In a cemetery just south of Cornell University’s campus, you can find the grave of “Faithful” Daniel Jackson, a man who settled in Ithaca after escaping slavery in the 1840s. After the Civil War, he brought his mother north as well—a happy ending to a heroic, harrowing journey. But according to Edward E. Baptist, History, Jackson and other runaways don’t receive the full credit they deserve.
“By the 1830s and ‘40s, a big proportion of the free black population in the North were runaways or the children or spouses of runaways,” Baptist says. “These communities not only provided havens for individuals and families but—what we’ve learned is—these were the bases from which slavery is fought. This is the work that pushes the question of slavery onto the national stage.”
Baptist says that we may not fully appreciate how self-emancipation itself was an act of resistance in the face of the broad effort to squelch it. “There certainly were whites and lots of free African Americans who helped people escape from slavery,” he says, “but there was also a network of people who were trying to catch them.”
This sets an ugly precedent, Baptist argues, for the patterns of policing and surveillance of African Americans that has continued throughout history to today. “The big theme of my current work is basically why has it been the case really since the 1600s, that African Americans have been policed differently in this country, and what are the consequences?”
From Self-Emancipation to Mass Incarceration
Baptist’s most recent book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (Basic Books, 2014), explores the relationship between slavery and the rise of American capitalism. Baptist argues that as the potential for profit increased, slavery overall became more brutal and inhumane—inextricably linking the rise of the American economy to human suffering. The book provoked debate and discussion in national news outlets, such as The New York Times, The Economist, and The Guardian, among many others.
Baptist’s current project shifts focus to African American self-emancipation and policing. He says, “The policing of African Americans—restrictions on their movements, surveillance, and the assumption that they are in some way fugitives—carries on after 1865, to today.”
Baptist says that this kind of policing is not only a manifestation of white anxiety, but it’s also productive. He explains, “It produces certain kinds of white unity. It produces alliances between lower-class whites and upper-class whites that make it more difficult to organize against policies that transfer wealth from working-class people to upper-class people. In other words, it makes it really hard to have a politics that is class-based rather than race-based.”
Baptist wants to showcase African Americans’ resistance over time, from self-emancipation to the political organization that takes different forms throughout American history. He also wants to show how institutions have adapted to fight that resistance.
“African Americans push back against systems of segregation, violence, and containment, and that resistance starts to become successful in the 1960s. Then, we have a shift,” Baptist says. “This shift is to a pretty racialized system of mass incarceration. We’re still living in that era, and there are few people in America who haven’t been impacted by that system, whether they realize it or not.”
“When you get to know so many individuals on even the basis of talking to them once a week…it required me not just to think that this system was wrong but to learn more and to try to say more.”
With many scholars approaching mass incarceration from different angles and perspectives, Baptist wants to help provide the long view. “The book I hope to write would connect dots from 1619 to the present,” he says. “I also hope to anchor it in a narrative that incorporates ordinary people’s words, decisions, and lives, and that shows their agency—their reality as the subjects and protagonists of history.”
Freedom on the Move, a Database of Runaway Ads
A key resource for Baptist’s research, for his new book as well as previous projects, has been runaway slave advertisements. “They provide information about individuals whose lives and persons and certainly whose resistance doesn’t show up in most cases anywhere else in the historical record,” he says.
Working on his recent book, Baptist grew frustrated that there wasn’t a searchable database of runaway ads available. “I finally said, along with my collaborators, time to invest the effort to make it exist.”
Along with historians Joshua D. Rothman (University of Alabama) and Mary Niall Mitchell (University of New Orleans), Baptist is working on a project called Freedom on the Move, which collects and digitizes runaway ads, some never published before. The database will be made available to the public through Cornell University Library and the Cornell Institute for Social and Economic Research (CISER).
“We’re also trying to create an interactive, crowd-sourced component to this,” Baptist says. Students, professors, teachers, or the public will be able to help catalogue the advertisements by answering a series of simple questions about them. The team has already created a beta version and tested it on students.
“Working with this data is a powerful process, because first of all it teaches students what historians do,” Baptist says. “We’re detectives. We’re looking at people’s business, private records—we’re very nosy. But that’s all in service of the quest to figure out what happened in the past. With runaway ads, students also get to participate, and to do so in a historical research project that gets at these gnawing questions that we’ve never quite been able to answer as a society—these injustices that we’ve never been able to fully rectify in the United States.”
Baptist and his partners are currently seeking much-needed support to develop the database from its beta version to a full-scale site.
Finding the Words, Finding the Project
Baptist was just beginning the bulk of his research for The Half Has Never Been Told when the urgency of the issue of mass incarceration, almost fatefully, fell into his path. He was living for a year in his hometown of Durham, North Carolina. “Being there such a short time, I initially wasn’t too interested in getting re-invested in the community,” he says.
Baptist found, however, that a parishioner at his father’s church—the late Richard L. Watson, a historian and emeritus professor at Duke University—was leading the same ministry in the Durham County Jail that he’d been leading when Baptist was a child. “I remember this as a kid: He would read off the names of prisoners who wanted this community to pray for them, and that really had a powerful effect on me,” Baptist says. “No matter what I happened to think of theology at any particular point in my life, that action, I never forgot.”
Many years later, Watson was still at it. “I was back in that church one Sunday, and he was in his early 90s, doing the same thing. I said, okay.”
Baptist began visiting the jail with Watson’s group. “Every single prisoner in there was black but one, in a city that’s more or less 50 percent black, 50 percent white,” Baptist says. “Just as on the outside, you meet every personality type, people you would trust and people you wouldn’t. There were people who probably committed the crime they were accused of and people who were in there only because somebody thought they looked suspicious. Most of them, I had to admit to myself, in any fair system, would not be in there.”
Baptist continues, “When you get to know so many individuals on even the basis of talking to them once a week, talking about anything, it required me not just to think that this system was wrong but to learn more and to try to say more, eventually, and do whatever I could to have some solidarity with them.”
During those visits, inmates asked Baptist to do something he’d never done: pray aloud with them. “I had to try to find the words,” he says. “It taught me a lot about myself, and I knew I needed in some small measure to pass that experience on. That’s at the root of this new project.”