Last Seen

The language is often strikingly direct. In the years after the Civil War, family members and friends often placed advertisements in black newspapers looking for information about missing family members, separated by the cruelty of the slave trade and the exigencies of the war. They are “Information Wanted” ads that often noted when and where the missing were “last seen.” The stories they tell are heartbreaking. In the clip above, actors read out the plaintive messages.

Archivists and researchers at Villanova University are building a database of those newspaper ads, transcribed and annotated, along with other tools designed to help genealogists trace family histories and enable educators and researchers understand better the depths of the story of emancipation. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes of the Last Seen project:

One of the tragic, cruel, and heartrending dimensions of American slavery was the number of families separated by owners and traders who placed profits above all. One of the most poignant experiences, though, is discovering how many of these black mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters tried to find one another after the Emancipation by placing ads in newspapers. Their will to search exemplified one of the most important personal expressions of their freedom, and it extended over many years. Now, thanks to the Last Seen Project their search has become our search, too, and we are aided in the process by one of the most valuable tools available to genealogists, scholars, and filmmakers alike. It is a wonder.

The National Historical Publications and Records Commission is proud to support this project, and you can help bring this powerful tool to life by transcribing the ads and articles at the Information Wanted site.

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