Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Negro Woman that can do Household Work, to let out by the Year.”
In the era of the American Revolution, enslavement of Africans and African Americans was not confined to the southern colonies. As newspaper advertisements and other sources from the period demonstrate, enslaved men, women, and children lived and labored throughout the colonies that eventually became the United States, from New England to Georgia. Consider this advertisement seeking “a Negro Woman that can do Household Work” that ran in the August 17, 1769, edition of Richard Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette. It testifies to the presence of enslaved people in Boston and its environs. It also reveals that the market for enslaved labor was more complex than buying and selling. The advertiser sought a domestic servant “let out by the Year.” In other words, the family did not wish to purchase and permanently acquire an enslaved woman; instead, they wished to rent her services for a year, a practice known as hiring out. Not only were enslaved people deemed commodities by colonists, their labor was also a commodity to be traded in the marketplace.
The conscribed freedom of “a Negro Woman [who] can do Household Work ” stood in stark contrast to the other contents of the newspaper, at least to anyone who cared to take notice. The front page carried news about the ongoing nonimportation agreement, an act of economic resistance to Parliament imposing taxes on paper, glass, lead, tea, and paint in the Townshend Acts. Henry Bass’s advertisement for “American Grindstones … esteemed vastly superior to those from Great-Britain” ran once again. A news article noted that the Sons of Liberty had celebrated their anniversary, gathering first at the “Liberty-Tree” to drink fourteen toasts and then adjourning to “Mr. Robinson’s at the Sign of Liberty-Tree in Dorchester.” By 1769, the Liberty Tree had become a familiar symbol in Boston. The bulk of the news concerned participation in the nonimportation agreement that “some Persons who had heretofore refused to join in the Agreement for Non-Importation appeared and signed the same.” Another indicated that the “Committee of Inspection” would soon make a report about those violated the agreement. Yet another outlined the political stakes of the boycott, noting that those who selfishly did not abide by it exhibited “a total Disregard to the Liberty and Welfare of their County.”
The concept of liberty appeared repeatedly in Draper’s Massachusetts Gazette in August 1769, in juxtaposition with an advertisement seeking “a Negro Woman that can do Household Work.” Colonists encountered symbols of liberty as they traversed the streets of Boston, just as they encountered enslaved men, women, and children denied their own liberty. Yet so few acknowledged the contradiction in 1769. Enslaved people, however, were all too aware of it. Any “Negro Woman [who] can do Household Work” likely had her own ideas about the meaning of liberty, informed by her own experiences, her treatment in the marketplace, and the discourse swirling around her in the era of the imperial crisis that led to the American Revolution.