After emancipation, former slaves placed thousands of ads in newspapers in search of sold-away spouses and children. These ads are just one more source that document the sale of millions of enslaved people.
Slaveowners conjured up many reasons to justify the buying and selling of people, especially when breaking up families.
One was that enslaved people did not form the same attachments to their children and spouses as whites did. Imagine that.
In her autobiography, she recalled the pain of her mother’s cries at her father’s sale:
“Stop your nonsense,” her mistress said. “there is no necessity for you putting on airs.
Your husband is not the only slave that has been sold from his family, and you are not the only one that has had to part.”
“There are plenty more men about here, and if you want a husband so badly, stop your crying and go and find another.”
That same story of bitter parting can be found in narratives repeatedly.
The slaveowner’s own runaway ads betray their rationale. Ads make frequent reference about the slave running away to their parents, children or spouses.
Slaveowners knew better. They tried so hard to view enslaved people as property, that they could not face the reality of selling people away from one another.
They concocted these stories as a way to deny the humanity of their slaves.
We know from the slaves search for their family that the slaveowner’s reasons were simply nonsense. Many ads were placed after the war, but people were still searching at the turn of the century.
Almost 40 years later, they had still not given up hope of reuniting with their family.
These kinds of ads were in African-American newspapers such as The Colored Tennessean, The Christian Recorder, and The Appeal. (Update, 10/7: A new database Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery contains these ads!)
The ads speak for themselves. For me, they elicit a deep, deep sorrow and a sense of the lingering pain and suffering that I am sure lasted a lifetime.
A 2012 book by historian Heather Williams called Help Me to Find My People: The African-American Search for Family Lost in Slavery discusses the topic.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.