“Freedom on the Move”

I know I haven’t had the chance to really dive into my classwork in a blog post for awhile, so I thought I’d take the chance this week to talk about the fascinating project I’ve been working on for my Junior Year Writing course. The course is primarily focused on Black women’s political activism during the nineteenth century, so we’re exploring the antebellum period through the early 1900s in terms of local and national political engagement. We’re also thinking about some of the main questions historians consider when theorizing, writing, or researching Black women and politics. The “Freedom on the Project” allows us to investigate the information written between the lines of the advertisements: what were these women’s experiences? What were their fears? What did self-liberation entail?

While we started out the semester sitting and discussing works about the politics of race and freedom, these past two weeks have been devoted to something a little different. Instead, we’ve been working with a crowdsourced project by Cornell University called “Freedom on the Move.” Essentially, it’s a database of runaway slave advertisements in the United States. 

As someone who has viewed a lot of crowdsourced projects, I find the “Freedom on the Move” project to be a quality database with a lot of potential. Its features are fairly limited at the moment, but the ability to view and compare North American fugitives through statistical, geographical, and textual analysis will be a great contribution to researchers’ understanding of enslaved people in United States history. However, while these advertisements showcase a great deal about the history of slavery on an individual level, the database’s faults make it difficult for one clear narrative to emerge regarding the experiences of enslaved and self-liberated individuals.

The largest concern with the database is that is currently unable to recognize repetitive advertisements. Sometimes, subscribers would post the same ad over the course of several days or months in hopes of finding information about an individual. The system, however, recognizes each ad as a unique entry. While the tagging system could solve this issue by linking specific tags to similar advertisements, crowdsourcing makes it difficult to ensure the application of uniform tags onto each advertisement.

More relevant to my concerns as a researcher, the data parser struggles between giving voice to enslaved peoples’ lives and enslavers’ desires. Crowdsourcing is good for quickly gathering data and taking down key information – all the statistical data, that is – but when reading between the lines, lots of questions emerge. It’s unclear what sort of “rich semantic data” the programmers are looking for – the major categories of “Newspaper,” “Enslaver,” “Runaway,” “Event,” and “Children” seem geared towards a specific type of advertisement that emphasizes context. The data parser asks multiple questions about enslaved people escaping mid-transition, though such a case never came up in my research. There’s also a strange emphasis on self-liberated people traveling together, as the data parser wants to know who they were traveling with and how many children the person had. Sometimes, it seems like the database is looking for unnecessary information.

But despite its faults, I really enjoyed working with this database. I particularly found the “Committed” advertisements to be the most interesting, as they generated the least amount of information for the database. The data parser is biased towards enslavers looking for self-liberated people, and so the questions typically revolve around physical descriptions and locations. However, the “Committed” advertisements like those of Sheriff J. Bates Jr. in the Mobile Register present extremely limited descriptions of the people in the Mobile County Jail. These ads give little insight into what a person looks like, what their motive for liberation may have been, even where they come from at times. These ads are entirely distrustful of an enslaved person’s perspective, evident through the subtle use of words such as “calls himself” or “says.” But it also generated a lot of questions for me about the process of slavery – how would a slaveholder “prove property?” What sort of information would a sheriff demand of a person in their custody? As a class, we were trying to use the database to find advertisements by slaveholders and subscribers – transcriptions that identify a person, and not property. But “Committed” advertisements write Black people strictly into narratives of property, making the historical process more complex as we attempt to uncover and emphasize Black voices.

Ultimately, the data collected through Cornell University’s “Freedom on the Move” project gives researchers greater access to valuable materials. It also encourages users to consider these advertisements in a broader context, helping to draw out narratives not necessarily obvious in the data presented. These newspapers tell us a more complete story of how slavery, self-liberation, and the individuals moving in and out of the system chose to embody freedom in a physical way.

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