Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A mulatto man slave named AARON, who brought suit against my father, Henry Randolph, in the General Court.”
Some historians and other scholars describe eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements about enslaved people who liberated themselves the first narratives of enslavement, though they acknowledge that those advertisements were not penned by enslaved people themselves. Such advertisements document stories of resistance when read counter to the purposes of the enslavers who wrote them to encourage surveillance of Black people with the goals of identifying enslaved people who liberated themselves and returning them to bondage. Filtered through the perspectives of enslavers who shaped the narratives, these advertisements told incomplete stories. Still, these so-called runaway advertisements collectively testify to widespread resistance among enslaved people throughout the colonies.
The story of “a mulatto man slave named AARON” is among those countless incomplete narratives that almost certainly would have included different details had it been written by the enslaved man rather than his enslaver. John Randolph placed an advertisement in the January 17, 1771, edition of William Rind’s Virginia Gazette to advise the public that Aaron had “RUN away” the previous June. From Aaron’s perspective, however, he continued his quest for freedom by other means. Randolph reported that Aaron previously “brought suit against my father, Henry Randolph, in the General Court, for his freedom.” Aaron appeared before the court as Aaron Griffing. Randolph did not explain the significance of the surname. Notably, the enslaved man did not identify himself using the last name of his enslaver. Randolph stated that “the suit was determined … in my father’s favour” even though “many of [Aaron’s] colour got their freedom [from] that court,” perhaps indicating that other enslaved “mulatto” men and women successfully sued for their freedom. Even though he appeared in court as Aaron Griffing, Randolph suspected that he “may change his name” to improve his chances of remaining undetected and “endeavour to pass for a freeman.” From Aaron’s perspective, no passing was involved. He liberated himself after the court refused to do so.
Randolph’s advertisement included other information that Aaron might have described in more detail … or avoided altogether … had he told his own story. For instance, Randolph declared that Aaron has been “marked on each cheek I, R, the letters very dull.” The circumstances that led to the enslaved man bearing the initials of John Randolph (or another enslaver?) on his face may have been a significant motivation for liberating himself … or it may have been a story too painful for words. Whichever may have been the case, Randolph’s advertisement survives today as a testament to Aaron’s courage and conviction to liberate himself. It reverberates with meaning unintended by the enslaver who wrote and disseminated it a quarter millennium ago.