September 22

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (September 19, 1771).
“It is very customary, in War Time, to procure Passes for them as Freemen.”

During the era of the American Revolution, newspapers from New England to Georgia carried advertisements offering rewards for enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away.  The first of those advertisements appeared almost as soon as colonial printers began publishing newspapers at the turn of the eighteenth century.  In the process of using the press to regain their human property, enslavers sometimes revealed details of other measures used to deny Black men and women their freedom.

Such was the case in an advertisement that Archibald Campbell of Norfolk placed in the September 19, 1771, edition of Purdie and Dixon’s Virginia Gazette.  Campbell lamented that Tom “ABSCONDED from my Service” and likely headed to Williamsburg “to lay Claim to his Freedom.”  Prior to making his escape, the enslaved man served aboard ships and “has been used to the Sea.”  Tom may have had papers that testified to his freedom, but Campbell asserted that those papers were not what they seemed.  The enslaver noted that Tom “was born in the Island of Bermuda, in my Mother in Law’s Family, and given to my Wife when a Child.”  A particular practice in Bermuda explained how Tom may have acquired freedom papers.  “Owners of Vessels” there “generally man them with their Slaves,” Campbell declared, “and it is very customary, in War Time, to procure Passes for them as Freemen, in Case they should be taken by the Enemy.”  In that case, they could not be confiscated as contraband.

In this case, that maneuver might have backfired, but Campbell worked to prevent it.  Campbell suspected that Tom, “who went to Sea from that Island when a Boy” either “had one of those Passes given to him by his then Master” or more recently “got Possession of one that belonged to some other Negro.”  Given the circumstances, any pass that Campbell produced to demonstrate his freedom was not a legitimate pass but instead a legal subterfuge.  At least that was how Campbell wanted others to treat any document that Tom displayed to “lay Claim to his Freedom” in Williamsburg. Campbell insisted that a pass that seemed to benefit a Black man should not be used for that purpose because the original intention was that it protect the interests of his enslaver instead.  When it came to achieving his freedom, Tom faced the injustice of the context in which the pass was written potentially outweighing what the actual words on the page promised.  Despite his courage and conviction, the deck was stacked against him.