Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD … A healthy likely Negroe Wench.”
The pages of colonial newspapers regularly featured black women, including the unnamed “healthy likely Negroe Wench” that John Lyon advertised for sale in the February 13, 1768, edition of the Providence Gazette. These women appeared either as commodities to be bought and sold or as fugitives who seized their own freedom in an era that white colonists debated the meaning of liberty within the British Empire.
As a result of their bondage and the complicit role the eighteenth-century press played in maintaining systems of unfree labor, black women were more likely to appear in the public prints among “the freshest Advices, both Foreign and Domestic” than white women. News items sometimes mentioned notable women. Female shopkeepers occasionally placed advertisements, but not in proportion to their numbers in the marketplace. Widows affixed their names as executrixes and administrators to legal notices when they settled the estates of their deceased husbands. English, Irish, and other women of European origins were often the subject of advertisements for runaway indentured servants, especially in newspapers published in New York and Pennsylvania, but throughout the colonies black women – both Africans and African Americans – achieved an unsettling prominence among the paid notices inserted in newspapers. Barely a day passed in the 1760s that at least one newspaper did not feature at least one advertisement about one or more enslaved women and girls.
Those advertisements help to reconstruct the history of black women in early America, even though the advertisements provide only truncated stories. Consider the “Negroe Wench” from today’s advertisement. Even though she could “do all Kinds of House-Work” well enough that her master found “no Fault” with her efforts, Lyon decided to sell her “on Account of her breeding fast.” In other words, the unnamed woman had too many children too quickly. Yet the advertisement does not reveal anything about the woman’s relationships with others in the household or the community. Who was the father of her children? A fellow slave or a free black man? A member of the Lyon household? John Lyon himself? This advertisement quite likely chronicled a sexual relationship that was not consensual, even though the wording places the blame on the unnamed woman for “breeding fast.” What of the “two male Children” also offered for sale? Were these children the unwanted result of the woman “breeding fast”? If so, did Lyon sell them with their mother or separate the family? The advertisement hints at the experiences of an unnamed enslaved woman yet reveals precious few details. In broad strokes, it paints a picture of the experiences of countless enslaved women in early America.