The domestic slave trade tore apart millions of family members, who were sold away from each other by slaveholders — The Equal Justice Initiative estimated that nearly half of all enslaved people were separated from their loved ones.
During the era of reconstruction, reuniting with family became the mission of many newly-freed individuals, who wrote letters, posted newspaper advertisements, and relied on word of mouth to find their missing loved ones. Formerly enslaved individuals were still difficult to trace by name, as their names were chosen for them by slaveholders, and emancipation also provided the opportunity to choose a new name.
Over 5 generations later, many African Americans are continuing the search for family. In 1976, Alex Haley's book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, inspired a renewed interest in African American ancestry. Since then, many African Americans have utilized DNA testing services like 23andMe, and inquired about ancestry to their relatives, hoping to uncover the mysteries of their family trees.
With the digitization of newspaper archives, online research has made the search for relatives accessible to the public. Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery is a project that collects, transcribes, and publishes newspaper ads posted by formerly enslaved people from throughout the United States. Their archives start in 1832 — before emancipation — and extend past 1900. Historically, these ads were circulated throughout the country, and often shared in churches.
The online archive allows users to search by name, location, and using specific terms. Ads can also be located using an interactive map, or by newspaper publication. Images of newspaper clips are uploaded to the site, and users can get involved by transcribing them.
Below, a few examples of transcribed listings found on the site:
- Mrs. George Carr searching for Jenkins Murphy: A mother who searched for her son, who she hoped to see one more before she died
- Jasper Tucker seeking his mother Julia Crincher: A son who offered $25 to anyone who could find his mother, who was sold when he was a baby
- Mary Lennecks searching for her daughter Anna Reed and grandson Benjamin Corbin: A mother who searched for her daughter, the only child of 6 who was still alive
Last Seen has also provided educator resources, and highlighted the value that these ads bring to history lessons: "Written by formerly enslaved people, Information Wanted and Lost Friends ads reveal the voices of thousands of people otherwise absent from the historical record."