Research Projects - [ The Fugitive Slave Project ]
Everyone associated with slaveholding in North America understood that there were no natural-born slaves. African captives resisted their enslavement from the start-some jumped from aboard ship to certain death in the Atlantic Ocean. Many others ran to unknown mountains as soon as they reached dry land. Once English colonists organized the United States, there emerged free states and slave states. Enslaved Africans ran away by the thousands to free states, including Ohio and Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York, and into Canada. An unknown number of black men, women, and children escaped for the hope of freedom.
The Constitutional Convention condemned escaping Africans as criminals. Article 4 Section 2 of the Constitution required free states to return all runaways to the person claiming them. Congress enacted that constitutional requirement in 1793 when it passed the Fugitives from Justice and Labor Act, providing for the return of African Americans who escaped to freedom. But this law was ineffective. Enslaved African Americans defied the law, and escaped in greater numbers in the nineteenth century. Therefore, Congress enacted its most stringent law - The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 which enrolled federal marshals and created the office of the commissioner, whereby federal officers heard claims for the capture and return of escaping African Americans.
Who were these African Americans seeking refugee in Northern states and Canada? Approximately how many people fled from slavery? The Fugitive Slave Project was established to answer these questions. Our mission is to assemble the world's most complete set of records on African Americans who ran away from slavery, and tell their stories in biographies and narratives. Of course, we acknowledge that we will never determine definitively the exact number of African Americans who successfully escaped from slavery. The available data will not support such a quantitative analysis. But it is possible to recover the identity of many of these individuals who are now buried in newspapers throughout the country, in abolitionist tracts in archives and libraries, and in the diaries and other papers of slave owners.
Scholars and researchers are invited to assist with this project by sending us any relevant records. We would welcome copies of newspaper ads, the location of abolitionist tracts and manuscript collections, the titles of articles and books, and other relevant resources. We are also seeking research associates who are interested in working on this project.
"Your proposed subject of collecting runaway slave advertisements is an excellent one and I encourage you to begin the process!" Loren Schweninger, author of (with John Hope Franklin) Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.)
"This is an important project. The fugitive slave is, in many ways, the epitome of what it means to be an American-the rugged individual shaking off the burdens of the past and striving for freedom. Until we have recovered the story of these people who refused to remain in slavery, we cannot understand how the first few generations of Americans understood liberty." H. Robert Baker, author of The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006.)