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Villanova Community Performs “Last Seen: Voices from Slavery’s Lost Families” on Feb. 18

Theatre and History Departments present dramatic reading of newspaper ads by emancipated slaves searching for family members in the 19th century

Villanova University's Theatre and History Departments present “Last Seen: Voices from Slavery’s Lost Families."

American slavery tore apart families—separating wives from husbands, children from parents, siblings from siblings. After the Civil War, emancipated slaves searched for these lost loved ones by placing hopeful and often-heartbreaking newspaper ads. Villanova University’s Department of Theatre and Department of History present a dramatic reading of the ads during “Last Seen: Voices from Slavery’s Lost Families” on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019 at 8 p.m. at Villanova Theatre in Vasey Hall.

The performance, directed by Villanova Theatre Department chairperson Valerie Joyce, PhD, is a product of the “Last Seen” project, a collaboration between Villanova University’s Judith Giesberg, PhD, professor of History, and genealogists at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. Dr. Giesberg and her collaborators—including Villanova graduate students—uncovered and digitized more than 3,000 of former slaves’ Information Wanted ads and created an online database. The project, which has been featured on numerous media outlets including the CBS Evening News and NPR, has become a critically important tool for researchers, students and individuals looking to piece together their own family history.

Dr. Giesberg and Dr. Joyce collaborated on the project to bring these individual stories to life, allowing the authentic advertisements to be center stage in the form of short monologues and scenes. The final performance will feature more than 50 Villanova students, alumni, faculty, staff and members of the local community. Dr. Joyce’s theatrical staging will feature music and movement to underscore the voices of “Last Seen.”

Following the “Last Seen” performance, participants can enjoy light refreshments and a panel discussion, featuring:

Mia Bay, PhD is the Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of American History at University of Pennsylvania.

Mia Bay, PhD, Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of American History, University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Bay is author, co-author, editor of four books. Her latest book, Traveling Black: A Social History of Segregated Transportation (Harvard University Press, 2019), will be published in 2019. 

Jim Casey, PhD is the Perkins Fellow and postdoctoral research associate for Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University.

Jim Casey, PhD, Perkins Fellow and postdoctoral research associate, Center for Digital Humanities, Princeton University. He is a co-director of the award-winning Colored Conventions Project and co-editor of the forthcoming collection, Colored Conventions in the Nineteenth Century (UNC Press) with P. Gabrielle Foreman. His book-in-progress is titled The Invention of Editors, 1740-1872.

Shannen Dee Williams, PhD is an assistant professor of History at Villanova University.

Shannen Dee Williams, PhD, assistant professor, History, Villanova University. She is working on the manuscript for her first book, Subversive Habits: The Untold Story of Black Catholic Nuns in the United States.


The evening also includes an exhibit in the theatre lobby showcasing artwork inspired by the “Last Seen” ads that has been created by 12 – 18-year-old students as part of a competition and community engagement project. The event is free and open to the public, but tickets should be reserved in advance at

Learn more about the "Last Seen" project at

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 challenging and changing world. With more than 40 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.