Runaway Slave Ads: Witnessing African American Agency
Runaway Slave Ads: Witnessing African American Agency

Students examine documents related to runaway slaves and compare their findings to a secondary source on the same subject.

Students examine documents related to runaway slaves and compare their findings to a secondary source on the same subject.


This activity is part of a world history unit in which students learn about slavery and resistance in the Americas. It pairs archival materials which document individual runaways with a secondary source on the topic. Students read and discuss chapter 9, “Profile of a Runaway” from Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger. These authors developed a profile to the typical runaway slave based on a statistical analysis of over two thousand runaway slave ads from southern states. This chapter provides students with a framework to analyze the documents they will encounter in the archives. It also serves as a model for the kind of scholarship that can come out of primary source research.

Although the majority of the students in the course are not history majors, in general students performed relatively well on the exercise. For example, many of my pharmacy students expressed how the development of their critical analysis skills had helped them in the courses required for their major.


Students should be able to:

  • Distinguish between secondary and primary sources
  • Analyze runaway slave advertisements using the secondary source “Profile of a Runaway”


Before visiting the archives, I give lectures on slave resistance in the Americas in general and in the United States specifically.

In the Franklin and Schweninger reading assignment mentioned above, students learn about a typical runaway: a young male field hand in his late teens and twenties who ran away at night, on Saturday afternoon or Sunday, or on holidays: as these were times when their absence would be noticed immediately. These young men usually ran away during the summer, winter or spring. They rarely ran away in the fall because this was harvest season and their absence would be readily noticed.


Number of Visits: 1
Duration of Visit: 50 minutes


5 minutes

10 minutes
Short lecture review

20 minutes
Small group work

10 minutes
Wrap up

This class visit begins with a review of the Franklin and Schweninger chapter, as well as a reminder about the key points of the 1799 New York State Gradual Manumission Act.

Groups of 6 – 7 students then spend twenty minutes completing task-oriented handouts at one of the following stations:

Northern Slavery Station

These students look at two New York newspapers featuring runaway slave ads. See handout here.

Southern Slavery Station

These students review clipped runaway slave advertisements from Louisiana. See handout here.

Baxter Journal Station

These students read journal entries of a Long Island man describing runaways. See handout here.

Wrap Up

Students reconvene to present the findings prompted by their handouts. They present the story of the individual runaway(s) they studied, and they explain how these examples fit (or do not fit) within the template established by Franklin and Schweninger.

End Products

Two weeks after the visit to the archives, students turn in a 3 – 5 page analysis paper analyzing how the runaways they witnessed in their document stations do or do not conform to the profile established by Franklin and Schweninger.

I use the students’ analysis papers as a measure of whether or not they met the learning objectives. Students are graded in four areas: content, organization, grammar, and style. Each category is worth 25 points; thus resulting in a score out of a total of 100 points (10% of the final course grade).

Archival Materials Used

Northern Slavery Station
The Corrector, Sag Harbor, Long Island, vol. IV, no. 6 (whole no. 150), June 4, 1825, 1975.1391; Broadside collection, box 3; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

The Long Island Star, Brooklyn, New York, January 10, 1822; Historic newspapers microfilm collection, reel 3; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Southern Slavery Station
Runaway slave advertisements in Black Code of the State of Louisiana, circa 1835; Slavery pamphlet collection, PAMP Black-1; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Baxter Journal Station
Typescript, Journal of John Baxter of Flatlands, Long Island, 1790-1826. Indexed by Edna Huntington, 1955; Main Collection F129.B7 F53 1955 c.1 v.1 and v.2; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image/click for image of original (original not used by class)

Further Reading

“An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” In Jim Crow New York, A Documentary History of Race and Citizenship 1777-1877, eds. David N. Gellman and David Quigley, 52-55. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

The New York State Archives has a zoomable version of the original document online.

Franklin, John Hope and Loren Schweninger. “Profile of a Runaway.” In Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, 209-233. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

To cite this page:
Kimberly Faith Jones, “Runaway Slave Ads: Witnessing African American Agency,”, accessed [insert date here],


Kimberly Faith Jones
Associate Professor of History
LIU Brooklyn
view author bio >

Used In

History 2: World Civilizations Since 1500

A survey course all students take to fulfill a core curriculum requirement. With colleagues in English, I taught this as part of a learning community called “Pathways to Freedom.”


This can also be used in a more specific advanced level course such as African American History.

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