February 2020

Children Are Our Past

The stories of enslaved children not only deserve to be told, but also contribute new interpretations of the past, furthering studies of community, family, and resistance.

by Megan Jeffreys

Children are our future. Over the past few decades, this phrase became increasingly popular. Used in political, commercial, and activist campaigns, this slogan articulates the truth that children inherit the world we leave behind.[1] It is a call to action: an invitation to think and rethink what we fight for, how we vote, and the ways in which we conduct our daily lives. While children are undoubtedly our future, we often forget that children are also a part of our past. In the majority of historical scholarship, children fail to grace the pages of relevant discussions. When they do appear in history, children typically surface as passive characters ill-equipped to take control of their own lives and become active agents in their histories.[2] This could not be farther from the truth. Not only were children present at crucial moments in history, but they were also active participants in forming, conquering, and resisting the world that developed around them.

In particular, the American narrative tends to leave out children of marginalized groups. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, millions of people were captured, enslaved, and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean. According to the most recent estimates in the Slave Voyages database, just over 250,000 enslaved individuals arrived from Africa in what is now the United States between 1600 and 1875.[3] In 1865, when the American Civil War concluded, the Thirteenth Amendment ended legal slavery, “freeing” close to four million people.[4] So how did the enslaved population grow from 250,000 to just under four million? The answer, of course, is natural increase, or reproduction. From the early seventeenth century until the end of legal slavery in 1865, more than four million children were born into American slavery and they were anything but passive. Children formed a critical piece of the slave community, challenging family stereotypes, ideas of childhood, and the role of children in terms of labor and society. Yet, their impact on our history extends beyond basic concepts of family and community. Current scholars of history seek to understand the role of self-liberation and fugitivity as a form of resistance wherein enslaved individuals take their lives and futures into their own hands.[5] Children are not only a part of this discussion, but they are critical to its progression.

The absence of children from the historical narrative in and of itself is cause for discussion among historical scholars. Nevertheless, it is equally important not to lose sight of their individual contributions and how their stories change and challenge perceptions of the past. With few sources left behind by enslaved children, their stories require creative approaches that navigate documentation of their lives written by people who interacted with them in various ways. One such way to see their stories is to look at runaway slave advertisements. By looking at advertisements placed by slave owners in local, regional, and statewide newspapers, scholars can understand the circumstances, frequency, and motivations behind acts of self-liberation by enslaved individuals, including children.

To understand children and self-liberation, one must comprehend the nature of the sources used to composite their history. These advertisements, published in the hopes of recovering escaped individuals, frequented the pages of almost every newspaper published in every slave-holding state. Thousands of advertisements articulated information about individuals and groups who attempted to escape enslavement. Nevertheless, it is critical to remember that the sole purpose of these advertisements was to provide information necessary to the capture and re-enslavement of these individuals. Despite their inherent bias, these advertisements contain information that can help to reconstruct the lives of the enslaved and, in particular, the lives and experiences of enslaved children. Using information intended to assist in the recapture of runaways, scholars can shed light on the lives of enslaved children by seeing who they attempted to escape with, how they were described, and potential destinations that eclipsed the fear of recapture.

“Fifteen Dollars Reward. Ran away from the subscriber, in the month of July, 1802, about the 28th or 30th day, a yellow girl about 12 years of age, by the name of AILCEY, which I bought of James Wilson and Robert I. Taylor, of this place. She is a girl of a bold countenance, tolerable straight hair, quite a large mouth, and a small flesh mold on one side or the other of her face, just by her nose; no other marks that I recollect. It is more than probable that she is now lurking in the neighborhood of Alexandria, as her mother lives with Major Wm. Reily of that place. The above reward will be paid for apprehending and securing the said girl so that I get her again. Jesse Thompson. July 28.” Jesse Thompson, Alexandria Advertiser and Commercial Intelligencer, 28 July 1803.

Runaway Slave Advertisement from the Alexandria Advertiser and Commercial Intelligencer, 28 July 1803.

On the 28th of July, in 1803, Jesse Thompson published an advertisement in the Alexandria Advertiser and Commercial Intelligencer in Alexandria, Virginia. The subject of his notice was a young girl named Ailcey, who had run away a year prior. Within this advertisement, Jesse Thompson described her physical appearance, her character, and a location towards which he anticipated she might have escaped. Yet, within these descriptions, more about Ailcey comes to light. According to Thompson, Ailcey was a “yellow girl” of approximately “12 years of age.” Described as having “tolerably straight hair, [and] quite a large mouth,” Ailcey appears to be a young woman with mixed ancestry. Her “yellow” complexion illuminates a mixed-race composition, most likely originating from ancestors with African and European heritage. With the prevalence of sexual abuse in slavery, sexual assault probably played a role in Ailcey’s heritage. Her “tolerably straight hair” and “quite large mouth” serve as indicators of her African heritage, which slave owners used to distinguish between enslaved individuals. These traditionally African characteristics, and the ways in which Thompson describes them with modifiers such as “tolerably” and “quite,” illuminate his bias towards Ailcey and her ancestry.

