NEH grants Cornell $750K to develop ‘Freedom’ database

Ed Baptist, professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences, has received a $750,000 digital infrastructure grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the development of the Freedom on the Move (FOTM) database.

The database collects and compiles fugitive slave advertisements from 18th- and 19th-century U.S. newspapers. Launched in 2014, the database provides essential primary documentation for the study of slavery and the resistance of self-liberating people in the United States. It now includes more than 30,000 advertisements and has engaged more than 10,500 contributors, including scholars, students and “citizen historians.”

“The Freedom on the Move project reflects the deep commitment to humanistic inquiry that has long been a hallmark of Cornell University and the College of Arts and Sciences in particular,” said Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences. “By combining digital innovation with the core objectives of historical research, pedagogy and community engagement, Freedom on the Move represents the best that Cornell’s humanities have to offer.”

The database is both a scholarly and a public-facing project, Baptist said.

“We can learn more from these ads about individual enslaved people – or lots of individuals, individuals ‘at scale’ – than we can from pretty much any other pre-1861 resource,” he said. “By using the ads as historical documents we help people to engage with slavery in a way that emphasizes the individuality and agency of people who were striving to liberate themselves.”

Baptist said users so far include genealogists, artists, scholars and classroom teachers.

Under the terms of the NEH grant, the research team is expected to raise an additional $3 million in matching funds. “Freedom on the Move will be pursuing additional grants and other funding, with the goal of qualifying for the full amount of matching funds,” Baptist said.

The NEH infrastructure grant and matching grants will make it possible to build enhanced access to the database and develop a range of tools and materials that will facilitate educational and scholarly uses by a wide range of people, including college professors and students, K-12 students and teachers, non-academic historians and public organizations.

The NEH grant, for example, is supporting a partnership with partners in New Orleans to work on reshaping public history narratives, including monuments and statues.

The database was created in collaboration with scholars from the University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, the University of New Orleans and the University of Alabama.

In December, the NEH announced $32.8 million in grants to support 213 humanities projects in 44 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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