Freedom on the Move: A Database of Fugitives from North American Slavery

Saturday, January 3, 2015: 10:30 AM
Gramercy Suite B (New York Hilton)
Edward Baptist, Cornell University
Throughout the history of North American slavery, enslavers posted “runaway ads” in newspapers in an effort to try to locate fugitives. Such ads provide significant information about the economic, demographic, social, and cultural histories of enslaved individuals and slavery in general, but they are only now being comprehensively collected. I am leading a project that is creating a database that will compile the approximately 100,000 extant North American runaway ads and make them available for multiple forms of analysis. Some data collection will be crowdsourced, engendering public co-participation in the recording of history. This project opens many new opportunities: enabling rich “big-data” analysis of slavery; providing a model for similar projects; and enhancing interactions between social science disciplines and digital humanities on the one side, and the public on the other. This paper will briefly discuss three of those dimensions. The first is that of rewriting the history of fugitives from slavery with full data. The second dimension encompasses the technical challenges of creating the database and the website, thus helping scholars to think about both the possibilities and the potential pitfalls created by the increased access to data promised by full-text digitized content from the pre-digital era. And the third dimension is that of considering the way that “digital humanities” scholarship at the frontier of social-science data analysis and more traditionally humanistic questions can generate fruitful exchanges between scholarly and public worlds that too often talk past each other.
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