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These ads are where real truth lies.” Enslaved people lived with the constant fear that they or a family member would be sold.

“Slave owners’ wealth lay largely in the people they owned, therefore, they frequently sold and or purchased people as finances warranted,” according to a report by the National Humanities Center, a nonprofit that collects primary historical resources.

Those ads are now being digitized in a project called “Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery,” which is run by Villanova University’s graduate history program in collaboration with Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel AME Church.They were often listed on bills of sale, like chattel.When researchers try to get information on enslaved black people, they often hit a brick wall when searching for information before 1870.Ten months after the Civil War ended, an enslaved woman who had been ripped away from her children started looking for them.Elizabeth Williams, who had been sold twice since she last saw her children, placed a heart-wrenching ad in a newspaper: “INFORMATION WANTED by a mother concerning her children,” Williams wrote March 17, 1866, in the Christian Recorder newspaper in Philadelphia.Many of the Last Seen ads, dating from 1863 to 1902, were placed in the Christian Recorder, the official newspaper of the African Methodist Church.

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