Fragments of Freedom in the Fine Print

Family History
11 June 2024
by Bethany Bell

Navigating the New Articles of Enslavement Collection

Today, Ancestry® announced the publication and free availability of a new collection of newspaper articles containing details on more than 183,000 formerly enslaved people. The new collection will help descendants of previously enslaved people in the U.S. discover more about their families. They also serve as an important resource for understanding the forced movement of enslaved people in the United States and the actions that they took to seek freedom.

The following blog post was written by Bethany Bell, a history PhD student at the  University of Virginia. It highlights strategies for critically reading and navigating these often traumatizing materials and encourages researchers to prioritize their mental and emotional well-being throughout the research process.

You can explore and search the new Articles of Enslavement Collection at no cost here: 

George Gordon and James Allen | Virginia | 1855

On November 20th, 1855, residents of Richmond, Virginia perusing the Richmond Inquirer would have come across this advertisement for the capture and return of two Black men on the run, George Gordon and James Allen. 

Advertisement for the capture and return of George Gordon and James Allen, 1855.

As with most sources written by enslavers, this ad conceals more than it reveals about George and James, their lives, and the world that they inhabited. The fleeting images and fragmented lives of enslaved people fill the pages of 18th- and 19th-century American newspapers. They appear in ads as items up for auction. They appear in legal disputes between relatives fighting over the contents of an estate. They appear as fugitives from bondage with monetary incentives offered to hunt them down and force them back into slavery. 

When I approach these sources, I am often daunted by how vividly the violence of slavery leaps from the page. But I am also keenly aware that these newspaper ads are a valuable resource for researchers  to better visualize the landscape of slavery and the Black struggle for freedom or descendants searching for critical pieces of their family story. Even when the picture that emerges is a mosaic of fragmented pieces, each individual piece has an important story to tell. To fully understand the stories in biased newspaper articles requires reading these sources “against the grain” and “along the bias grain.” These methods are powerful tools we can use to resist the dominant interpretation of a text by searching for the wider range of meanings that hide in the unspoken spaces between words. This is also an empowering practice that helps me mitigate the mental and emotional toll that comes with encountering enslaved people in historical documents. 

In the ad above, the words that Cobin Warwick used were chosen for a specific purpose: deputizing the broader public to force George Gordon and James Allen back into bondage. However, we can use these same words to subvert their original purpose. We can read “against the grain” and we can also acknowledge what is missing. As I read through the ad again, hidden meanings and unstated implications begin to rise to the surface. 

Reading Resistance

Annotated ad from 1855 newspaper ad
  1. “Left my farm”: Chattel slavery in the U.S. South was maintained by containing and controlling the movement of enslaved people. Enslaved people were subject to strict and violently enforced rules about how they could move within the plantation, between neighboring plantations, and into towns. George and James totally subverted these attempts to control their movement in a profound act of refusal: they left Warwick, his farm, and their bondage behind. Warwick’s ad is an attempt to undermine their escape and discipline their movement yet again. However, this ad is a double-edged sword. By fleeing, and therefore forcing Warwick to place an ad for their recapture, George and James publicly exposed the limits of enslavers’ power to totally control and contain enslaved people. 
  1. “Without any cause”: There are many reasons why Warwick might assert that George and James had no reason to run. He was probably trying to suggest that, according to antebellum ideals, he was a “benevolent” enslaver. But no matter what the conditions of their enslavement, enslaved people resisted. The condition of being enslaved was motive enough for George and James to stage their escape. They didn’t just “leave” Warwick’s farm, they fled. Their “cause” was freedom. 
  1. “23 years old, five feet eight inches high, black and well built”: In the ad, the descriptions of George and James are limited to their age, skin color, stature, and suggestions of their strength. Warwick saw these bodies not only as lost property but also lost labor and profit. In emancipating themselves, George and James stole back their own bodies and their own labor using their strength not to enrich their enslaver but to facilitate their freedom. 
  1. “He ran away three times”: With his repeated escape attempts, George demonstrated an unwavering determination to be free and the locations where he was found after each attempt to emancipate himself are telling; once in Nelson County, once in Augusta County, and once in Rockingham County. All three of these counties are west of Charlottesville, Virginia. Did George have family or friends in those counties he was hoping to see? Or perhaps that he continued to move further west with each escape attempt is indicative of this knowledge of the geography of slavery and freedom. From Rockingham County, George could have been striving to go even further west into what would later become Western Virginia and then on to the free state of Ohio. 
  1. “County jails”: County jails were part of the architecture of control and punishment embedded in a slave society. The conditions of jails that housed “runaway slaves” were often appalling. In one of these jails, George could have been subjected to everything from poor ventilation and inadequate food to physical and psychological torture. When caught trying to escape, enslaved people were usually severely punished. One such punishment was being sold to deep south states like Alabama or Mississippi where it was much harder to escape. These were the risks George faced each time he made a bid for freedom. The decision to flee must have been an agonizing one. He knew the risks, faced the punishment, and chose to run again, and again, and again. 

Leaving this article, I still have a host of questions. Were George and James able to maintain their freedom? Who did they leave behind and were they ever reunited with family and friends? Where did they end up and how did they fare during the Civil War? Given that they were both young men in 1855, there is a strong possibility that this piece of their stories can launch further exploration into their lives through other sources like Virginia will and probate records, census records starting in 1870, and Freedmen’s Bureau Records

Remembering to Rest 

Critically engaging with these articles can be a rewarding exercise. It can also be exhausting. Even in the process of reviewing this example, I experienced a wide range of emotions from sadness to horror to rage, all of which threatened to deplete my energy. Conducting Black history research is a journey full of emotional roadblocks and existential dangers so sometimes it’s good to get off the road for a bit, to rest and refuel. Empathy is essential to this work so my goal is never to “not feel” but rather to regulate my engagement with these sources with self-care strategies. Sometimes that means closing my laptop for a bit and going for a walk or doing a brief silent meditation. Sometimes that means venting my frustrations with what I’ve encountered to a friend or family member. And sometimes that means connecting with others who are also doing this work. Being part of a community helps mitigate the isolation and weariness that can set in when conducting this research alone.

Newspaper ads involving enslaved people are complicated sources. They don’t tell whole stories and the information that they do contain tends to be reductive, describing Black people in terms of their value to their enslavers. It is important to recognize and call out these patterns. But it is equally important and potentially empowering to subvert the original intentions of these ads by recognizing the resilience and resistance of Black Americans hidden in the fine print.