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Confronting the Legacy of Slavery: Villanova Students Uncover Fragments of American Family Histories

Tomorrow, July 2, marks the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act, enacting landmark legislation that prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education. It also outlawed racial segregation in public spaces. The act laid the groundwork for the country to progress forward toward equality, yet the wounds caused by slavery’s past remain even today.

This past spring, a group of Villanova students in Professor Judith Giesberg’s Slavery in the Modern World course attempted to piece together the separated strands of African-American families torn apart prior to and during the Civil War, when family members were sold away, escaped to the North, or joined the Union army.

After the Civil War and following the abolition of slavery, African-Americans began to look for loved ones with the help of newspaper ads. Although historical evidence tracing the lives of former slaves is limited, there is census evidence that some families reunited with the help of these ads. Based on life records found through Ancestry Library, students crafted digital timelines that narrated the lives of the individuals identified in the ads. Some of these stories have what appear to be happy endings; in other cases, individuals seem to have disappeared from the historical record.

last seen headline image

Dr. Giesberg is the driving force behind the Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery project which collates, publishes, and transcribes this kind of newspaper ad. The digital project website is supported by the Department of History, the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Villanova University, as well as by Mother Bethel AME Church and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Villanova graduate students browsed through countless reels of microfilm in their search for personal ads placed by African-Americans looking for lost family members and friends, scanned the ads, and posted them to the website. Transcription of the ads is crowd-sourced and depends entirely on volunteers. Many of these ads are easy enough to identify by the recurring Information Wanted headline.

spreadsheet of Last Seen entries

Students in Dr. Giesberg’s course used the Last Seen website to find a personal ad that piqued their curiosity. They learned the basics of the Timeline JS software in a library research workshop. Timeline JS is free software created and maintained by Knight Lab at Northwestern University. All story elements for the timeline including images, maps, and text are captured in a Google spreadsheet. This sounds simple enough, but students spent considerable time researching and presenting the histories hidden behind a single short personal ad.

slavery in the modern world 2019 timeline projects

They researched historical context such as geographic locations and regional slave laws and they identified appropriate and copyright free images to make their timelines visually pleasing. In short, they learned a lot about the research and publishing process. Then, two days before their final deadline, Google changed its software and broke every student’s timeline in the process. Everyone held their breath, not sure if functionality would be restored before the projects were due. With only eight hours to spare, the problem was fixed thanks to the advocacy of the folks at Knight Lab.

Links to the student projects have been posted to the Library’s website together with projects from prior years. Library resources used by the students include Ancestry Library, the African-American Studies Center, and African-American Newspapers: The 19th Century. For images students mostly relied on Wikimedia Commons which includes images from the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Interested readers are invited to explore these at times bittersweet, at times uplifting, and at times devastatingly sad narratives of African American lives in the 19th century.

Learn more about the Last Seen Project.


Jutta Seibert is Director of Research Services & Scholarly Engagement at Falvey Memorial Library.


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Last Modified: July 1, 2019