Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“RUN away … a Negro Fellow named WILL.”
“RUN away … the six following NEGROES, viz. Cudjoe, Jemmy, Long Jemmy, Rynah, Venus, and her daughter Dye.”
“RUN away … SARAH … carried a negro boy with her named HECTOR.”
“RUN away … a NEGRO MAN named Hector.”
Colonial newspapers regularly carried accounts of Black resistance to enslavement in the form of “runaway” advertisements, documenting the courage and fortitude of enslaved men, women, and children who liberated themselves. Enslavers certainly did not place those advertisements to celebrate the perseverance of enslaved people who seized their liberty. Instead, enslavers appealed to readers to engage in surveillance of Black people to determine if they encountered anyone matching the descriptions in the advertisements. They offered rewards for the capture and return of each fugitive seeking freedom. In the process, those enslavers and the printers who aided them created an extensive archive of stories of Black resistance before, during, and after the American Revolution. Such advertisements appeared almost as soon as the Boston News-Letter commenced publication in 1704 and continued to appear in American newspapers for more than 150 years as countless Black people liberated themselves from those who attempted to hold them in bondage.
Some of those stories appeared in the June 17, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina and American Gazette. Eight advertisements reported on sixteen Black people who “ABSENTED” themselves from those who purported to be their masters. Some departed for freedom on their own, but others went in the company of a companion or small group. Will, for instance, made his escape from James Witter on his own, though friends who remained behind may have provided assistance. James Sinkler certainly suspected that Hector received aid from others, reporting he was likely “harboured at Mr. Boone’s plantation in Christ Church parish, where his father and mother reside.” Sarah, a “very artful and sensible” woman who was “well known in town and country,” took Hector, a thirteen-year-old boy, with her. Their enslaver, Stephen Miller, stated that Hector “had then irons on,” creating an even greater challenge for Sarah and the boy. Cudjoe, “an elderly fellow,” led five others to freedom. When he departed from Peter Sinkler and James Sinkler’s plantation, Jemmy, Long Jemmy, Rynah, and Venus went with him, as did Venus’s twelve-year-old daughter, Dye. The Sinklers could not conceive of the others taking this action on their own, claiming that the “very artful” Cudjoe “enticed the others away.” Even if Cudjoe provided the initial inspiration, the others desired freedom so much that they joined their elder in seizing it for themselves.
Today the nation commemorates Juneteenth, the first time doing so as a federal holiday. This new designation should encourage contemplation of the long road to liberation and the work that remains to be done to create the fair and just society envisioned in the ideals expressed at the time of the founding but unevenly applied and incompletely enacted. That contemplation should include a more complete accounting of American history, including the stories of courageous Black men, women, and children who liberated themselves or assisted others in achieving freedom. Cudjoe, Sarah, Hector, and so many others made history, their stories strands of a much larger tapestry of American history.