The Problem with Archives: A Portrait is Worth Our Words

Runaway Slave Posters as an Artistic and Historic Artifact

A Summary

A Portrait is Worth Our Words focuses on rehumanizing Enslaved Black people whose stories will never be fully known and providing a platform for the ordinary Black elders, who lived through Jim Crow and defacto Segregation, to share their personal experiences of that time.

Wanted: Runaways is a series of portraits inspired by runawayslave adds features on the Freedom On the Move database. Using the descriptors provided by the enslavers, Young created her own interpretation of the runaway enslaved. Specific physical facial descriptors such as scars or dis-figurations are painted in a more realistic style while the rest of the face is represented by the actuals words of the advertisements used to describe the enslaved..

The Source

For this project all of the runaway notices features are from the Freedom On the Move database is a collaborative project between a handful of universities in the United States. This collective of data shows a brief insight into how enslavers utilized newspaper ads to maintain control over the movements of enslaved African Americans in the United States for decades. Freedom on the Moves provides digital scans of the original ads as well as a crowdsourced transcription of the text.

To learn more about Freedom On The Move please visit their website at

The Importance

Each of these portraits is the artist's interpenetration and illustrates how for many African Americans, the further back they look in their history the more impossible it is to gain a clear picture.

Many moments in Black History are whitewashed and sometimes pieces of information can only be found using the biased and blatantly ignorant words of racists of the past. Many historically white institutions will express how they are diverse, but they do not always acknowledge the struggle that African Americans face when trying to find a clear picture of their history.


A Negro

A person of Black African ancerstory.


The child of a European and a Black.


Indicates lighter skin color or mixed ancerstory.


A person who is one quarter blacck by descent; One Black grandparent, child of a mulatto and a white person.

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Special Thanks

To all the departments and faculty at MSU who helped provide a location for the Runaways. Your support and enthusiasm for this project is greatly appreciated.