Announcing the Launch of Freedom on the Move

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An ad placed in the Charleston Mercury, Charleston, SC, on July 11, 1829. Accessed via: Freedom on the Move 

Thousands of enslaved African Americans emancipated themselves by taking flight and escaping their enslavers. One way that this form of resistance to slavery can be studied is through the advertisements that enslavers and jailers placed in newspapers in hopes of turning those who had run away back into “property.” The ads allow us a glimpse of both enslavers’ desires and the defiance of the enslaved. In them, it is possible to read pain and suffering in the record of scars and maimed bodies. The ads hold both the grief of separation from kin left behind and the relief of family mentioned at possible destinations. Historians have long used advertisements for fugitives from slavery to study the institution of slavery and the lives of enslaved people. But it can be difficult for the public to access them because the ads exist in multiple formats across multiple archives.

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“The Runaway” Anti-slavery record. New York: Published by R.G. Williams, for the American Anti-Slavery Society, 1835-1837. Accessed via The Fels African Americana Image Project at Library Company of Philadelphia

Freedom on the Move (FOTM), an online project devoted to fugitives from slavery in North America, launches today, February 14, 2019. FOTM asks the public to help in creating a database that makes the stories and lives of fugitives from slavery in North America accessible. The website is designed for use by scholars, researchers, educators, students, genealogist, and the public. After quickly setting up an account, users can begin transcribing digitized versions of advertisements and recording important information included in each ad. Participants can even choose to work on ads from specific time periods or geographic locations. Users can also search for and browse through digitized ads.

Currently, FOTM has about 12,000 newspaper advertisements ready for crowdsourced transcription. The project will include additional ads soon and its organizers hope for future collaborations with additional scholars, archives, and organizations.  FOTM promises to be an invaluable resource in the classroom and for researchers. But beyond the academic applications of the project, organizers hope that the site will facilitate greater access to members of the public outside of the academy. By transcribing and working with the advertisements, participants can both contribute to a growing database of searchable ads and engage with the rich history that each ad presents.

FOTM is a joint project between Cornell University’s Department of History and the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER). Ed Baptist of Cornell University and William Block (Director of CISER) serve as the principal investigators for FOTM. Lead historians on the project include Vanessa Holden of the University of Kentucky, Hasan Jeffries of Ohio State University, Mary Niall Mitchell of the University of New Orleans, and Joshua Rothman of the University of Alabama. The project has received major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Archives.

To learn more about the project or to begin contributing to FOTM’s crowdsourcing, visit freedomonthemove.org

Inspiration Roundtable: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Respect the Historiography

This is the second post in a roundtable about research inspirations. You can read the first essay, a guest post by Whitney Barlow Robles, here.

My dissertation on food and war, which became my first book project on war and hunger, originated at a crossroads between panic and personal interests. I was a sophomore, taking a class on the American Revolution, and the professor was walking us through the process of writing a final paper by requiring a paragraph-long research proposal, followed later in the semester by an annotated bibliography. We were at the point in the semester where research proposals were nearly due, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about. I remember discussing my growing sense of panic at swim practice with a friend, and vacillating between this sense of anxiety, and pleasant anticipation of dinnertime. I swam for the team friendships, and the fact that even bad dining hall food tasted good after a hard workout. As I speculated about our dinner choices, my friend interrupted me, observed that I was obsessed with food, and suggested that I write about it for my history paper. Continue reading

Inspiration Roundtable: Guest Post by Whitney Barlow Robles, “Naturalist in Historian’s Clothing”

This week at the Junto we are stepping back to talk about what inspired our research projects. From dissertations to first and second book projects, we will bring together a range of scholars to discuss the method, source, book, or lecture that got them started. Today, we have a guest post from Whitney Barlow Robles. Whitney is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard, and her work spans early American history, history of science, and material culture studies. Her most recent publications include an essay about a 1755 earthquake that shook Boston, published in The New England Quarterly, and a chapter about flattened scientific specimens in the book The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Her research has recently been supported by the American Historical Association, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Smithsonian Institution.

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I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or rather, a nature writer dressed as a historian. My dissertation reexamines the history of natural history in eighteenth-century America and the British Atlantic world by putting animals and natural specimens at the narrative center. It asks: What might historical documents, written or dried or submerged in alcohol, tell us about the actions of historical creatures? Why did animals remain, at some level, inscrutable? How did they escape the net, crash the experiment, shapeshift, fly away, or even help naturalists preserve specimens? And what might their role in early modern science tell us about the larger social and political projects powered by natural history? Liable to change over time, animals influenced the human world through their behavior, biology, physical traits, and, in the case of beasts like raccoons, perhaps even their own desires. Without understanding how animals circumscribed the project that sought to study them and thus set the terms for what humans could learn about nature, our view remains obscured. We can look through the microscope, but only with a cloudy lens. Continue reading