GUEST CURATOR: Samantha Surowiec
Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Brought to the Work House, a TALL STOUT ABLE NEGROE FELLOW … says his name is Michael.”
This advertisement for an enslaved African named Michael who attempted to escape and had been captured and “Brought to the Work House.” In other similar advertisements, as well as runaway slave advertisements, only the first names of the slaves were usually listed. Although there have been claims made that slaves did not have last names until after they were emancipated following the Civil War, research done on the naming of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves suggests that many did, in fact, have last names (“Naming Patterns in Enslaved Families”). In analyzing records of slaves beginning in the late eighteenth century, historians and other scholars found that these surnames allowed slaves to maintain family connections. Even if they were separated, which was more usual than not, slaves had a way to preserve family ties. One of the most prominent families on Jefferson’s plantation, the Hemings, can be connected to Monticello for over five generations because of their shared last name. It was also common for enslaved people to name children after themselves or relatives. Their offspring then chose to continue to preserve this attachment to their families left behind after being sold by sharing a last name or giving their own children the names of their siblings, parents, or other relatives. Enslaved people placed emphasis on family values and found ways to stay connected, no matter when they were separated.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
In a recent entry I discussed the challenges of working with remediated sources rather than the original documents. While all historians face these sorts of challenges, they offer particularly valuable lessons in problem solving to the undergraduates who serve as guest curators for the Adverts 250 Project and the Slavery Adverts 250 Project. Those students “do” history in ways that are new to them when they consult multiple versions of the same primary sources, discovering that all remediation is not equal.
Consider two images of today’s advertisement concerning Michael, “A TALL STOUT ABLE NEGROE FELLOW” who had been captured and “Brought to the Work-house” in Savannah after attempting to make his escape from his enslavers. Both images come from Readex’s America’s Historical Newspapers, a database that guest curators become very adept at navigating. The processes used to download the images, one originally as a gif file and the other originally as a pdf file (and both converted to jpg files to post here), resulted in one image easier to read than the other. The shades of grey in the gif file distinguished which text had been printed on the page and what had bled through from the other side, unlike the black and white image from the pdf file.
The interface for America’s Historical Newspapers has been designed such that it is much more efficient to download pdf files. Acquiring gif files would be much more time consuming, both for me as a scholar who works on this project every day and for undergraduates who make contributions as guest curators over shorter durations. Once students have acquired digital copies of the newspapers for their week as guest curator, we print copies that they may use however they wish, such as marking them up and clipping items. These black-and-white images printed on 8.5×11 office paper can be quite difficult to read, depending on the remediation process. Poorly preserved primary sources, poor photography, and conversion from one kind of digital file to another all contribute to making some digital surrogates less legible than the originals. Although students often find it most convenient and efficient to work with the hard copies we have generated, I encourage them to work back and forth between digital copies and hard copies when they encounter text that is not clearly legible. I do the same, often discovering that the digital copy becomes more legible as I manipulate it, sometimes zooming in and sometimes consulting the greyscale gif image.
This process underscores to students that when they examine a hard copy of a digitized image of a newspaper from the eighteenth century that they are working with a particular manifestation of that source, one that has been altered through repeated remediation over the years. Doing the work of an historian requires not only consulting primary sources but also learning and developing strategies for working with those sources effectively.
 Editor’s note: “Naming Patterns in Enslaved Families” has been widely cited online. It has also appeared in the citations for at least one scholarly monograph, Sharon Block’s Colonial Complexions: Race and Bodies in Eighteenth-Century America. At the time of publication for this entry, however, the article is not available on Monticello’s website. The link currently takes visitors to Monticello’s home page. Hopefully “Naming Patterns in Enslaved Families” will be restored soon.