The Orleans Daily Delta, a long-defunct New Orleans newspaper, had in its August 12, 1852 edition a short advertisement that read thus: “One cent reward for Francis or Franklin Allen, a runaway apprentice. He is a good bartender, about fourteen, fair and blue-eyed.” Those who have studied the history of slavery in that part of the country can quickly read in those short lines deep, deep implications about all sorts of things that the untrained eye would miss.

First, the reward asked is, by historical standards of the time, quite suspiciously small. Second, the slave in question is referred to as an “apprentice,” which, in combination with the age and background as a “bartender,” hints at a special status close to the slave-owning family. Third, the runaway slave’s surname is listed, which is very uncommon. Finally, the young man is described as “fair” and “blue eyed.”

This published  “runaway notice,” mentioned in Lyle Saxon’s 1945 book Gumbo Ya-Ya, is an advertisement taken out by the runaway’s owner who, from these hints, is guessed to also probably be the boy’s father or possibly grandfather. The low reward, the mention of eye color, the stating of the boy’s familiarity with the family’s supply of liquors and bitters all point in one direction: the owner was announcing that he had let his son or grandson go free and that, at one cent reward, it would not be worthwhile to return him. A curious reader might ask: why publish the notice at all if the intent was to let a slave go? The answer is simple and sad: manumission (the freeing of slaves) by living masters was illegal in 1852 in Louisiana, and so the ad had to be taken out lest the slaveowner/male relative be held criminally suspect for the simple act of freeing his own child.

Chattel slavery’s inefficiency, byzantine rules and moral emptiness are illustrated in this short, sad and unexpectedly complex newspaper notice from 160 years ago. It is no wonder that slaves risked death or bodily punishment to escape such a life, to help others escape or that white people of conscience sometimes helped as they could, often themselves at serious risk of life and livelihood. In September, we celebrate the Underground Railroad, as the Mayor and Council have proclaimed September to be “Underground Railroad Month.” Below is a list of materials that will help those wishing to learn more about the Underground Railroad — of which south central Iowa and West Des Moines in particular was an important part.