Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“No one is to hire his Negro Man ABRAHAM, a Bricklayer, without his Consent.”
Advertisements about enslaved people were ubiquitous in newspapers publishing during the era of the American Revolution, as the Slavery Adverts 250 Project seeks to demonstrate. Most of those advertisements fell into one of two categories: offering enslaved men, women, and children for sale or offering rewards for the capture and return of enslaved people who liberated themselves from bondage. Less frequently, advertisements about enslaved people reported on suspected “runaways” confined to jails or workhouses until their enslavers claimed them or hiring out practices, a system for temporarily employing enslaved men and women in which the enslavers ultimately received the wages.
These advertisements, especially those concerning Black men and women confined in jails and workhouses and those describing Africans and African Americans who liberated themselves, served as mechanisms of surveillance and control. Enslavers placed such advertisements to reassert their authority and attempt to return to what they considered appropriate good order. They also encouraged all colonists, whether enslavers or not, to participate in the perpetuation of the system by scrutinizing every Black person they encountered to determine if they matched the descriptions published in the newspapers. By default, Black men and women not under the immediate supervision of enslavers were suspect.
Alternately, advertisements about disorder also testified to resistance by enslaved men and women. Runaway notices often documented acts of defiance that occurred before Black people liberated themselves. In addition to actions, they cataloged attitudes that enslavers found frustrating or insubordinate. In the process of liberating themselves, perhaps the most significant act of resistance, Black people often appropriated multiple articles of clothing in order to disguise themselves. They also sometimes took horses or weapons. Many enslavers surmised that enslaved people who liberated themselves received assistance from others, including other enslaved people, free Black men and women, and sympathetic white colonists. They warned that anyone offering aid would face prosecution.
Less frequently, some advertisements told other stories of resistance, though that was not the intention of the men and women who placed them. Consider the notice that Lionel Chalmers inserted in the February 7, 1771, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette. The enslaver asserted that “no one is to hire his Negro Man ABRAHAM, a Bricklayer, without his Consent.” Furthermore, they were not “to pay the Negro any Wages for his Work.” As was the case with many enslaved people hired out in busy urban ports, Abraham may have experienced some level of quasi-autonomy, as Douglas R. Egerton demonstrated was the case for Gabriel, the leader of a failed revolt in Richmond, Virginia, in 1800. Abraham may have been choosing his own employers, socializing with whomever he saw fit, and keeping some portion of his wages, a situation that Chalmers may have initially endorsed but eventually found untenable because it undermined his authority. Chalmers may not have even been aware of who currently employed Abraham, declaring that said person “is hereby desired to deliver him, immediately to his Master, unless he be determined to make himself liable.”
Like so many other advertisements about enslaved people, this advertisement sought to reestablish order by restoring the authority of the enslaver who placed it. Chalmers told a partial story, one that certainly deviated from how Abraham would have told it if he had the opportunity. Still, Chalmers revealed enough details to reveal that Abraham, a skilled artisan, exercised his own will by engaging in acts of resistance so bold that the enslaver had to resort to publishing an advertisement in an effort to regain his authority.