“Runaway Slave” notices: a closer look

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It doesn’t take much digging into American history to run across slavery, racism, oppression, cruelty, and terror. It’s everywhere. It’s in the first U.S. census in 1790. Enslaved people being property, the cruelty of dividing families just like livestock or household items is ubiquitous in hundreds of thousands of probate records. Hunting for ancestors in old cemeteries? There’s a white section and a slave section or Black section. Separate and unequal in death as in life. Look to the law? Slave and Black codes are everywhere, the North, too. And, of course, racism and discrimination are enshrined in the law books.

Just a few minutes of browsing old newspapers reveals racist attitudes, imagined “Negro dialect,” alleged humor in stereotypical cartoons and jokes, and biased reporting (and not all that long ago either). Black people are almost always identified by their race in crime reports, obituaries, and news stories. Most of the time, race has nothing to do with the actual story itself, but everything to do with how its reported and how the alleged perpetrator is punished.

And then there are “runaway slave” notices. They’re everywhere, too. Let’s look a little deeper at one of these. This one is from the Randolph Record, from Randolph County, Illinois, dated 11 March 1846.

•The “clip art” depiction at the left top was common. In a page of print (often small in earlier newspapers), that graphic alerted the reader that the story or ad was about a runaway slave. Not only was this interesting news, but an opportunity to perhaps garner a reward.

•Even though Frank had a last name — one he was given or gave himself — it was never used by white people. And Frank knew well not to share his surname with his captors or with the Sheriff. Using only a given name (given by people not your parents) was another way to try to dehumanize an enslaved person. He or she had only a first name to white people.

•Frank is a “Negro Boy,” even though he would be of legal age in white society (21 or 22). You could be 100 years old and you were still a “boy.”

•Frank’s age is uncertain. A slave’s exact date of birth was of no interest or benefit to Frank’s former “owner.” Irrelevant. Another way to demean and dehumanize: Your birth has no significance. Nothing to celebrate.

•But the most disturbing part of this ad (and many, many like it) is its physical description: Frank was “considerably scarred with the whip.” Imagine how many whippings Frank had to have had to be “considerably scarred” by the age of 21 or 22. He would have been whipped as a youngster, repeatedly, over time. Reading runaway slave notices is an education in cruelty. So many describe scars, missing digits, branding, a missing ear, damaged limbs, and the results of other punishments meted out by slave owners. Or rough abuse in mines, factories, construction projects, logging, farming, and on and on. Often, both: scars and wounds from punishment and inhumane work.

•And the law — the sheriff — had to be complicit in returning the enslaved person to his former “owner.” Imagine Frank waiting in a jail cell for the person who “considerably scarred [him] with the whip” to come and get him. Frank knew he was in for, at a minimum, another whipping and perhaps much worse, maybe branding or amputation.

•The notice or ad leaves open the possibility that Frank might be a free man: “The owner, if any, of said Negro, will come forward….” But that is boilerplate copy. Frank’s scarred body tells us that he was enslaved.

•And then there’s geography and so-called “free states.” Frank himself says he is from Evansville, Indiana, a free state, and the ads are being run in free state Illinois. Illinois’ laws were notorious at the time for allowing slavery to exist in a supposedly free state. Loopholes plus the proverbial wink and a nod.

•But is there anything positive amidst all the cruel terror manifested in this ad? Yes! There is something that ennobles all “runaway slave” notices: the act of escape itself. Far from being passive and having no agency, enslaved persons ran away every chance they could. Against strong odds. Geography, time, the law, weather, and a complicit citizenry were stacked against them. But still they did whatever they could to be free. That’s the real message of these notices. They are profiles in courage. Frank must have been incredibly brave. I hope he made it his next try.

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