Massive New Database Will Finally Allow Us to Identify Enslaved Peoples and Their Descendants in the Americas

Throughout the history of the so-called “New World,” people of African descent have faced a yawning chasm where their ancestry should be. People bought and sold to labor on plantations lost not only their names but their connections to their language, tradition, and culture. Very few who descend from this painful legacy know exactly where their ancestors came from. The situation contributes to what Toni Morrison calls the “dehistoricizing allegory” of race, a condition of “foreclosure rather than disclosure.” To compound the loss, most descendants of slaves have been unable to trace their ancestry further back than 1870, the first year in which the Census listed African Americans by name.

But the recent work of several enterprising scholars is helping to disclose the histories of enslaved people in the Americas. For example, The Freedman’s Bureau Project has made 1.5 million documents available to the public, in a searchable database that combines traditional scholarship with digital crowdsourcing.

And now, a just-announced Michigan State University project—supported by a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation—will seek to “change the way scholars and the public understand African slavery.” Called “Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade,” the multi-phase endeavor is expected to take 18 months to complete an “online hub,” reports Smithsonian, linking together dozens of databases from all over the world.

“By linking data collections from multiple universities,” writes MSU Today, the resulting website “will allow people to search millions of pieces of slave data to identify enslaved individuals and their descendants from a central source. Users can also run analyses of enslaved populations and create maps, charts and graphics.” The project is headed by MSU’s Dean Rehberger, director of Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at MSU; Ethan Watrall, assistant professor of anthropology; and Walter Hawthorne, professor and chair of MSU’s history department and a specialist in African and African American history.

In addition to publishing several books on the Atlantic slave trade, Hawthorne has worked on previous digital history projects like the website Slave Biographies, which compiles information on the “names, ethnicities, skills, occupations, and illnesses” of enslaved individuals in Maranhão, Brazil and colonial Louisiana. In the video above, you can see him describe this latest project, which coincides with MSU’s “Year of Global Africa,” an 18-month celebration of the university’s many partnerships on the continent and “throughout the African Diaspora.”

Digital history projects like those spearheaded by Hawthorne and other researchers help not only scholars but also the general public develop a much more nuanced understanding of the history of slavery. These tools provide a wealth of information, but they cannot truly capture the emotional and psychological impact of the history. For such an understanding, Morrison said in the first of her 2016 Harvard Norton lectures, “I look to literature for guidance.”

via Smithsonian Magazine

Related Content:

African-American History: Modern Freedom Struggle (A Free Course from Stanford)

1.5 Million Slavery Era Documents Will Be Digitized, Helping African Americans to Learn About Their Lost Ancestors

The Anti-Slavery Alphabet: 1846 Book Teaches Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils

Albert Einstein Explains How Slavery Has Crippled Everyone’s Ability (Even Aristotle’s) to Think Clearly About Racism

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (59)
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  • Daphine L. Johnson says:

    Looking forward to be able to access slavery era documents, researching four family surnames, one name McDaniels goes back to 1870; and possibility of 1860 no clear way to define the credibility! This would certainly be a nice tool to have! Keep me posted via email once the documents are available in 18 months! Thanks

  • Cathy Morrison says:

    The slaves went threw
    Hell. Just like the natives. They’ve lost there way of how they used to live.there lagwig.and there tadrishons.
    My prayers are with you’s .
    Cathy Morrison.

  • Ola says:

    I would love to get info on my family. Please include me in updates.

  • Rundy Pryor says:

    I have trace my slave ancestors from Amherst County Virginia to Texas my home state. I would like to find out more about my slave ancestors that were enslaved on the Pryor Plantation in Amherst County Virginia.

  • DAOUD BINBEK says:

    THIS WILL be intriguing already I’ve broken the “1870” barrier and researching plantations.

  • Joyce BrownCoates Tyson says:

    Kindly include me on all notifications.Thank You!

  • Betsy Tuttle says:

    I am adopted and recently received dna results. I was surprised to find that I have West African dna because I look white. How can I further search my ancestry when I only know the last name of my birthmother?