Thompson’s description continues, however, beyond Ailcey’s physicality. Perhaps most striking is that he describes her as a “girl of bold countenance.” In most runaway slave advertisements, women, and young girls in particular, have their personalities described in submissive terms. They are “agreeable” or “pleasant” or “pleasing.” Yet, in Ailcey’s case, she was the antithesis. In spite of her unimaginable circumstances, Ailcey maintained a bold disposition at only 12  years old. Ailcey was a force to be reckoned with, and her lasting impression is only further illuminated by the appearance of this advertisement more than a year after her initial escape.

Finally, Thompson eludes to Ailcey’s possible destination, explaining that she may be “lurking in the neighborhood of Alexandria, as her mother lives with Major Wm. Reiley of that place.” Connections between family appear in almost every runaway slave advertisement published, and most frequently in those featuring children. Family and community played a pivotal role in survival, hope, and life in general. In the end, Ailcey defied Thompson and the law by escaping not towards freedom but most likely towards her mother. Ultimately, her family was worth the risk of punishment, recapture, and other potential consequences of her escape. Ailcey was “bold” indeed.

Ailcey’s story is but one out of thousands of enslaved children who turned towards escape when hope was all but lost. From 1760 to 1820, more than 16,000 individuals attempted to escape in Virginia alone, and to date, current research finds that 911 include children under the age of sixteen.[6] Out of the 911 advertisements that included children, 299 girls and 612 boys attempted to flee enslavement in search of freedom, family, and a better life. While many of these children escaped in groups, 541 escaped like Ailcey: all alone. Their stories, all of their stories, deserve to be told.

There are undoubtedly more advertisements that have yet to appear in historical scholarship. For decades these advertisements sat on dusty archive shelves, hidden away in the endless pages of forgotten newspapers. In recent years, however, new efforts have been made to bring these sources to light. With the help of innovative digitization efforts, like the Freedom on the Move project at Cornell University, these advertisements will become more accessible to scholars around the world.[7] With easier access to runaway slave advertisements, stories like Ailcey’s can grace the pages of historical scholarship, telling the world about the importance of children in history and the presence of children in American slavery. The stories of enslaved children not only deserve to be told, but also contribute new interpretations of the past, furthering studies of community, family, and resistance.

Megan Jeffreys is a PhD student at Cornell University who researches American slavery, specifically the act of self-liberation. While focusing specifically on Virginia, her research works to understand the entangled history of self-liberation as enslaved individuals headed towards numerous destinations in both the North and the South. Megan also researches the lives of enslaved children, hoping to illuminate the importance of children in the American past while simultaneously shedding light on the long history, and current tragedy, of children in slavery.

Further Reading

[1] Numerous campaigns and artistic endeavors utilize the phrase “Children are our future” as a call to action. To list them all here would be impossible, but this phrase has appeared in popular songs, global climate crisis campaigns, discussions about society, labor, and the economy, and is even the name of a non-profit organization designed to teach leadership attributes. Some of these include: “Greatest Love of All,” Track #9 on Whitney Houston, Whitney Houston, 1985; Leonard Becker, “Children are our future,” Chicago Tribune, 17 November 2017, https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/letters/ct-children-are-our-future-20171117-story.html; “Children Are Our Future: Inspiring Transformational Leadership,” Children Are Our Future, accessed January 31, 2020, http://www.thechildrenareourfuture.org/.

[2] In recent decades, some scholars of the history of slavery have focused on children and childhood; however, these instances are few and far between. This article builds off of these works, hoping to inspire current scholars to look at children as historical agents who affected history.

[3] “Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – Estimates,” Slave Voyages, accessed 1 February 2020, https://www.slavevoyages.org/estimates.

[4] In 1865, the United States ended legal slavery; however, whether or not those individuals were freed is a topic of much contention. The majority of scholars refer to this as the end of legal slavery, but the truth is that freedom, equality, and abolition – referring to the end of all oppression – have yet to be obtained universally. Several scholars look at this idea in terms of judicial, political, and social inequalities. Among these are the following: Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New York Press, 2011); Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor (Cambridg, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

[5] Currently, there are numerous books being published that deal with self-liberation and fugitivity. Some of the most recent – and forthcoming – works include: Timothy Walker, editor, Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, Forthcoming); Andrew Delbanco, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (New York: Penguin Books, 2019).

[6] As many of these advertisements have yet to be included in online databases, the majority of these were found in the archives at the Library of Virginia, University of Virginia, and the National Archive by the author over a series of research trips from 2018 until the present. These numbers continue to grow, illuminating even more about the lives and communities of self-liberating individuals. Some of the advertisements, however, can be found at “The Geography of Slavery in Virginia,” The Geography of Slavery, http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/gos/index.html.

[7] A collaboration between several historians and the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research, the Freedom on the Move database is a current project that relies on contributions to create an in-depth pedagogical and research tools in the hopes of illuminating the prevalence of self-liberating individuals in the United States and beyond. For more information, and to contribute, go to www.freedomonthemove.org.

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