GUEST CURATOR: Shannon Dewar
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD, A likely, healthy, Negro Boy”
Slave Sales in the North! I would like to highlight the location of this advertisement regarding a slave for sale: Providence, Rhode Island, a port city in one of the northernmost of the thirteen American colonies. When I initially saw that a Providence newspaper was advertising slavery, I felt very confused; my initial assumption was that slavery really did not exist all that much in the north, much less was advertised in newspapers. Upon further research, I discovered that slavery was very pivotal in colonial Rhode Island. By the mid 1700s, the time this advertisement was published, Rhode Island had the largest percentage of blacks in its population compared to other northern colonies.
Business was one of the reasons why there was a spike in slavery in Rhode Island. Local merchants participated in the flourishing transatlantic slave trade and benefited from trade with the West Indies, the source of rum and other goods. However, in the years after this advertisement Rhode Island saw a push for emancipation of slavery. Christy Mikel Clark-Pujara writes, “The state emancipated Revolutionary War soldiers in 1778, and the gradual emancipation law freed children born to slave mothers after 1784.” Despite the business some hoped to continue, Rhode Island passed gradual emancipation laws in the spirit of the Revolution.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Shannon expressed her surprise at learning that slaves lived and worked in northern colonies, that they were bought and sold and advertised in newspapers. She certainly was not my first student to experience such surprise. For my part, I was not surprised to find out about her surprise. Instead, I expected it because I am well aware of one of the most common misconceptions concerning slavery in early America. Most Americans tend to write history backwards when it comes to slavery. They know that slavery was a “peculiar institution” in the South in the decades before the Civil War. That leads them to erroneously assume that slavery was never practiced in northern colonies and states. Historians, however, with their attention to change over time, challenge that misconception.
When I originally designed the Slavery Adverts 250 Project as a companion to the Adverts 250 Project, I intended it to be a collaborative project undertaken with students in my classes. Rather than simply tell them about slavery in New England and the Middle Atlantic, I wanted them to discover its presence on their own as they engaged with primary sources. Rather than hearing an abstract presentation about the ubiquity of slavery throughout the colonies, I wanted them to see advertisements for slaves, such as today’s advertisement for “A Likely, healthy Negro Boy,” printed along side news and advertisements for various other sorts of commerce. I hoped that participating in the research process would cement their understanding of the scope of slavery in colonial and Revolutionary America.
Shannon and others have reported that was indeed the case. Consider the advertisement Shannon selected to examine today in the context of all the advertisements concerning slavery placed in American newspapers during the week of April 9-15, 1767. Two appeared in the Providence Gazette. Another two were printed in the New-Hampshire Gazette. A total of five were distributed among three newspapers printed in Boston. Another fifteen were inserted in newspapers in the Middle Colonies. Overall, twenty-one out of sixty-one advertisements concerning slaves printed during that week appeared in newspapers in northern colonies. Even though the total population of slaves in those colonies was small compared to the Chesapeake and Lower South, the advertisements provide striking evidence of their presence. Whether on a plantation or in an urban port, bondage was still bondage for the “Likely, healthy Negro Boy” in today’s advertisement.
 Christy Mikel Clark-Pujara, “Slavery, Emancipation and Black Freedom in Rhode Island, 1652-1842” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2009), 4.