Mellon grants $1M to deepen and improve Freedom on the Move

A grant of more than $1 million from the Mellon Foundation will support improvements to the content and functionality of Freedom on the Move (FOTM), a collective digital history project based at Cornell, as well as fostering a research community around the collection.

Through FOTM, Cornell is partnering with multiple institutions, including Howard University’s Department of History, to build a free and open archive of all existing “runaway slave” advertisements published in North American newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries, estimated between 100,000 and 200,000 total. The collection currently contains about 32,500.

“Freedom on the Move may become the world’s most extensive collection of runaway slave ads,” said Ed Baptist, FOTM co-founder and professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences. “But this grant will allow us to increase the depth, richness, and accessibility of the data, and quality is if anything even more important than the quantitative scale of sources available.”

Cornell University Library will play a key role in enhancing FOTM through the grant.

“Cornell University Library is delighted to partner in expanding this essential resource and scholarship around it,” said Elaine Westbrooks, Carl A. Kroch University Librarian. “As this corpus grows, library expertise in digital scholarship and sustainable IT infrastructure is ever more important.”

Currently, a diverse array of what researchers call metadata – including names, families, ethnic identities, clothing and many other details of personal histories – can remain half-buried in the text of any one ad for a self-liberating person, Baptist said. The new process for unearthing these facts digitally, supported in the three-year Mellon Freedom on the Move Partnership, will lead to more rigorous scholarship.

“These ads contain deeply individualized descriptions of freedom-seekers, information that could transform our understanding of Black resistance to slavery, the roots of racialized policing, and the process of emancipation,” Baptist said.

“FOTM will make a profound and lasting impact on the study of the history of slavery and fugitivity in the U.S.,” said Nikki Taylor, professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Howard. “Our department is eager to play a role in helping to make that impact more lasting.”

Through the Mellon partnership, FOTM will employ a cohort of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who will be recruited and supported through a partnership with Howard and other institutions. Summer data fellows, five each year, will improve FOTM metadata, work with Cornell library staff specialists, and write research project proposals based on FOTM, mentored by FOTM faculty.

The partnership will also fund one postdoctoral researcher and six academic yearlong graduate research assistantships for Cornell and Howard graduate students. Cornell will host a two-day Freedom on the Move Symposium during the second and third years of the grant, an opportunity for graduate students and more advanced scholars to present research based on the FOTM archive.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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Drawing from an 18th century newspaper of a person in a tree