Newspaper Ads Show Freed Slaves’ Desperate Search for Lost Relatives

Posted April 4th, 2016 at 11:14 am (UTC-4)

Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

After emancipation, some African American families that were torn apart by slavery turned to newspaper ads in hopes of finding lost loved ones.

These “information wanted” advertisements primarily appeared in black-oriented newspapers, which sprang up after the end of the U.S. Civil War.

A series of “Lost Friends” ads that appeared in a New Orleans newspaper in the late 1800s into the early 1900s illustrate how desperate friends and relatives searched for loved ones who had been lost to slavery.

Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

The Southwestern Christian Advocate was distributed to about 500 preachers, 800 post offices and 4,000 subscribers in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. The newspaper started running its “Lost Friends” columns in 1877 and continued doing so “well into the first decade of the twentieth century.”

The advertisements cost 50 cents each, about one day’s wages, and pastors would read them aloud in church to help spread the word.

“At first, all I could see was grief…but then I started to see hope embedded in it,” said Heather Andrea Williams, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a book about the “information wanted” ads. “There’s a lot packed into these very short messages of love and grief and resilience and an ability…to continue to care.”

An online database shows more than 900 of these advertisements that appeared in the Southwestern Christian Advocate between November 1879 and March 1884.  The digital images are courtesy of the Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library.

Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

The ads provide insight into the dark nature of slavery, with African-American families facing the ever-present possibility of being sold away from loved ones into unknown circumstances, having names changed by new “owners” and perhaps forever losing track of family members.

“I think these ads really take us into the structure of slavery, the power of owners and into the emotional lives of enslaved people,” said Williams. “You could be married and yet your owner could sell you…not everybody experienced separation but everybody could have experienced separation and they knew this. That this is looming.”

In her book, Help Me Find My People,  Williams writes that one-third of enslaved children were separated from their parents by either being sold away or having their parents sold away. Reunions of these broken families were rare. However, when they did occur, reunited families faced difficult decisions and periods of readjustment.

There were situations where children didn’t remember their parents and had grown attached to another adult caretaker, or incidents where the spouse who’d been left behind remarried.

“A husband returns to a plantation after many years away because he had been sold away and his wife is now with somebody else,” Williams said, “and now she had to make a decision and sometimes the woman said, ‘The husband I’m with today knows that the reason we got together was because my real husband has gone away and I’m going back to my real husband.’”

 Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library


Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library

There is no way to know how many formerly enslaved people found their loved ones, however the yearning to be reunited with lost family members lingered for decades. The “information wanted” newspaper ads continued to appear into the 1900s, more than 35 years after the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of all slaves in the United States.


More About America
Slave Brochure Starkly Details Sale of Black Americans
How US Has Defined Black Americans Since 1820
What Most Prestigious US Jobs Have in Common…and It’s Not Money
American Majority Disagrees With Trump on Immigrants
More People Move to This US City & State Than Anywhere Else


6 responses to “Newspaper Ads Show Freed Slaves’ Desperate Search for Lost Relatives”

  1. oneworld says:

    I think we should continue the focus on slavery in the US. After all, it is still a thorn in our society. So, let’s play the “Which Party Is It?” game. The following clues are about one political party, and one political party only. See if you can guess. The less clues you use, the higher the score. Winners will receive the coveted “WTF!” award.

    Was part of a dual political party system in the early 1800’s.
    The dual party system broke away from each other when one party became to embroiled to keep slavery alive.
    When the US government finally passed legislation to end slavery, this party waged war to divide the US (Civil War).
    This party lost the Civil War, lost its right to keep blacks as slaves.
    This party then created the KKK. No other political affiliate members could join, only members of this party.
    When this party regained its political prowess, the leaders created the Jim Crow Laws (Rosa Parks, hello!).
    This party found a new way to enslave blacks in the guise of Welfare.
    This party found a new way to keep blacks as the minority by passing the Abortion Bill.
    This party’s Abortion Bill has murdered 660,000 black children, per year (PER YEAR!) since its passing.
    This party became clever by passing the Civil Rights Bill, even though the blacks already had their civil rights. The black coalition groups should have simply sued this political party and ended its existence. Instead, they are now enslaved, once again, to this party and continue to support it.

    Now you see why you will win the coveted “WTF!” award when you guess the correct political party. Here’s your last hint: it is not the Whig Party, nor the Federalists Party, nor the Republican Party. Take your time for there is no time limit here. Thanks for playing.

    • PermReader says:

      The kind of people who blame the others for their own sins: Dem party elected the black President, but he hates the party and President.This “humanist” blames Dems for abortion laws – the black women`s right of their bodies.Black people of your kind usually choose Dems,whose leftist ideology consists of blaming the others for your sins.

  2. PermReader says:

    The touching stories of slavery times cause my offer for the black American people to search their past tribes, including the authorities that arranged their appearence in America.

    • OneWorldNow says:

      Interesting that you are inquiring justice for those who are responsible or slavery in the US. To begin with, Anthony Johnson sued the Colonial Court for the right to possess African Slaves. The Colonial Government was, at first, against having Africans in the colonies. The reason was because the Colonies already had a slavery system in place for the degenerates of Europe. After their servitude, they could easily blend into society. Simple. But, Anthony Johnson not only sued the Colonial Government and won his case, he also proved that African slaves were easier to manage, easier to train, and CHEAPER! For a short time, the Democrats and Republicans were the same party, but the stupid Republicans didn’t want African slavery to continue, so the Democrats split the party and did all they could to keep African slave trade alive and kicking. The Democrats were so adamant to keep black slavery, they tried to destroy the United States, thus, the Civil War began. So, you don’t have to wonder who was responsible for slavery. The Democrats. But, I digress, after all, Anthony Johnson was a black man.

  3. William Baldwin says:

    This is the age of the internet and still, nothing has changed…Back then, it was about the need for
    labor but now, it’s about wiping out a population from the face of the earth…The separation now
    days is about imprisonment, poverty, then journeyman labor…What was painful back then, the separation
    of a family, is compounded today by a Jim Crow that crosses the color line…Blacks can be as tyrannical as the
    Whites they accuse…Today, you are either included or excluded and the exclusion comes when both Blacks and
    Whites come together, under some lame theory called integration, then try to force that ideology on other Blacks…
    Clearly, there must be a reason why this combined ideology is not accepted and that reason must not be very far
    in the past…It’s sad being sold into slavery, being separated from the family but, it is even sadder to be separated from the
    because of the family…

  4. Diane Smith says:

    Can our forefathers be forgiven for these heinous human acts in the history of our country? I am very sorry that family member separations and losses of life occurred when a family’s strength and survival is the basis for human nature and healthy nurture. Free publication of families finding families may be a continued way of family global roots, and paid sites like the a n c e s t r y site may help place some of the family roots together, and now with dna searches. Although my grandparents were 75% immigrants, the one family was at least three or four generations rooted in America. One day possibly our great grandchildren can and will see a unification of peoples, and a respect of everyone’s history and work together for a stronger country, where red, white and blue arehealthy … let’s do more in this young 21st century to bring us together. Peace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *