Free people sought reunion with friends and family after emancipation
In just a few column inches, she describes how, decades prior, her mother, stepfather, and nine siblings, all enslaved at the time, were stolen from a Texas plantation and sold to different people across Mississippi and Louisiana. She and her siblings “were all my mother had when separated,” she writes, and she mentions all of them by name, as well as their enslavers. Her hope was that someone reading the column would recognize a name and help her to reunite with her loved ones all those years later.
Flowers’s advertisement is one of thousands placed by formerly enslaved people who sought to piece together their families post-emancipation. Entries from the columns have been available online through The Historic New Orleans Collection’s “Lost Friends” database since 2015. Now, a new novel and a unique genealogical project are bringing fresh attention to the countless stories of separation and struggle all but forgotten in the tragedy of slavery.
At THNOC, work on the database began in preparation for the exhibition Purchased Lives: New Orleans and the Domestic Slave Trade, 1808–1865. Curator Erin M. Greenwald (now editor-in-chief of this magazine) tapped THNOC volunteer Diane Plauché to help populate the database with names, places, and other details from each “Lost Friends” listing, which would bring the information—previously found only in hard copy or microfilm—into a searchable online format.
Plauché was familiar with genealogical research related to slavery. Her husband, Andy Plauché, has ancestors—the Lane family—who came from Maine before the Civil War and bought a cotton plantation in East Feliciana Parish, and the home has remained in his family.
In researching family letters, financial records, and other historical documents, Plauché was able to piece together details about the enslaved persons who lived, worked, and died on the plantation. From that research, she constructed a database that included names, birth and death years, and other details. Because a number of the descendants of the enslaved persons, including the present-day Miller family, remain in the area, Plauché embarked on a series of personal meetings to share her research. These conversations led to a 1999 reunion, when about eighty descendants of both the Lane and Miller families gathered at the former plantation to reconnect and discuss their shared history.
Plauché took the experience into her work for The Historic New Orleans Collection, where she set out to index information from more than 2,500 “Lost Friends” ads. She carefully read and reread each entry, obsessing over every detail so that they could be searched and potentially lead researchers or descendants to their stories.
“I could probably get through about thirty ads a day,” said Plauché, who worked with THNOC Photographer Melissa Carrier, Programmer Andy Forester, Digital Assets Manager Kent Woynowski, and Database Manager Lindsey Barnes to get the material online. “You don’t just read the ad once; you have to read the ad six or seven times . . . so I would just have to shut it down and go breathe and walk around before I could get back on it again.”
Around the same time, Plauché was reading Lisa Wingate’s novel Before We Were Yours (Ballantine Books, 2017), a fictionalized account of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, where, from the late 1920s until 1950, children were stolen from poor families and adopted out for profit. A line on the dedication page struck her as familiar: “For the hundreds who vanished and thousands who didn’t, may your stories not be forgotten.”
Plauché sent the author an email, urging her to look at the “Lost Friends” database. “There is a story in each one of the ads,” she wrote.
Wingate responded to Plauché’s email in less than a day, and from there, the two took up regular correspondence as Wingate dove deeper into the database. Plauché told her about Caroline Flowers; while all “Lost Friends” advertisements tell stories, Flowers’s ad is especially detailed and follows a clear, horrific narrative of a family being ripped apart and scattered across multiple states. “Our first owner was Jeptha Wooten, who carried us all from Mississippi to Texas, where he died,” Flowers writes. “We were stolen from Texas by Green Wooten, a nephew of Jeptha, who brought us back to Mississippi, on Pearl River, where he sold us to a lawyer named Bakers Baken, who seems not to have paid for us.”
Wingate stopped work on her manuscript and began writing a novel based on the advertisement. Called The Book of Lost Friends (Ballantine Books, 2020), it follows Hannie, a formerly enslaved woman who embarks on a journey with two companions to trace the paths of her family members.
“There are people out there carrying these names,” Wingate said. “And they may not know that they’re only a Google search away from finding them in the ‘Lost Friends’ database.”
These connections are already being discovered through the Georgetown Memory Project, which aims to identify the more than three hundred individuals who were sold by Georgetown University in 1838. According to project founder Richard Cellini, the project has made 230 identifications so far, thanks in part to the “Lost Friends” database. Beyond the nuts-and-bolts work of these efforts, Cellini said, the advertisements offer “incontrovertible proof of a point that should never have to be proven: the victims of antebellum US slavery were real people, with real names, and real families.
“These ads are the ultimate testimony to the strength, resilience, and resourcefulness of Black families in America.”