In creating the Runaway New England site, we have multiple goals in mind. Our primary mission is to create an extensive database of runaway slave advertisements from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. While we can’t cover every advertisement ever published, it is our intention to have a database that is representative of the larger pool of runaway ads. It is our hope that this site will be a database that acts as a convenient resource for students in college and grade school courses and academic researchers, as well as those outside of school with an interest in history.
Runaway New England is not the first site to collect runaway slave advertisements from various areas of the United States, however we are the first site to focus on New England specifically as a region. We have some similarities to other databases in the basic search parameters we offer and in our overall layout, but we also have some important differences. While some sites aim to compile a comprehensive list of all runaway advertisements from a particular region or time period, our mission is to provide more depth and emphasize that the reader should focus on the “close reading” of the advertisements themselves. While a larger database may allow for quicker distant reading and the analysis of broad trends, a site with our level of geographical specificity is meant to emphasize microhistory. Our philosophy is to focus on quality instead of quantity when reading these advertisements and to provide features to make it as convenient as possible for readers to dig deeper into the lives of the slaves these ads discuss. To this end, what we provide can loosely be thought of as microbiographies, giving basic profiles of historic individuals: names, dates, and what was publicly known about them. We hope that our users will extend this basic information with their own curiosities, expertises, and critical groundings.
The journey to publishing this project began with reading some of the fundamental scholars of the archive of slavery and black digital humanities, and bringing their critical questions to bear on the development of Runaway New England. Stephanie Smallwood’s scholarship positions enslaved people “not as the archive’s object but rather as its historical subject.” Our database functions as an archive of fugitive escapes, and we hope that visitors use this archive to center runaways as historical subjects in their writing and curriculum. We also read the work of Marisa J. Fuentes, who inspires us to pay close attention to what the spatial circumstance of runaways can tell us about their experience, and the importance of considering the gendered experience of enslavement and escape.
Our class would not have been able to consider the ethics of creating this database without the groundbreaking scholarship of Saidiya Hartman. In “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman questions if narrating enslaved stories is a selfish project, one that uses the same violent language and circumstances of slavery to serve our own need for historical understanding. Is this database, as Hartman might ask, “for us or for them?” Our class carefully considers these questions in representing the archive of runaways, and hopes that our emphasis on specificity and close-reading individual ads provides “care,” which Hartman suggests may be “the antidote for violence.”
By close-reading individual narratives, we hope to align ourselves with the work of the black digital humanities. Kim Gallon writes about the need for the digital humanities to return to the very definition of the human, “to first consider how the very foundation of the humanities are racialized through the privileging of Western cultural traditions.” By grounding our project in the scholarship of Black Studies, we hope that our database can harness digital tools and innovations towards a new future, where projects like these are the norm and not the exception.