Freedom On the Move – A Digital Humanities Project Review

Freedom On the Move (FOTM) is a Digital Humanities project that focuses on fugitive slave advertisements that were published in historic American colonial newspapers. It currently numbers nearly 30,500 fugitive slave advertisements in its database. These advertisements constitute a source of information about fugitive slaves that otherwise people today might not otherwise know anything about. The project site includes a promo video, lesson plans for K-12 teachers and search tools for access to the database of fugitive slave ads. The intended audiences for the project include scholars, students and citizen historians. The site set-up appears to be an Omeka-type. It is a very simple design with a very user friendly interface.

            The FOTM project is spearheaded by history professors from Cornell University, the University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, the University of New Orleans and the University of Alabama.  There is one PhD student also working on the project. The project is supported by staff at the Cornell Library and Cornell University’s Institute for the Social Sciences (CISER). The University of North Carolina at Greensboro is a collaborator, which shares their own database of fugitive slave ads. The project is also affiliated with the Hard History project, which seeks to provide educational materials to primary and secondary educators seeking in-depth information and methods for teaching about historic American slavery. Funding from the project is contributed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Archives and CISER.

            There is no explicitly stated set of research questions provided by the project managers. Rather, the purpose is to make as many advertisements as possible available to the public for their own uses. The site provides a very high degree of searchability. A researcher can look directly at a scanned/clipped image of each ad, as well as a transcription next to it. A set of metadata is provided for each ad, including the basic information (date, place of publication, etc.), information about each named runaway (characteristics, skills, etc.), information about the enslavers, and information regarding persons placing the advertisement. Searches can be conducted using any criteria – names, places, newspapers, and so on. It is an impressive database.

            The project incorporates crowdsourcing to increase the number of transcribed ads and the associated metadata. A volunteer contributor can start from scratch with an un-transcribed ad, or one can edit the previously entered entries in the database. Contributors can also link together ads that have similar content, such as the same advertisement that was published in multiple newspapers at a given time. I set up an account and transcribed a few ads to get a feel for how it worked. The first ad I was given was a bad scan (provided by CISER) and was unreadable. There is a button to click if this is the case, but it made me wonder about the quality control system that the project managers have implemented. The second ad I was given was better quality, and was mostly transcribable, except for the fact that someone had marked across the ad a large “X” in black marker, making some sections of the text unreadable. Overall, the crowdsourcing component was very well set up. It was easy to enter in the transcription. The contributor was guided through the metadata entry process by a well-formulated series of drop-down menus.

            A primary resource that is available from the FOTM project are nine lesson plans prepared for K-12 teachers. These plans were developed in coordination with The Hard History Project, an organization that specializes in producing primary and secondary teaching resources. The lesson plans cover a variety of pedagogical approaches, including transcribing ads and rewriting them from the perspectives of the enslaved, focusing on the narrative life story and advertisement for Harriet Jacobs, creating timelines with the ads, assessing the value of fugitive slave rewards, among other approaches.  Links are also provided for educators seeking additional resources. One of these that I found particularly informative are Hard History podcasts.

            I tested the search capability to get a sense of how deep the database is. A search of “Pennsylvania” turned up 72 entries. Two-thirds of these ads were from Pennsylvania newspapers, and the other one-third were ads from other state newspapers. Thirty-eight of the ads were from the Pennsylvania Gazette, eight were from the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser and four were from the Pennsylvania Chronicle. The ads in the Pennsylvania papers were printed between 1754 and 1780. Comparing this to the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database, there were no newspapers available earlier than mid-March of 1789. So, the FOTM database already proved itself a major plus, because I would not have found any of the Pennsylvania ads for anytime earlier than that if I confined my research to Chronicling America’s database.

To expand the time frame of the research, I searched in Chronicling America for “Pennsylvania” between mid-March of 1789 and the end of 1865, using the keyword terms “runaway, slave, negro, negroes” and came up with 178 pages. Most of these pages (all but 3) were from five Pennsylvania newspapers. Some were fugitive slave advertisements, but other results were from articles. This simple research test demonstrated that FOTM proved a very valuable research resource for anyone looking for fugitive slave ads, especially if they are interested in the period before 1789.

One suggestion that I would make for the FOTM site: there should be some essays with interpretive historical context available to users. There is some very useful guidance for K-12 teachers in the lesson plans. But users who are students or researchers have no other tools to help steer ideas and stimulate research questions about potential ways to probe the database. Granted, advanced researchers would have no problem delving into the database and finding information that is useful to their own research questions. It might stimulate more informed research if there was basic historical contexts on issues related to fugitive slaves. For example, why would enslaved persons choose to run given the risks? What about their lives on plantations made such decisions difficult, such as leaving behind family connections? How did slave hunters work? Were there significant differences between the experiences of fugitive slaves still in southern states versus those in northern states? Beyond the wording of advertisements, what were the perspectives (as ascertained in historical documents) of planters, their families, and various other people about fugitive slaves? How did the Fugitive Slave Acts affect and/or change the treatment of fugitive slaves? Did these acts and the laws enacted by certain states to circumvent the acts improve the ability of runaways to successfully escape?


Note: All these sites were accessed November 1, 2021

Freedom On the Move:

The Hard History Project:

Teaching Hard History Podcasts:

The Library of Congress, Chronicling America: