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Runaway Slave Ads: Should They Be in the Curriculum?

Runaway Slave Ad Extra-credit Assignment

In the school district of the Village of Port Chester where I live, a teacher offered an extra-credit option to create a runaway slave ad. The ad was to include:

1. The amount of the reward
2. The name and age of the runaway
3. A five-sentence description of the runaway
4. The moment and location when the act of running away was discovered
5. Contact information in the SOUTHERN STATE of the slaveholder
6. Portrait of the runaway.

Two examples of runaway ads were presented. One runaway was named “Aaron” or “Ape” and the other was from Kentucky. I could not read all the details from the image that I downloaded.

The extra-credit assignment immediately became a news item in print and social media. I read about it in my local paper. According local news reports, the assignment was related to a unit of curriculum on American slavery. The exercise was a follow-up to an exam on slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, and American society leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In response, Port Chester Schools Superintendent Edward Kliszus released a statement after the assignment was posted on Facebook.

The District considers this assignment offensive and inappropriate on multiple levels. This morning we commenced an investigation into the incident and are involving our attorneys on the matter to ensure that we explore all means to best address this issue. I pledge that the District shall take appropriate action to ensure not only that this type of situation does not reoccur, but also, that all of our staff thoroughly understand the gross impropriety of the assignment. We believe firmly that we can discuss the tragedies of American slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights in ways that comport rather with the highest orders of human dignity….

The whole process is vetted through our attorney to make sure we do everything we’re supposed to. We’re not going to hide anything. Transparency is very important in these kinds of things.

As it turns out, these statements taking the high road, completely miss the mark and highlight a serious problem.

By coincidence, as this story broke, I attended, as I have on many occasions, the Memorial Day ceremony at the African Burial Ground owned by the Town of Rye in which the Village of Port Chester is located. [I also visit the John Jay family cemetery in Rye.  I am neither a Jay descendant nor black.] To the best of my knowledge, this recently-restored cemetery of free blacks (at death) is not part of the local school curriculum. I touched on this general subject in my post on Twelve Years a Slave – What about the Other Years?

In conversation with a prominent member of the local NAACP chapter, I mentioned my own experiences with runaway slave ads. Years ago when I began Teacherhostels/Historyhostels, we visited Philipsburg Manor, Historic Hudson Valley, in Sleepy Hollow. The historic site had initiated a new project involving runaway slave ads. Visiting students were introduced to the topic. Examples of the ads created by the students were hung on the wall. My impression was that Historic Hudson Valley was quite proud of its venture into this new way of teaching about the reality of slavery. The ads focused on slavery in the north, in the Hudson Valley. It didn’t just happen in the South and people did resist slavery.

Years later, Historic Hudson Valley developed a curriculum based on runaway ads:

During the colonial period, runaway slave advertisements were published in nearly every newspaper. Today these primary documents serve as a painful reminder of our nation’s history, indicate the size and scope of colonial enslavement in the North, and provide evidence of ongoing, active resistance by enslaved individuals against the institution that bound them. They also form the basis for Historic Hudson Valley’s (HHV) interdisciplinary school program, RUNAWAY ART: Interpreting Colonial Slave Ads.

Working in partnership with The Center for Arts Education (CAE), HHV has created an arts-integrated curriculum module which will serve 10,000 students in New York City public middle schools over three years. Set against the backdrop of northern enslavement and resistance and using new age-appropriate curriculum, the program includes:

Professional development workshops for participating teachers and teaching artists held at Philipsburg Manor, an 18th-century working plantation in Sleepy Hollow, NY

A collaborative classroom instructional model

Student creation of two-dimensional art and personal statement inspired by real runaway slave ads printed in local newspapers in the 1700s

Review our classroom materials, our teacher training materials, or download the complete curriculum.

More recently, Historic Hudson Valley was able to offer an NEH seminar for teachers on the subject.

Wednesday’s session will begin with Dr. Harris discussing how the enslaved community responded to their status as property rather than person. Moving from the framework of slavery at the institutional level into the details of enslaved life at a particular time and place opens a conversation about agency and action from the perspective of the enslaved. The afternoon will focus on the use of primary documents and historical fiction as a tool for personalizing the story of enslavement. Teachers will be introduced to a variety of documents ranging from wills, inventories, advertisements, depositions, and personal narratives that begin to humanize the story. Participants will also examine how to make use of creative narrative storytelling like drama, fiction, or visual art in the classroom to bridge gaps in documentation. In particular, HHV will highlight two successful ways in which it has used the arts to help build historical empathy: museum theater and an arts-integrated in-classroom project called “Runaway Art.”

