Landscape and Time in Mapping the Geography of Escape: Alabama as a Case Study

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:40 PM
Regency Ballroom VI (Hyatt Regency Atlanta)
Joshua D. Rothman, University of Alabama
The goal of the Freedom on the Move project is to collect runaway slave advertisements from across the American South and enable their critical analysis by using the technologies of the digital humanities, which presents both exciting opportunities and daunting challenges for refining our understandings of the contours of freedom and resistance by enslaved people. Nowhere are those possibilities and obstacles more evident than in what might appear on its surface to be a simple task, namely the effort to map the geography of escape. Runaways ads, after all, frequently indicated from where an enslaved person ran and provided at least a suggestion of where he or she might be running to, making mapping seemingly as straightforward as plotting points on the landscape. In truth, however, those points are only the first step toward understanding the patterns created by fugitives and those who hunted them. Indeed, with each county, state, and region having its own unique contours, and with those contours themselves changing over time, the more elemental the map on which points might be plotted, the more illusory the understanding derived from them. Using advertisements gleaned from antebellum Alabama, this presentation examines both the difficulties and the absolute necessity of placing space and time in dialog on the landscape to create a map that might reveal the constantly evolving strategic responses of enslaved people to their vulnerability as both labor and capital. A state situated at a number of literal and figurative economic and geographic crossroads, and one whose antebellum population was continually altered by the slave trade and the ebbs and flows of the cotton economy, Alabama provides a perfect case study for exploring the prospects of the digital history of the enslaved.