Tuesday, April 16, 2013

RANAWAY - An Expression of Agency

My Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, defines "agency" as - 1: "the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power." 2. "a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved."

Most enslaved people were unable to exercise much agency in their day-to-day lives. Yes, they could choose to feign sickness to avoid a day's work, and they could break their tools to delay the dissatisfaction of working for another man's profit. They could even, on rare occasions, rebel against authority and strike back at those that owned or dominated them. But these expressions of agency usually had severe repercussions and offered little hope of ultimately changing their condition permanently.

Running away, however, offered the possibility (albeit risky) of forever ending their enslaved life and the opportunity to finally make decisions for oneself. It was a risk many men and women were willing to take.

Escaping confinement in pursuit of freedom is almost as old as slavery itself. When fortuitous opportunities arose that enslaved people thought would increase their chance of success, they often took to the woods, fields, and streams to escape bondage. The occasions varied and may have been when the master was away for an extended period, or it might have been on a Saturday night when the slave knew they had until Monday morning to make as much distance as possible. Or, it might have been when given a pass, which allowed him or her to be off the master's property.

The turmoil that the Civil War engendered in Southern society afforded more opportunities than previously possible for slaves. The region's myriad newspaper advertisements for runaways bear vivid evidence. The above advertisement is a perfect example. Hundreds of similar ads were place from 1861-1865 and show us that some slaves exercised agency in attempt to change their situations.

In this particular ad, after a brief physical description, the owner provided an idea to where the thought the man may have gone. "Said negro ran off a few weeks before, made his way to [Union] Camp Dick Robinson, where, after some time, he was apprehended."  The master also believed that "It is possible he has gone in the same direction again."

Slaves understood much better than their master's gave them credit that the Civil War would ultimately be a war over slavery, whether that aim was  recognized and expressed by the government or not.

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