A Negro Man Named Mary

As a fugitive from the neo-American plantation myself, I have always read with fascination advertisements for so-called runaway “slaves.” Such ads appeared regularly in American newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries. They alerted the public to the escapades and exploits of fugitives, and provided publishers—even Benjamin Franklin and others like him who opposed slavery—with a steady source of income. In the Northern states where slavery had been abolished the advertisements offered direct financial incentives for Southern sympathizers to support the slaveocracy. They also helped to foster and maintain a hostile environment where both “free blacks” and runaways lived in constant fear of capture and extradition.

The articles of clothing worn by the targets of the ads generally received as much attention as their country marks (“tribal” scars), skin color, and other physical characteristics. I find the detailed descriptions of apparel particularly satisfying given the indications that some runaways may have “liberated” a few of the best items from their masters’ wardrobes before setting out in search of freedom. They did so knowing the better they dressed the more likely they could circumvent and fool the authorities. Such boldness and ingenuity appalled and enraged their “owners.” But my reading of the anger and anguish of the slaveocrats at the loss and betrayal of their ungrateful “property” makes my rebellious heart glad. Who can blame me for imagining good old Jupiter, elegantly attired in his former master’s finest frock coat, settling down with a cup of hot cider before a roaring fire in a cabin somewhere near the Michigan/Canada border, while five hundred miles away, Marse Beauregard, with his wife’s spare shawl wrapped tightly around his shoulders, paces haltingly back and forth before an empty hearth in the frigid parlor of his old Kentucky home.

Despite having read many such advertisements over the years, nothing prepared me for the one I posted below. In it we are confronted by the description of a suspected escape artist who redefined the notion of “dress for success.” This perhaps is a case where the Underground Railroad may have helped a runaway escape from slavery and come out of the “closet” at the same time.

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