While there were many ways in which people could benefit from the institution of slavery, slave ownership was the most obvious and direct form of complicity. Student researchers of the Penn & Slavery Project uncovered evidence of slave ownership by Penn's eighteenth-century trustees and faculty using three main methods: tax records, wills, and 18th century newspapers.
When slavery was legal in the United States, enslaved people were considered the property of their owners. As such, enslaved people were listed in the enslaver’s property taxes. By examining the 1769 and 1774 Pennsylvania Tax & Exoneration Records of 18th century trustees and faculty, students uncovered which faculty members and trustees were enslavers, and how many enslaved people those men owned. Several trustees and faculty had probate papers, or wills, prepared before their deaths. These often included inventories of property that listed land, furniture, and enslaved people. The purpose of these documents was to bequeath property, including enslaved people, to heirs.
Eighteenth-century newspapers also provided evidence of slave ownership. Enslavers would post “runaway slave” ads in newspapers. These advertisements could be found alongside announcements for the sale of enslaved people, be they private sales (pictured above) or public auctions. While tax records and probate papers often remained hidden from public view, the Pennsylvania Gazette, owned and edited by Benjamin Franklin, revealed the nature of slave ownership publicly in the form of runaway ads and advertisement for slave sales.
Explore the links to learn more about Penn's early trustees and early faculty and their various connections to the institution of slavery.