The University of New Orleans has been awarded a $201,000 Major Initiatives grant from the National Historic Preservation and Records Commission (NHPRC), a division of the National Archives, to support Freedom on the Move, a collaborative digital database of fugitive slave advertisements currently under development. The project’s goal is the creation of a database containing as many as 100,000 fugitive slave advertisements printed in North American newspapers before the Civil War. Freedom on the Move will make these sources available for statistical, geographical, textual and other forms of analysis.
Public dissemination of documents related to U.S. history is an important part of the mission of the NHPRC, which was established by Congress in 1934 and chaired by the Archivist of the United States.
Mary Niall Mitchell, who holds the Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies and the Joseph Tregle Professorship in Early American History at UNO, is one of three historians leading Freedom on the Move, along with Joshua Rothman of the University of Alabama and Edward E. Baptist of Cornell University. The project includes a crowdsourcing component that will enable the general public to take part in creating the database.
“Our research team is excited to see growing support for Freedom on the Move,” Mitchell said. The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded $325,000 to the Freedom on the Move project earlier this year. This latest grant from the NHPRC will fund the collection of thousands of ads and the development of additional features by programmers at Cornell’s CISER Institute for Social and Economic Research, including a museum kiosk, a portal specifically for educators and the incorporation of GIS data. The museum kiosk and the educator portal, in particular, Mitchell says, “will make thousands of individual stories of resistance to slavery available as instructional tools for both museum and classroom educators.”
More than 100,000 runaway ads are estimated to have survived from the colonial or pre-Civil War United States. According to the website for UNO’s Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, where Mitchell serves as co-director, such ads provide significant quantities of individual and collective information about the economic, demographic, social and cultural history of slavery and the thousands of people who resisted it, but they have never been systematically collected into one digital database. According to the project’s website, each ad “sketches the contours of an individual life, a personality, a story. Taken collectively, the ads constitute a detailed, concentrated and incredibly rare source of information about a population that is notably absent from most official historical records of the time.”