What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Negro Boy … can work in the Iron Works, both at Blooming and at Refining.”
Advertisements concerning several enslaved men and women ran in the Essex Gazette and the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal on May 8, 1770. A notice in the latter offered for sale a “NEGRO FELLOW who is a good Sawyer and Caulker.” On the same page, another advertisement sought to sell an enslaved woman who “is a very good Sempstress.” In the Essex Gazette, published in Salem, Massachusetts, an advertisement for a “Negro Boy, 20 Years old,” indicated that the young man “can work in the Iron Works, both at Blooming and at Refining.” These enslaved people each possessed specialized skills beyond agricultural labor and domestic service. Advertisements that described enslaved men and women published in newspapers from New England to Georgia testified to the range of skills they acquired and the many contributions they made to commercial life and economic development in the colonies.
Although historians of early America have long known this, misconceptions of enslaved men and women working solely in the fields and in plantation houses have deep roots in the popular imagination … and in the education many students receive before enrolling in college-level history courses. Such misconceptions have proven stubbornly difficult to dislodge. When I invite students to work as guest curators for the Slavery Adverts 250 Project in my various courses, they most frequently express surprise at two aspects of slavery in early America: that it was a common practice throughout the colonies rather than confined to southern colonies and that enslaved people had far more occupations than agricultural labor. Yet the misconceptions are so ingrained that even after being introduced to evidence to the contrary, some students continue to resort to those misconceptions as their default understanding of the experiences of enslaved people. Correcting this is an iterative process. Students have to be exposed to this information multiple times. Sometimes I have to ask them if they would like to reformulate statements they make in class or in written work in order to take into account the evidence they have examined in advertisements and other primary sources, gently nudging them to embrace what they have learned and disregard their prior misconceptions. Working as guest curators on the Slavery Adverts 250 Project facilitates the process of reimagining early America and learning about the many and varied experiences of enslaved people rather than relying on misconceptions that circulate in popular culture. As guest curators, students encounter advertisement after advertisement describing enslaved people as artisans or otherwise highlighting their specialized skills. That evidence is much harder to overlook than if I presented them with a couple of representative advertisements. Similarly, scrolling through the Slavery Adverts 250 Project feed and seeing advertisement after advertisement is intended to have the same effect for both students and the general public. Advertisement after advertisement in that feed mentions the skills possessed by enslaved men and women, making it difficult to maintain assumptions to the contrary.