Digital Collections

History Students Contribute to the UNCG Runaway Slave Ad Database

During the Spring semester 2017, students in the history research methods classes, HIS 391 and 430, helped to expand the UNCG NC Runaway Slave Advertisements Database. The current database contains advertisements through 1840 and is one of the most widely used digital collections maintained by the UNCG Library. Colson Whitehead acknowledged the database as an important resource for his award winning novel, The Underground Railroad. Students researched newspapers published across North Carolina in the 1850s and 1860s to add new material to the database.

The project offered valuable firsthand experience in how primary sources are digitized and how digitization changes the research process. Library staff trained students in the use of microfilm readers and archival practices for digitizing primary sources, including scanning the original documents and identifying the metadata that will assist researchers in searching the collected advertisements. Students learned how digitization changes the process of historical interpretation—what kind of information is lost and what is gained. For example, they considered what they learned from seeing a runaway slave ad in the context of the original newspaper page and how that context is lost when ads are collected and organized in a database. On the other hand they learned it is possible to study many more digitized ads searching the database compared to the amount of time it took to read the microfilmed newspaper and identify each advertisement.

After collecting and scanning the advertisements, students designed a wide variety of individual research projects on topics inspired by the primary sources.

This advertisement for the remarkable runway, James Lord, who worked as a Pressman for the Fayetteville Observer, inspired a student research project on the ways that runaway slave ads document literacy among slaves.
Topics ranged from the experience of women runaways to constructions of African American masculinity; from medical practices documented in the ads that described marks from cupping and lancets to an exploration of the objects that runaways took with them when they escaped; from the distinctive experience of runaways in the North Carolina mountains to the maroon communities of the coast.  Newspapers from the Civil War era were included in the sample so that we could see how the last years of slavery affected runaway experience. Students made fascinating discoveries about the continued use of runaway advertisements long after the 13th Amendment ended slavery.

This advertisement for runaway George Washington was published in the Greensboro Patriot in November 1867. It inspired a student to research the role of the Freedman’s Bureau and the continued practice of indenturing workers after the Civil War ended.
The Library has been awarded a strategic seed grant to expand the database and the advertisements collected by history students will be added to the database in the coming months.

(Contributed by Dr. Lisa Tolbert, UNCG Department of History)

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