'Last Seen': Digitizing Ads from Former Slaves in Search of Loved Ones

Digitized advertisements from former slaves

With incomplete family trees, African-Americans who descend from slaves often feel like adopted children, comedian Chris Rock has said. They want to visit their birth parents. “No matter how good their upbringing was,” Rock says, “they still want a little closure to see where they’re from and where they’re going.” Genealogists who try to trace ancestors into the 19th century hit a roadblock with slavery. Now, a project by Villanova University history professor Judy Giesberg is helping to offer new hope by digitizing 19th century newspaper ads taken out by former slaves and their family members in search of one another. 

‘Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery’ gives genealogists and scholars a chance to tell family stories of separation and survival. Ads often appeared under the heading “Information Wanted,” and they list names of family members, circumstances of separation, and often name former slave masters and a variety of locations. Hundreds of Information Wanted ads appeared in The Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The earliest ads have been identified as published in 1863.

Librarians at Villanova University’s Falvey Memorial Library are requesting microfilm of newspapers from around the country. Once there, Giesberg and her graduate students read through the papers carefully, identifying and collecting the ads. Once loaded to the “Last Seen” website, volunteers transcribe the ads. Since the website’s launch, hundreds of volunteers from across the country have signed up to transcribe the ads, help with the project, and, perhaps, find clues to their own family’s history along the way.

Each ad tells a family story. Sometimes, the ads lead to happy endings—like the one taken out by a man looking for his family members, who months later, reported having found one. In another ad, a man who had been married twice—and had been separated from both this wives—hoped to find one or even both of them.

“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 Giesberg, who is also the director of Villanova’s graduate history program. ”We’re very proud of this project and the public support and interest we’ve received so far.”

The site, informationwanted.org, is fully searchable by any name, location, or other descriptive terms. In addition to transcribing, users can contribute their own Information Wanted ad or can tell their family’s story. An open-source database, anyone can use the site for free. Giesberg hopes the site will offer some users “a little closure.”

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.

Media Contact

Jennifer Schu

Director of Communications, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences