineer Brandon Kowalski.    

“There’s simply no other documents that exist for these individuals,” Kowalski said. “Due to the nature of people trying to find them, they are being very descriptive on their physical appearance, the nature of who they were.”

Enslavers looking to maximize chances of reclaiming lost slaves were incentivized to be as detailed as possible in their newspaper bulletins. The ads published extensive information on the fugitives’ speech, birthplaces, personality, family members, clothing and background, according to Baptist.

Golobordodko noted that the researchers were “so enthralled with the possibilities” of the project that they decided to develop the project into something far more sophisticated than “just an excel spreadsheet” — instead, opting to create an open-source, interactive database that would allow online users to play the role of digital historian.

The project’s staffers first select the ads from a wide variety of sources, including libraries, submissions and other databases. After the documents are received, they are converted to a consistent format, uploaded into the repository and stripped of their metadata, Kowalski said.   

Once processing is complete, the ads are then available for “crowdsourcing,” where users are invited to transcribe the images into readable text or proofread other individuals’ work. A moderator will eventually judge the transcription for accuracy and mark the ad as complete.

The database now includes over 20,000 individual ads, and close to 2,000 of them have been at least partially transcribed — many through the crowdsourcing process, Kowalski said.

Since the crowd-driven project officially launched a week ago, participation has grown swiftly, the project’s IT director, Janet Heslop, said.

“We already have over 1,300 accounts already set up, mainly from people finding us or hearing about us,” Heslop said Tuesday. “In the past three days, we’ve had over 300 more people sign up.”

The team has already collaborated with the Ithaca History Center, and plans are underway to introduce the database to public schools as an engaging learning opportunity.

“We’re hoping to introduce this application to public schools and use it as an educational tool for students, who will also work on crowdsourcing,” Golobordoko said.

The database, which is currently developing specialized educational features, would allow students to “deal with primary sources directly … and be more actively engaged in the learning process,” Baptist added.