“sort of a little biography”

A couple of months ago there was an article in my local paper that described a situation in a nearby middle school. The social studies teacher had included creating a newspaper advertisement for a runaway slave as one of the independent activities available to students for extra credit. Several parents objected and the principal ordered the teacher to remove the project from the list. As a former high school teacher of social studies (not in the district referred to) I found myself conflicted. I would really appreciate comments from readers about whether you think such a project is appropriate and acceptable.

SOME CONTEXT: From a historian’s point of view it has been very difficult to find primary sources in connection with the slave population. Clothing is not likely to exist as it was usually worn out and discarded. Written accounts by enslaved workers in colonial America and later in the United States are rare. Few slaves could read or write; teaching them to do so was a crime in several states. References in plantation account books were usually limited to the sex and age of the slave, perhaps the name, date of acquisition, and the purchase or sale price. Census listings were equally limited. There are precious few details about how enslaved workers looked and dressed, what their lives were like, what skills they possessed.
Ironically ads for runaway slaves often provide answers to these questions because owners not only posted a reward for the return of the “absconded,” a word that was commonly used, but often provided a description of the runaway: color, height and stature, clothing worn and other information. Historians have been working to create archives of advertisements for runaway slaves. Joshua Rothman, a historian at the University of Alabama has said: “They [owners] wanted to provide as much detail about their appearance, their life story, how they carried themselves, what they were wearing . . . Each one of these things [ads for runaway slaves] is sort of a little biography.”

Transcription of the ad: New London, May 16, 1768. Stolen or Run-away from the subscriber, on the 14th Instant (of May), a Negro Woman named SOBINER, between 30 and 40 Years of Age, of a slender Body, and middling Stature, talks good English, and can read well; carried off with her one homespun check’d Woolen Gown, one blue and white striped Linen Ditto, two Linen Shirts, and one Woolen Ditto, three check’d Aprons, two or three pair Woolen Stockings, one quilted Coat, one Side brown, the other striped, a red short Cloak, a chipt Hatt, a Pair white Woolen Mittins, a Cambric Handkerchief, several Caps, and sundry other Articles. Whoever takes up and secures said Negro, so that her Mistress may have her again, shall receive FOUR DOLLARS Reward, if found within twenty Miles of this Place, and FIVE DOLLARS if further, and all necessary Charges paid by LUCRETIA PROCTER. N.B. All Persons are forbid entertaining or concealing said Negro under Penalty of the Law.

I chose the ad above because it was placed in a Connecticut newspaper and shows that slavery was more common in the North than we are likely to admit. And I believe that the list of particular clothing in the ad for Sobiner is due to the fact that the slave owner was a woman.

Back to the use of runaway ads in the social studies curriculum. While readers may have mixed feelings about a student-created ad as a project, I hope that there would be little objection to a teacher’s using several ads as a topic for discussion and critical evaluation in class. Students could look up the numbers of runaways, discuss motives, the risks involved, destinations, penalties for those who helped them, the likelihood of capture, etc. And they could evaluate the ads as primary sources of information: are they accurate, representative, useful, historically significant?

This SITE is the source for the quotation and provides information on this subject as does this SITE. The above ad is one of the many compiled for a PROJECT by students at Wesleyan.

posted August 27th, 2018 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Clothes, Connecticut, Lesson plans, Research, Runaway slaves

  1. Sopohmore in high school—I have a mixed opinion about the students recreating the runaway slave poster as well. The terms used for description could be seen as racist or rude and inappropriate for students. The assignment could be modified to be less offensive.

    Comment by Miranda — August 27, 2018 @ 1:40 pm

  2. I actually think this assignment would be a good experiment and can develop research and writing skills, and bring students closer to a reality of our past. Of course some ads might need to be monitored. But generally, I think this is OK.

    Comment by Elizabeth Wedge — August 29, 2018 @ 9:02 am

  3. If I were of African-American descent I would not want my teen writing an ad for a runaway slave without some significant framing and discussion of context. Tacking this on as an extra-credit project makes it a 5-point issue, not worthy of a fully-graded, thoughtful assignment.

    If, instead, the assignment were to analyze a packet of a half-dozen actual ads and write a couple of paragraphs on what they tell us about slave life, it would have more merit. Or if you had students write an ad and then reflect on how it felt to write it, and how it differed from writing an ad about a lost dog or camera, that might spur some thought and growth.

    Comment by julia — September 5, 2018 @ 5:04 am

  4. I definitely think studying the ads is important and a good piece of the curriculum; looking at primary sources is such a good way to learn about a time period, always. However, to me, asking students to cast themselves into the mindset of the oppressor and emulate the language of objectifying human beings into objects is hugely troubling and, in fact, doesn’t teach these developing brains anything useful. Even more destructive would be asking children of color to write such ads. Recast it this way in your brain: picture asking 12-year-old girls to read texts written by men which describe them as “whores and bitches” and then asking the girls to recreate such texts themselves. Is it educational to ask them to try out that language? To ask them to try writing texts describing women as “whores and bitches”? Nah.

    Comment by Jocelyn — September 5, 2018 @ 8:03 am

  5. Students in my middle school social studies classes view a runaway slave ad. It’s part of our study of colonial and American economics. The ad will often spark a lot of good class discussion. As a creative assignment, I have students write a slave bio-poem. The poem incorporates vocabulary and main ideas from the economics unit (Triangle Trade, Middle Passage, etc.) and produces a lot of creative and interesting student work. I would not have a problem assigning a runaway slave ad to high school students, but would not choose this assignment for the middle school level.

    Comment by A. Germani — September 11, 2018 @ 11:41 am

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