Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery

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Background

In 1863, shortly after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, former slaves began searching for family members from whom they had been torn apart. Many of those searching had not seen their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers or children for years. 

They took out newspaper ads under the heading “Information Wanted,” listing the names of family members, circumstances of separation and even former slave masters—any nugget of information that could reconnect them with their loved ones. Hundreds of these ads appeared in The Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, as well as other publications.

HSP presentation
Judith Giesberg, PhD, professor of History and director of the Graduate Program in History

Digitizing ads from former slaves in search of loved ones

Now, Villanova University History Professor Judith Giesberg, PhD is gathering all of these 19th century ads in one place and digitizing them—giving genealogists and researchers a new tool for telling family stories of separation and survival during slavery, emancipation and the Civil War. The project is called “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery.” 

Genealogists attempting to trace ancestors into the 19th century often hit a roadblock with slavery. “Last Seen” offers access to thousands of “Information Wanted” advertisements taken out by former slaves.

“These ads are a hidden treasure that have been overlooked for a hundred years. They have the potential to open up new doors to those whose family trees end with slavery,” said Dr. Giesberg, who is also director of Villanova’s Graduate Program in History.

Dr. Giesberg and her graduate students read through microfilm of newspapers from around the country, identifying and collecting the ads. All the ads are viewable on the project website and are fully searchable by any name, location or other descriptive terms. The site is an open-source database, and anyone can use the site for free.

 

The ads are uploaded online, and volunteers transcribe them. Since the website’s launch, hundreds of volunteers from across the country have signed up to help with the project.

In addition to transcribing, users can contribute their own Information Wanted ad or can tell their family’s story.

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