  • Lillian Torres says:

    Puerto Ricans are a mixture of native Taino,Spanish, and African peoples. Do the records include información on the African Alavés in Puerto Rico?

  • Terri Moore says:

    Searching the sirname Moore

  • Renee Harris says:

    Wonderful! Please keep me posted. Can’t wait for the database to become accessible.

  • Renee Harris says:

    Please keep me posted on when this database becomes accessible. I’ve waited a lifetime to find out where my ancestors were enslaved in these United States.

  • Charlene R Gee says:

    Thank you for this information. I am definitely interested in this researching of my ancestors. Please keep me updated.

  • Jettie craig says:

    Please let me know when the database can be accessed.

  • James Sombe says:

    What’s your mother’s last name. African names can be traced to regions e.g. a south African name will be very different from a Nigerian name. …names will be common to neighboring countries. It’s a starting point.

  • Wesley Hughes says:

    Great initiative. Hope to benefit,

  • Dianne McIlwaine Butler says:

    Have done some research on my own. Found a paternal ancestor back to 1809, very exciting! Looking forward to learning more. Please include me on your mailing list. Thanks

  • Dennis cross says:

    Will people from the Carribean be able to trace their African ancestry

  • Sheena Coleman says:

    Am lookimg fohrward to using it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Shelby R Bender says:

    I was reading over this new source and low and behold the pop up ad on the right is the cover from a book I wrote, Tampa’s Historic Cemeteries…what a great feeling to see my book.

  • Babs says:

    Tracing my family names: White & Smith. Using National Archives. Will love access to more documents. Please inform when that database is available to the public.

  • Jainice says:

    Looking forward to using the database.

  • Kimberly Lemer says:

    In very old family records I found while researching my own ancestry I found documents with slave names. Only first names I’m afraid but I would be happy to share what info I have. These records were from Coldspring, TX. I believe that is San Jacinto county. My understanding is that there was also a plantation in southwest Louisiana. I will turn my focus to that part of my research. I hope that the project outlined in the article opens up a whole new ancestry world for African Americans!

  • Sharon Mack says:

    I have hit the “brick wall” in finding out information on my slave relatives, so I would very much love to have access to this “Slave Biographies” database. THANK YOU.

  • Linda Charles-Norwood says:

    Very interesting in finding my ancestors.

  • Judith A Giesberg says:

    This is going to be a terrific resource. Readers should also make use of the database

  • Lacrissia Simms says:

    So excited about this !!! Have been searching family ancestors for two years. I have hit a wall with finding them before 1843. Looking for ggg grandparents. Please keep me posted when the data base is accessible. Thank you

  • Leslie G says:

    I am also interested in furthing my research of my parents ancestors.

  • Angelica W says:

    I am very excited about this project and look forward to actually using it for my research! Please include me in any updates. Thank you!

  • Sherlene Anne Smith says:

    Good day , this has been a long time waiting & I’m so GLAD. I have been searching since 2000 & have spent TON’S OF WASTED MONEY. Looking 4 SLAVES that came from AFRICA NIGERIA they brought 2 BERMUDA THEN TAKEN 2 BAHAMAS ? Please keep in touch & THANK U THANK U .

  • Abdul Alim says:

    I am truly interested in finding out about my heritage and my family background I only asked you to keep me informed and post it on all updates

  • Rachel Bellefant says:

    Hello I think its a very nice thing that you are doing .And O to am intrested in finding my ancestors.Thanks so much for all that you you.

  • Fredrick Chambers says:

    Looking for information about my family. My great,great grandfather took the last name Butler,because he worked as a butler in his master’s house and he didn’t want to use his master’s last name. I would love to know where my ancestors came from.

  • Grantley Lashley says:

    I was born in Barbados , I can only back As far as my mother mother mother, no further. I don’t know which part of Africa my great great great grandfatgrandmother came from
    I don’t I would definitely like know
    Can wait enough when I can know my ancestry

  • Tina Smith says:

    Please keep me updated. Interested in slavery in the state of Virginia.

