Whites trained to look skeptically at blacks on the street or in public places and question legitimacy of presence

“Just because somebody was picked up as truant or runaway and was held by a jailer doesn’t mean they actually were someone who was a fugitive from slavery, it means that they were suspected,” Holden explains. This is especially true considering that, at the time, free Blacks were regularly targeted by kidnappers who sold them into slavery in the South.

The target audience for the ads was the whole of White society. Fugitive ads “really trained White people to inspect and question Black people, to question whether or not they should be in a public space, to question if they should be walking along a road or not, to demand that they prove their validity,” Holden says. They “teach people to see race [and] distinguish African-descendant people as appropriate for slavery.”

But while the ads helped to uphold the socioeconomic system of racial hierarchy in the past, today they are treasured for the wealth of information they contain about exactly who the individuals forced into slavery were, how they escaped, and where they were headed. “I have made the analogy that [the ads] serve as a de facto census of a population that 19th century censuses failed to capture in detail,” says Dr. William C. Block, Freedom on the Move team member and the director of Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research. They can help to form a “more nuanced understanding of the reality of life during slavery.” 

The ads also help to challenge accepted narratives such as the belief that those who self-emancipated were overwhelmingly men. As researchers, citizen historians, teachers, and students work to digitize the collection, they are discovering instances in which women are mislabeled as men in the ad’s accompanying stereotype images, in which women fled with a male companion, or in which women disguised their gender to escape. These are just some of the ways that we may have been missing women all along, Holden says.

A map published in 1920 showing routes of the Underground Railroad, used by fugitive slaves to escape into the free states of the United States or Canada, between 1830 to1865. Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images.

In addition to forming a more complete picture of slavery and the enslaved, one of the primary goals of the Freedom on the Move database has been to engage students, not just at the university level, but in K-12 too, in the complexities of American history. In collaboration with the Hard History Project, Freedom on the Move has developed four history lessons adaptable for children in grades three to 12. On June 3, more than 40 K-to-12 educators participated in a webinar about using the materials in the classroom.

Freedom on the Move hopes that introducing younger students to slavery early will help to expand their understanding of the origins, and persistence, of racial injustice in the United States. Providing students with the opportunity to contribute to the archive is a powerful way of bringing history alive. They, along with thousands of other individuals, more than 8,874 altogether so far, have added to the database, scanning and uploading fugitive slave ads and coding their information into searchable formats. 

While the database will be invaluable to historians once it’s complete, Freedom on the Move does not claim ownership over the materials. They can be read, searched, and used by anyone who is interested. This is particularly important in the contemporary moment of racial reckoning in the United States.

By illuminating the experiences of those whose lives were bound by slavery, Block hopes the Freedom on the Move project will help to shine a light on their descendants, too. In many ways, society still conditions Americans to participate in surveilling some members of the community, Holden says. 

Though the moment is different, echoes of slavery still exist.

SHOSHI PARKS is a freelance writer and anthropologist specializing in history and travel. Her work has appeared at NPR, Smithsonian.com, Atlas Obscura, and other publications.