"Information Wanted": Freed slaves' heartbreaking ads tell personal stories of slavery

PHILADELPHIA -- Margaret Jerrido is the archivist at Philadelphia’s Bethel AME church, where stored away in boxes are historical gems.

They’re called Information Wanted ads. They were written by newly freed slaves looking for lost family members who were sold or ran away.

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Margaret Jerrido

CBS News

“I didn’t even know they were there,” Jerrido said. “I just said to myself ‘oh my God, it’s just a hidden treasure.’”

Villanova University history professor Judy Giesberg came looking for them as part of a research project last August.

“I think there are so few opportunities for us to hear enslaved people describe their lives,” Giesberg said. “Every one of these ads tells a life story.”

In one a daughter writes “My mother was sold from me when I could but crawl.” A sister says her brothers “escaped by Underground Railroad.” About his son, a father says “When about fourteen he was sold” and his daughter “Leah, was sold at the same time.”

“They’ve been trying to in their minds remember what their daughter looked like or their son looked like and then at that moment they write it all down in that short three or four lines,” Giesberg said.

They’ve cataloged a thousand so far from the archived microfilm of The Christian Recorder and five other newspapers.

A few ads hint at success, like one from 1880 which says “I have found Henry and Mary ... We all belonged to William Hightower.”

“Tears came to my eyes when I read some of these … It’s just unimaginable,” Jerrido said.

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Prof. Judy Giesberg

CBS News

Both Jerrido and Giesberg say they hope the ads fill in the historic hole after Emancipation.

“I think they’re really important for people, you know, to understand how people survived an institution like slavery, and then how they carry on afterward,” Giesberg said.

Evidence that after freedom, family was never forgotten.

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    Vladimir Duthiers is a CBS News correspondent based in New York at the CBS Broadcast Center.