ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Information wanted - after slavery ended in the United States, thousands of newspaper ads from former slaves began with those two words - information wanted. Mothers sought their children. Husbands sought their wives. Today, two women are leading an effort to digitize these newspaper ads and put them online for a project called "Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery."
Margaret Jerrido is an archivist at Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, and Judith Giesberg teaches history at Villanova University. Welcome to both of you.
JUDITH GIESBERG: Great to be here.
MARGARET JERRIDO: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Could one of you just read the text of one of these ads that particularly stands out to you?
JERRIDO: This is Margaret, and this is the ad that I've chosen. Information wanted of my son, Allen Jones. He left me before the war in Mississippi. He wrote me a letter in 1853 in which letter he said that he was sold to the highest bidder, a gentleman in Charleston, S.C. Nancy Jones, his mother, would like to know the whereabouts of the above named person.
SHAPIRO: In some ways, it feels like a typical lost person or item ad, and in other ways, it just feels like there is this wrenching pain coming through this newspaper speak.
GIESBERG: Absolutely, especially when you look at the dates of these articles. Sometimes these are 20, 30 years after these people live together as a family, and you're struck with sort of the hopelessness of these people finding one another.
SHAPIRO: Ms. Jerrido, tell us about how and why these ads came to be.
JERRIDO: The Christian Recorder was the - and still is - the main vehicle of information for African Methodist Episcopal people - was just a vehicle for them - for people to be looking for their loved ones. It's just a chilling way of trying to reach out.
GIESBERG: I think it's important to remember, too, that the moment that was opened up by the war, some of the first ads that we found appear in 1863 when slavery is beginning to crumble. We see the first ads start to appear in the Christian Recorder, as Margaret was just saying. And then in the years afterward, practically every black newspaper that we've identified that appeared anywhere in the country in the post-war years has a collection of these ads.
So I think it's the - it's important to sort of think about that moment in time when it looks like slavery is really falling apart and it's - right? - that that opens up the opportunity for people who've either lived their lives as fugitives or who are - right? - sort of recently freed to begin the long process of trying to find family members from whom they've been separated.
SHAPIRO: So Margaret Jerrido, you have spent time transcribing hundreds of these newspaper ads. Can you tell us about the emotional experience that must be?
JERRIDO: Well, when I first started transcribing them, I - you know, it took me a while to transcribe just one short one because just reading the content, it just - I just couldn't believe that people were doing this, you know, and had the opportunity to do this. A lot of the ads that I transcribed were siblings looking for each other. But when I found one where their mother - a mother was looking for their child, I'd have to stop and just sort of blink my eyes a little bit because it's a little emotional for me. What do you think, Judith?
GIESBERG: What I think is most extraordinary about these ads - you know, they're just a few lines, but in just those few lines, they lived together and existed as a unit. They name names and places and dates, so each one is a small, poignant family history.
SHAPIRO: You've transcribed close to a thousand of these ads. How many are there left to go?
GIESBERG: (Laughter) Oh, that's a good question.
GIESBERG: So we have up on - if we're going to be precise, we have - I believe it's 915 right now. And those - the vast majority of those came from one newspaper, The Christian Recorder. So we've just begun to look at The Chicago Defender, which doesn't start until the early 20th century - starts publishing in the early 20th century.
SHAPIRO: But in the early 20th century, people were still looking for family members that were separated during slave times?
GIESBERG: Yes, so - yes.
GIESBERG: So The Chicago Defender in the 1910s - some of the earliest issues of The Chicago Defender have these ads in them.
SHAPIRO: That is 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
JERRIDO: (Laughter) Can you imagine that - somebody still looking for their family members 50 years afterwards? Oh, my goodness.
GIESBERG: It makes you kind of rethink that idea that sort of the generation that grew up after the Civil War really wanted to distance themselves from slavery, wanted to forget about it when these ads are running in these newspapers 50 years after.
SHAPIRO: Thank you so much. It sounds like a fascinating project. I'm really glad to talk to you about it.
GIESBERG: Fantastic. Thank you.
JERRIDO: And thank you for inviting us.
SHAPIRO: Margaret Jerrido is an archivist at Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. Judith Giesberg is a historian at Villanova University. Their project digitizing these ads is called "Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery."
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