Villanova Theatre and History Departments Present “Last Seen: Voices from Slavery’s Lost Families,” Feb. 18

The Feb. 18 event includes dramatic readings of 19th century newspaper ads written by emancipated slaves and family members in search of one another.

Villanova History professor Dr. Judy Giesberg’s “Last Seen” project uncovered and digitized more than 3,000 “Information Wanted” newspaper ads.

History Professor Dr. Judy Giesberg’s “Last Seen” project uncovered and digitized more than 3,000 “Information Wanted” newspaper ads

VILLANOVA, Pa.—Villanova University’s Theatre and History Departments have come together to present a dramatic reading of 19th century newspaper ads written by emancipated slaves and family members in search of one another. This Feb. 18 event, “Last Seen: Voices from Slavery’s Lost Families,” will take place at 8 p.m. at Villanova Theatre in Vasey Hall.

American slavery tore apart families—separating wives from husbands, children from parents and siblings from siblings. After the Civil War, emancipated slaves searched for lost loved ones by placing hopeful and often-heartbreaking newspaper ads. In 2016, Villanova University History Professor Judy Giesberg, PhD, began the “Last Seen” project, aimed at digitizing these newspaper ads. Dr. Giesberg and her collaborators—including graduate history students and archivists at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia—uncovered and digitized more than 3,000 of these “Information Wanted” ads and created an online database, The project, which has been featured in the national media including CBS Evening News and The Washington Post, has become a critically important tool for researchers, students and individuals looking to piece together their own family history.

Last summer, Giesberg developed an idea for bringing these important stories of family separation to life at this time. She reached out to associate professor and chair of the Villanova’s Theatre Department, Valerie Joyce, PhD, who has written her own original play about the experiences of enslaved and free African American women before Emancipation. This conversation led to a collaboration between the Departments of Theatre and History for this month’s “Last Seen: Voices from Slavery’s Lost Families” event.

“These ads—each a brief family story—hold crucial clues for the descendants of American slaves who seek to fill in their family trees,” Giesberg explains. “And they hold great potential to inform our public conversation at this moment in our national history.”  

This event will allow the voices of former slaves included in these “Information Wanted” ads to take center stage in the form of short monologues and scenes. Dr. Joyce’s theatrical staging will feature music and movement to underscore the voices of “Last Seen.” This unique performance will feature more than 60 people, including parishioners from Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church of Ardmore and Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia; high school students from Baltimore School for the Arts; Philadelphia public school teachers; and Villanova students, faculty, staff and alumni.

“By hearing the actors breathe life into these ads, our audience will bear witness to the enduring love between family members who have been torn apart and honor their incomprehensible loss,” said Joyce.

The “Last Seen” performance will be followed by a panel discussion, featuring:

  • 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, 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, 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.

For more information on the “Last Seen” Project, click here.