Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery

Judy Giesberg, PhD, and a researcher from Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia are pictured left, and on the right is one of the Information Wanted Ads.


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.

Digitizing ads from former slaves in search of loved ones

Villanova University History Professor Judith Giesberg, PhD—in collaboration with genealogists at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia—are 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 placed 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.


Bringing emotion and history to the stage

The Department of Theatre and Department of History presented a dramatic reading of the ads during “Last Seen: Voices from Slavery’s Lost Families” on Feb. 18, 2019 at Villanova Theatre in Vasey Hall. The performance—directed by Theatre Department chairperson Valerie Joyce, PhD—brought the individual stories to life, allowing the authentic advertisements to be center stage in the form of short monologues. Dr. Joyce’s theatrical staging included music and movement, underscoring the voices of more than 50 performers comprising students, alumni, faculty, staff and members of the community.

Learn more

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 and searchable by name, location or other descriptive terms. Access the an open-source database at

The ads are uploaded online, and volunteers transcribe them. Since the website launched, 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 tell their family’s story. Volunteer to transcribe.


In the media