More than 80 million people were enslaved in the United States through the end of the Civil War, but still little is known about them. Now, the National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded nearly $325,000 to Freedom on the Move, a project that aims to digitize 100,000 fugitive slave advertisements that were published in American newspapers through the end of the Civil War in an effort to expand common understanding about these people’s lives.
Mary Niall Mitchell, the University of New Orleans Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies and the Joseph Tregle Professor in Early American History, 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 effort seeks to create the single richest source of data possible for understanding the lives of enslaved people—one that the historians want to make accessible to all who seek it, especially educators.
As part of her role in the project, Mitchell will hold workshops for educators and museum professionals. She will observe test audiences of museum visitors, teachers and students as they use the site to determine how to strengthen the online project. She will also help create sample lesson plans and other documents for teachers, students, museum educators and others who seek to use the Freedom on the Move project as part of classroom or museum teaching tool. The NEH award was made to Cornell, where the project is housed, with sub-awards going to the University of Alabama and UNO.
"Our team is thrilled to have secured the substantial support of the NEH for the next phase of Freedom on the Move," Mitchell said. "The response to this project from scholars, teachers and the general public has been terrific. Now, with these new resources allowing for greater development of the technical side, we will be able to create a public-ready site that much sooner."
There are more than 100,000 estimated runaway ads that survive from the colonial or pre-Civil War United States. Freedom on the Move was launched, according to its website, with the idea that each of these ads “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.” The project includes a crowdsourcing component that enables the general public to take part in creating the database.
Freedom on the Move is just one of the many projects Mitchell, in her role as a scholar and co-director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies, is involved in that seek to promote understanding of New Orleans history, politics, culture and public policy issues, especially civil rights.