Although it’s imperative during February’s Black History Month to pay tribute to African American icons such as former slaves Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass with remarkable local connections, too often the enslaved blacks toiling in the so-called shadows go unrecognized like those whom Benjamin Franklin profited from by publishing runaway slave ads and announcements in his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette.
Purchased by Franklin in 1729, The Pennsylvania Gazette featured such heinous advertisements through 1800 when it ceased publication in its earlier format, despite that so-called “Founding Father” printing in 1737 the renowned book of an anti-slavery crusader, Benjamin Lay, a revolutionary Quaker who Franklin visited at his cave abode near Jenkintown's Abington Friends Meeting.
“RUN away, on the 21st Instant, from Robert Wakely, of this City [Philadelphia], a Negro Woman, named Anne about 18 or 20 Years of Age, is short and well set, and had on a blue Jacket and Petticoat … but no Shoes or Stockings,” said a Gazette advertisement in the Oct. 26, 1758 edition, revealing how desperate “Anne” wanted to escape bondage and debunking asinine claims that such blacks “never had it so good.”
Yet, if there is anything positive that’s resulted from such advertisements is that they provide valuable descriptions for modern researchers, including blacks pursuing their genealogies or family histories, as well as forever document and identify peddlers of human beings that even included married couples seeking “the Promised Land.”
“Also run away, at the same Time, a Negroe Man, named Frank, belonging to Alexander Collay, of Whitemarsh, about 30 or 35 years of Age, is a slender middle sized Fellow, and had on a new Wool Hat, Bearskin light coloured Coat, a Snuff coloured Jacket, without Sleeves, a striped Shirt, Leather Breeches, blue Stockings and good Shoes,” notes the Gazette’s Oct. 26, 1758 edition that I read via Accessible Archives.com.
“They are man and wife, and supposed to be gone together,” further noting that the so-called owners offered rewards for their capture between “fifty” and “Forty Shillings.”
Often, however, such “runaway” African Americans were caught and imprisoned until they were re-enslaved:
“This day was committed to this jail,” observed the Feb. 19, 1756 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette, “one James Sterd, a Negro man, on suspicion of being a runaway; he says that he worked with one John Palmer, a Bricklayer, in Philadelphia, about a year ago, and some time before that he worked in Chester with Joseph Parker; this is to desire any one that has any claim to the said Negro, to come or send for him in four weeks after the date of this advertisement, otherwise he will be sold for his prison fees, by JOHN WEAVER, Goaler [or jailer].”
Just several years before his death in 1790, Franklin’s Gazette ran yet another such advertisement in the June 21, 1786 edition:
“RAN away from the subscriber, in Lower Merion township, Montgomery county, state of Pennsylvania, on the 15th of this instant, a NEGRO MAN, named Kent, well made likely young fellow, about 19 years of age, 5 feet 9 or 10 inches high, he is rather impudent, born in North Carolina …,” the ad says, indicating that “Kent” likely and rightfully rebuffed his enslavers.
“Whoever secures the said negro in any goal [or jail], so that the subscriber may have him again, shall have the above reward [“EIGHT DOLLARS”] and reasonable charges,” ending with a final warning of the “subscriber,” “JOHN JONES”:
“All masters of vessels, and others are forbid to carry him off at their peril.”
Franklin during his lifetime personally enslaved African Americans “George,” “Peter,” “Jemima,” “Othello,” “John,” and “King,” but also led an anti-slavery abolitionist organization (likely influenced by Benjamin Lay), illuminating the conflicting feelings and actions of such colonists -- likely a reflection of the ambivalence that many modern folks maintain about slavery and ethnicity.
In fact, even a year after Franklin’s death, The Pennsylvania Gazette on May 16, 1791 ran the following advertisement just months before the U.S. Bill of Rights was ratified on Dec. 15, 1791:
“Was taken up, on suspicion of being a runaway, and committed to my custody, in Norristown gaol, on the 11th instant, a Negro man, who calls himself SAM, says he is the property of Ralph Bond, of Hartford county, Maryland, and that he left his master about Christmas last; he also says his former master’s name was Elijah Bozley, of Maryland,” the ad said.
“He is a thick square made fellow, about five feet seven or eight inches high, appears to be about 25 or 26 years of age, and is somewhat marked with the small pox.
“The owner is desired to come, prove his property, pay charges, and take him away, within five weeks from the date hereof,” before ending with what selling human flesh was all about: making cold-blooded profits, “otherwise he will be sold, for the charges and cost of imprisonment, by me WILLIAM STROUD, Gaoler.”