Cornell Professor Documents the Days of ‘Runaway Slave’ Newspaper Ads

Such paid postings were once common in U.S. dailies

It began during the research phase for the 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The author, Cornell history professor Edward E. Baptist, decided that ads seeking the return of “runaway slaves” published in newspapers during the 18th and 19th centuries deserved a dedicated spot in the historical record. Today, that effort is in full flight.

The digital archiving project Freedom on the Move will be officially presented next month to other colleges and libraries. And this past week, Washington Post feature writer DeNeen L. Brown shared an interview with Baptist and highlighted an ad taken out in the Tennessee Gazette Oct. 3, 1804 by future president Andrew Jackson. The ad began:

Stop the Runaway.
FIFTY DOLLARS REWARD.
Eloped from the subscriber, living near Nashville, on the 21st of June last, a Mulatto Man Slave, about thirty years old, six feet and an inch high, stout made and active, talks sensible, stoops in his walk…

In addition to the reward, Jackson promised a bonus of $10 to anyone who would apply 100 lashes on the man, up to a maximum of three times that formula. Baptist told Brown, chillingly, that these ads are the equivalent of “the tweets of the master class.”

Baptist is partnered on the project with a pair of fellow history professors, Joshua D. Rothman from the University of Alabama and Molly Mitchell at the University of New Orleans. Read the rest of Brown’s piece (and the comments) here.