Campus News

‘Freedom on the Move’ project takes more realistic look at U.S. history

Collage of newspaper clippings offering rewards for run-away slaves.

A collage of newspaper clippings offering rewards for run-away slaves. The Freedom of Movement database project transcribes and codes thousands of these advertisements.


Published February 23, 2021

Vanessa Holden.
“I think that when it comes to a nation’s history, of course it’s going to be contentious and uncomfortable. … (It) can be difficult if you’re someone who’s been taught a history that was really designed to make you comfortable, to make you proud of the place where you lived, to give you ready excuses for ancestors who’d done less than amazing things in the past. ”
Vanessa M. Holden, Distinguished Visiting Scholar
UB Center for Diversity Innovation

It’s Black History Month again, and you’re watching a presentation on slavery.

This one, however, starts off with a newspaper advertisement from the pre-Civil War era: A slave owner is seeking the return of a runaway slave. The ad describes the slave, in the hope that the slave owner’s property can quickly be returned.

The slave owner? Thomas Jefferson.

Right about then is when you realize that this isn’t the kind of lesson you learned in high school. Instead, this is a more accurate, more expansive view of the business side of enslavement in what we like to call the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

And that’s just the way Vanessa M. Holden wants it.

Holden, a UB Center for Diversity Innovation Distinguished Visiting Scholar for 2020-21, presented recently on Freedom on the Move, which is described as “an open-access, crowdsourced database project aimed at transcribing and coding thousands of advertisements placed by enslavers and jailors for fugitives from American slavery.”

These ads, such as the one placed by Jefferson, are typically known as “runaway ads,” which the project treats as “important primary sources” for a “rich record of enslaved people’s resistance and American slavery’s cruelty.”

“I think this project serves as an incredible example of how the digitization of information enables more people than ever before to learn about histories that would otherwise be unknown, or certainly less accessible,” said Maura Belliveau, director of the UB Center for Diversity Innovation.

Freedom on the Move is based out of the Cornell University Institute for Social and Economic Research. The project’s lead researchers include Holden, who is an assistant professor of history and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky, as well as colleagues from Cornell, Ohio State University, University of New Orleans and the University of Alabama.

The ads that Holden presented represent what she called “digital footprints” that recorded “the history, process and reality of enslavement from the viewpoint of those who profited from it.”

“(Such) advertisements enlisted the public’s help in race-based policing (to enforce) the legal reality that Blacks were always subject to enslavement, while whites were not,” Holden noted.

Those placing the ads were the ones who were poised to profit: among them, slave owners seeking the return of their “property”; jailers who had captured an escapee and sought to inform the “owner”; and, of course, the banks that benefitted from the insurance policies on enslavers’ “property.”

“The ads were for people who (were) hoping to encourage … the broader community to participate in policing Black movement, to inspect any Black person they see on the street,” said Holden.

“‘Do they fit that description? Might I be able to make some (money) by turning them in?’ So, really, even people who would never, ever have enough money to purchase an enslaved person could participate in slavery by collecting rewards, by reinforcing that any Black person they saw who they weren’t familiar with could possibly be (a) criminal, could possibly be a fugitive, that it was their right to stop them and question them.”

On the former point, professional slave hunters tracked runaway slaves for a fee or reward, thus expanding the economy of slavery beyond the mere buying and selling of people.

“It’s also really important for us to make sure that we’re denoting the many active choices that white enslavers made daily to enslave Black people, that it’s not this kind of static state,” Holden said. “That every single day, white people who held human property made decision after decision to continue to enslave Black people, and those decisions include physical abuse, include constraining Black mobility, (and) extracting labor. So much kind of gets glossed over or euphemized when you talk about a ‘planter’ or a ‘plantation owner.’ … It’s like sure, there’s the inanimate cotton, but the real wealth you have is in people, and you have to make active choices to support that system. So, (the project is) a way of holding white enslavers accountable.”

Indeed, from the 1600s through the early 1800s, “enslavers and legislators worked to limit the mobility of enslaved people,” Holden noted. They erected laws that made it illegal for Blacks to escape, or even protest, their legal status as “property.” This was a time, remember, when the only people who could legally vote were white men who owned property — restrictions that took the better part of three centuries to fix, although legal fights remain today over who should be restricted from voting.

The members of the Freedom on the Move project have updated the language they use when discussing the enslavement of people in America, following the current trend by historians, researchers and academics. The effort is intended to make history less white-centric and more inclusive of other cultures’ contributions.

“We’ve adopted the language ‘enslaver’ instead of ‘slave owner’ or ‘slave holder’ because it’s really important to us, as scholars of slavery, to denote … the humanity of enslaved people,” Holden said.

Other changes include “enslaved people” instead of “slaves,” as that status was something done to those forced into subservience, rather than a willing choice they made, and “self-emancipated people” vs. “runaway slaves” to denote that those escaping enslavement were freeing themselves from an immoral, inhumane situation — even though, at the time, it was completely legal.

Holden noted that part of the reason for the changed language is to combat the long disinformation campaign that currently is perceived as “accurate” American history.

Prior to the Civil War, and continuing through to today, many in the Southern states that had comprised the Confederate States of America reframed the reality of enslavement, shifting the narrative to one of “states’ rights,” “kind and gentle masters” and “happy slaves” — a fiction that whitewashed the reality of brutal violence in the form of whippings, beatings, maimings, rapes, murders and the dehumanization of those enslaved.

“There’s that kind of common myth,” Holden said, “that enslaved people either just sort of acquiesced, and kind of felt, ‘Oh, there’s nothing we can do,’ or the really popular caricatures and lies that … slavery was sort of benevolent or that African American people didn’t really mind being slaves.”

As Holden noted during the presentation, if the masters were kind and gentle, and the slaves were happy, then why were laws needed to prohibit the “happy slaves” from protesting their status? Why were slave patrols needed to prevent escapes?

The “runaway slave” ads show the carefully crafted disinformation campaign for the lie that it is. “Clearly, by (the escapees’) actions, they weren’t trying to stick around and be slaves,” she said. “That’s not the story here. In fact, it’s evidence of mass resistance, it’s evidence of perpetual resistance, and it’s evidence that enslavers knew, absolutely knew, that enslaved people did not want to be slaves.”

The purpose of the project, Holden said, is to expand slavery-related educational and historical resources for, among others, K-12 teachers, college and university professors, museum researchers, genealogists, community groups, librarians and journalists.

Recently, however, there has been a backlash against attempts to change the commonly accepted “white version” of history. For example, the 1619 Project, a New York Times historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social and economic institutions, has drawn sharp opposition from some lawmakers.

Asked her opinion on the backlash to the 1619 Project and how such a response might impact the Freedom on the Move project, Holden said, “I think that when it comes to a nation’s history, of course it’s going to be contentious and uncomfortable. … (It) can be difficult if you’re someone who’s been taught a history that was really designed to make you comfortable, to make you proud of the place where you lived, to give you ready excuses for ancestors who’d done less than amazing things in the past.”

Despite the backlash, Holden and the other Freedom on the Move project members continue to build the database.

“We don’t want this to be a resource that’s kind of hoarded by academics and researchers but is really impenetrable to anybody else,” Holden said. “We want to be really clear that depending on who you are, reading racist language used to describe Black people in the past … that that hits different depending on who you are, and acknowledging that and accounting for that (is important). … At the same time, it’s important to make sure people know that (some words and phrases) are not appropriate terms to use.”

She added that the project has partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center program “Teaching Hard History” to find ways to reach educators who know they should be covering slavery and give them the tools to do it in an age-appropriate way.