Although not a participant in the seminar, I was able to attend the opening public lecture.

As I briefly recounted this information following the ceremony at the African Burial Ground, the NAACP representative accepted that these developments had occurred and noted the importance of the context in which the assignment was given. I heartily agree. The fact that the assignment mentioned southern state slavery and ignored the north and the regrettable comments of the School Superintendent didn’t bode well for the Port Chester school district. The village is located directly across the county from Philipsburg Manor. In fact I suspect when the Philips first imported slaves in 1685 and landed in Rye, the land route across the county to their manor probably followed parts of Westchester Avenue, the current local road that transverses the county and ends up in the middle of Manor.

By coincidence, two weeks later on June 16, I attended a workshop on slavery in New York at the New-York Historical Society. I asked about runaway ads mentioning this recent development in Westchester. Sure enough during the tour of the exhibits, there were runaway slave ads posted and they were part of the workshop discussion.

The next day, on June 17, there was a major op-ed piece in the local paper by two representatives of the African-American Advisory Board of Historic Hudson Valley. The Board generously offered its assistance to the Port Chester school system.

We invite middle schoolers at Port Chester and students everywhere to study runaway ads with the help of their teachers. Taught in historical context these documents can help students (and adults) grasp the complex and entrenched nature of slavery in the United States….

Parents, teachers, and school leaders in Port Chester may be eager to put the present controversy behind them as the school year winds down. To the contrary, we hope that Port Chester  – and every school district in Westchester – embraces the slavery topic anew. Runaway Art is just one way of doing that; a class trip to Philipsburg Manor is another….Objectionable as the assignment was, the real loss would be a retreat from facing this unpleasant history because of its potential for controversy.

Another way is for organizations like Philipsburg Manor and the New-York Historical Society to reach out to teachers at social studies conferences. Not everything has to be a federally-funded seminar or require travelling to the history organization. It is also possible for the history organization to go to the teacher.

The op-ed piece contains one oddity. There is an example of a runaway slave ad. It is for an escaped slave named George Latimer. I am not sure exactly why they picked this ad in particular. George Latimer happens to be the newly-elected Irish-Italian Westchester county executive.

Years ago, I held a conference on slavery in New York at Manhattanville College. One of the speakers was the then-site manager at Philipsburg Manor. Another was A. J. Williams-Myers, then at SUNY. Later this summer he is hosting a similar conference more geographically confined:

The Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley

Saturday, July 14, 2018

9:00 AM to 5:30 PM

The Hudson River Maritime Museum and The Library at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center in Kingston are proud hosts of The Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley. The focus of this conference is the history of Black and African-American residents in the Hudson Valley, including communities and work along the canals and tributaries of the Hudson River. The Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley is open to researchers of all levels, with special sessions for short presentations of research-in-progress for students and historians alike. Concurrent sessions at HRMM and the African Roots Library will be scheduled in 60- and 75-minute sessions to accommodate more formal 45 minute presentations and performances, panels of three 15 minute research-in-progress presentations, and for workshops, roundtable discussions, and more.

Here is another example to familiarize oneself with the actual history.

The real problem with runaway slave ads was identified in parentheses in the op-ed piece: (and adults). The lessons of the this incident are adults behaving badly, adults not being well-informed, adults overreacting, adults seeking to take the moral high ground without understanding the situation. I don’t know what preparation occurred in the classroom prior to this extra-credit assignment. I do know that the requirement to limit slavery to the South presents a false picture of the slave experience. I do suspect that teachers, curriculum specialists, principals, and superintendents are not current with the scholarship and work on slavery and the resources available. I do know that field trips should not be considered a frill, an easily eliminated option. Isn’t it possible that students returning from a field trip to an historic site might want to read about it and what they learned there? If not, then shouldn’t the schools and historic sites be working together to create such learning environments? In short, there is an opportunity here that will be wasted to seriously think about the teaching of slavery, the teaching of local, state, and American history, and the role of historic sites as civic organizations in the k-12 curriculum.