One particularly cruel aspect of slavery was when enslavers separated and sold people, splitting families and friends apart. Every enslaved person in the United States experienced this trauma. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman both said it was one of the main reasons they took their own freedom and dedicated themselves to ending slavery.
As soon as the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863, newly freed people began to search for the family and friends they had been separated from during enslavement. Many placed advertisements in local and national newspapers. They asked for any information that might help them trace the lives of loved ones. When the war ended, the number of these advertisements grew tremendously and continued to appear in newspapers well into the 1900s.
About the Resources
Mary Brown placed this ad shortly after the end of the Civil War. She was looking for information about her daughter, who had been sold away from her 18 years before. Like many reunification ads, it includes information about family bonds. These details would likely have been lost had they not been preserved in newspapers.
- Emancipation Proclamation: The executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln that freed all enslaved people in Confederate territory occupied by the Union Army.
- Why did Mary Brown place this ad? What does this tell us about the priorities of newly-freed people in the early days of Reconstruction?
- What kind of information does Mary Brown include in this ad? What does this tell us about her life before emancipation?
- Why are reunification ads a valuable source for historians? What are their limitations?
- Include this advertisement in any lesson about the lives and experiences of Black Americans in the Reconstruction era.
- To help students better understand the cruel practice of separating and selling family members, invite them to read the life stories of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.
- To personalize the story of Black men and women seeking to reunite their families and build lives in the Reconstruction era, read the life story of Matilda Hughes.
- Enslavers placed advertisements in newspapers to sell enslaved people or find enslaved people who had taken their own freedom. When slavery was abolished, freed people used the same method to find information about long lost loved ones. Ask students to consider why formerly enslaved people turned to newspapers, which had been used as a tool of their oppression for so long. Compare and contrast this advertisements with a runaway ad to learn how enslavers and formerly enslaved people differed in their descriptions of Black Americans.
- For more lesson ideas about reunification ads, visit Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery.
DOMESTICITY AND FAMILY; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP
New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections
- For information about reunification ads and the formation of Black communities in the Reconstruction era, see Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow.