One of the earliest newspaper advertisements in what would become the United States read, simply, “A Negro Woman about 16 Years Old, to be Sold by John Campbell Post-master, to be seen at his house next door to the Anchor Tavern.” In addition to being Boston’s postmaster, John Campbell was the publisher of the Boston News-Letter, the continent’s earliest long-running newspaper. As the originator of the American newspaper, Campbell created a template for the editors who followed him. One of the ways he did that was by selling enslaved people.
In recent years, many institutions have begun to grapple with slavery’s role in their formation. Elite colleges like Harvard, Brown, and Georgetown have addressed the ways that slavery shaped their beginnings. Corporations such as Aetna and New York Life have acknowledged selling life insurance policies for enslaved human beings. One institution that has largely escaped this scrutiny has been journalism. Yet the trafficking of enslaved people provided an essential foundation for the American news media.
It was almost midnight on a December evening when I was looking through an early American newspaper database and stumbled across an advertisement much like the one Campbell published. By the time I went to sleep many hours later, I found hundreds of similar examples: in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette, “A likely young Negro Man, fit for Plantation Work, to be sold very reasonable. Enquire of the Printer hereof, and know further”; in the Hartford Connecticut Courant, “A Likely, active healthy Negro Boy, about 15 years of age, to be Sold. Enquire of the Printers”; and in the New-Hampshire Gazette, “A Very Likely, Healthy Negro Lad, About Seventeen Years of Age, To Be Sold. Enquire of the Printers.” Eventually I found thousands of these advertisements.