January 20

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

Virginia Gazette [Rind] (January 17, 1771).
“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.

March 31

GUEST CURATOR: Evan Sutherland

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

Mar 31 - 3:31:1767 South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal
South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (March 31, 1767).

“RUN-AWAY … a likely black fellow.”

Slavery was common in colonial and Revolutionary America. Slaves were first brought over in 1619 to aid in the production of crops like tobacco. Slaves were cheaper and more plentiful than indentured servants; many colonists took advantage of this. Slavery was harsh and cruel: slaves were beaten for misbehaving. This pushed many slaves to become runaways. Slave owners used newspapers to advertise their missing slaves, and offered rewards for finding them. Many of the advertisements were accurately descriptive of the runaways. Many slaves who ran away stole supplies, especially clothing and food, but sometimes even horses and boats. Today I am examining one example of a runaway slave advertisement that appeared in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. This particular advertisement said that the slave had a wife, and was “well known in town and country.” People were given rewards for returning slaves to their masters. Some slaves that were returned to their masters received harsh punishments, such as whippings and beatings.



Some scholars consider runaway advertisements the first slave narratives. Although written by masters attempting to regain their human property, runaway advertisements reveal aspects of the lives of their subjects that otherwise likely would remain hidden and forgotten through time. Still, they usually lack critical details and only provide outlines of much more complicated stories.

Today’s advertisement, for instance, sought the return of a “likely black fellow, formerly belonging to James St. John’s estate.” In naming the former master but not the enslaved man who ran away, Elizabeth Beatty deprived “the said Negro” of an important part of his identity even as she implicitly recognized the agency he exercised by absconding. Perhaps Beatty believed that she otherwise so adequately described the “likely black fellow” that according him a name was not necessary for readers to identify him. After all, he was “well known in town and country,” making it possible that local residents needed only a cursory description. If the unnamed slave had already demonstrated a propensity for running away that may have rendered additional details unnecessary for neighbors familiar with his misbehavior. If that was the case, Beatty may have placed this advertisement as an announcement for readers to be on the lookout for a repeat offender who was known for visiting “Mr. Lance’s plantation in Goose-creek.” Like so many other runaway advertisements, this one only hinted at the much more extensive narrative of the subject’s life.

That life apparently included a wife, a detail that humanized “the said Negro” despite the intention of the advertisement to treat him merely as a piece of property to be recovered. This detail revealed that enslaved men and women developed relationships and personal lives despite their captivity. They established bonds with others despite their bondage, no matter how diligently or aggressively their masters worked to regulate and surveil their lives. That the “likely black fellow … may be harboured” at Lance’s plantation suggested a conspiracy that included slaves other than just his wife, a community engaged in acts of resistance in support of the runaway’s initial act of resistance.

Elizabeth Beatty published this advertisement in hopes of having human property returned “to the Warden of the Workhouse.” An alternate reading, however, allows us to recover important elements of the experiences of enslaved people in the colonial and Revolutionary eras.