Journeys to Liberation: Records of Mariners, Migrants, and Freedom Seekers
All throughout the slavery era in pre- and post-colonial America, individuals and families of African descent pursued paths to freedom.
Most famously, people used the Underground Railroad to escape, but other enslaved people turned to legal channels through “freedom suits,” paid for self-manumission, or experienced emancipation through African emigration. Invaluable collections of historical records provide an opportunity to read accounts (sometimes firsthand) of formerly enslaved individuals and gain insights into their extraordinary paths to emancipation.
Examples of records:
Records of abolitionist groups, such as the American Colonization Society
Court records (federal, state, and local court records)
Crew lists, seamen’s registers, and passenger lists
First-person accounts from the Underground Railroad
Runaway advertisements in newspapers
Check this space for future updates!
Hampden County, MA: Black Families in Hampden County, 1650-1865
United States 1830 Census: Free Negro Heads of Families
New Bedford, MA: BIPOC Residents Project
New Bedford, MA: Whaling Ship Crew Lists
Peoples of Color in Bristol County, Massachusetts Prior to 1880
Ancestor Spotlight: Henry B. Freeman
In the early 19th century, New Bedford provided many opportunities in the maritime industry that appealed to formerly enslaved people across the Diaspora. Joining the crew of a whaling ship was especially attractive, as the long voyages at sea could help formerly enslaved men avoid recapture. One such crew member was Henry B. Freeman. Born in Smithfield, North Carolina, he arrived in New Bedford during the 1830s.
Freedom on the Move: Rediscovering the Stories of Self-Liberating People
Online database of "runaway slave" ads
Bolster, Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997. View Catalog
Grover, Kathryn. The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts . Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001. View Catalog
Handsman, Russel G., Kathryn Grover, and Donald Warrin. New Bedford Communities of Whaling: People of Wampanoag, African and Portuguese Island Descent, 1825 – 1925, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Special Ethnographic Report, National Park Service, Boston, MA 2021. Read Online
Hayden, Robert C. African-Americans and Cape Verdean-Americans in New Bedford: A History of Community and Achievement . Boston: Select Publications, 1993. Read Online
Mulderink III, Earl F. New Bedford’s Civil War. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012. View Catalog
Newby-Alexander, Cassandra. Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad . Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2017. View Catalog
Putney, Martha S. Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War . New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Read Online
Walker, Timothy, ed. Sailing to Freedom: Maritime Dimensions of the Underground Railroad . Amherst, MA and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2021. View Catalog