  • susanne st john says:

    I am interested in my family history which includes a slave somewhere in the area of 1740 to 1834 in Virginia. I will search this website more.

  • Angela Johnson says:

    Please notify me when the database can be used. I would love to further my family tree

  • Ashanta Abdur-Rauf says:

    This is amazing!!! Please notify me when this becomes available.

  • Arnette Shaw says:

    I would like to be notified when this become available.

  • Ann Stokes says:

    This project will enlighten so many people.
    I believe there were enslaved people in my family tree and need more information. Please include me to be notified about this extremely important research! Thank you.

  • Kenneth Scott says:

    I would love to know about who was my ancestors so please can you keep me up to date when it happened thank you very much for this knowledge

  • Lyn Overton says:

    I Just now saw this web site. I am caucasian. A few years ago, I collected substantial slave data on my family’s slaves in northeast Missouri, trying to identify the names of the faceless slaves, their parents, their marriages, their children, their descendants, etc. I traced slave connections back to the 1790s mainly in Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri with a total of about 250 slave names. I also picked up the identity of the slave onwers, African Civil War service records, WWW II service, etc. I even identified a few African ‘cousin’ lines related to me, some verified by DNA matching. I have made personal contact with a few descendant cousins. I have this data in text format and would be willing to forward it to the data base or anyone else interested. The primary family names were Keith, Nalley, Parsons, etc., plus interrelated family lines. After slavery, the family lines spread into Illinois primarily and then scattered in typical American fashion.

  • Kim says:

    Would love to be updated on this amazing project. Thanks

  • Lisa says:

    A AA. Researcher.

  • Cyndi says:

    I am just curious to know if they also kept record of the enslaved individual African names. For a example if their name was Kofi Boateng sold to John Smith would that be in the records?

  • Rhonda says:

    I have been researching to find my grandparents from Mississippi,natchez,Biloxi etc but I can’t seem to connect with Vince or Vincent’s. Would love to be updated on this amazing project. Thanks

  • Janie Cooper-Wilson says:

    This is WONDERFUL NEWS! This database will hopefully bring closure to many people of color, here in Ontario and around the world. Please keep me updated. Thank you and God Bless you for the amazing work you are doing to give back our illustrious heritage.

    Janie Cooper-Wilson, Historian

  • Earline Bentley says:

    Please include my name on the Database. I’d love to know who my ancestors were.
    Thank you.
    Earline Gillum Bentley

  • Cheryll Washington says:

    Looking forward to the discovery of me… completely. Broken or loss pieces coming together again. Hopefully aligning with the stories passed down. Generational catch-up.

  • Raymonda Allen says:

    Interested in learning more about the connection between native americans and their slaves.

  • M. Tanner says:

    Please forward your research info.

  • Sagi says:

    I recommend going to the facebook group called DNA Detectives. You will be taught or helped. Good luck.

  • Georgia Champion says:

    I would like to receive notifications about this. Thank you.

  • Loretta Hines says:

    My father went to his grave not knowing that he was an orphan. He was an outcast, loner, separated from his biological family. Staten said he was born Feb3, 1916 in Rosedale, MS, but preparing his obituary was supposedary, I inquiry one of the children that he was in the house with unto he left home at age 14, because the Farm work was too hard, the overseer hollered, “pull that mile nigger”, repeatedly; said my dad was born in Malvina, I don’t know if that is correct or not. I wonder if he, Staten Hines was on the ‘baby train .came from New York. His mom could have died in childbirth & no relatives was around & the neighbors took him or he could have been taken in as a small boy. He was in the Household of Ben b. 1883 to d.1959, & Mary Ella Moore b.Feb1887 to d.1930. Ben & Mary Ella was born in Charlotte North Carolina.

  • Santiago says:

    hello Betsy, if u are on your matchez will come up irregardless uv the name cauz like the maury show sez “dna duzznt lie”😁 I’ve only been on the site 1 month & have run across at least 3 ppl I share dna 🧬 with who were adopted..even if your mother duzznt submit her dna if any1 related 2 her duz u will see at least sum connection.. I talked 2 a man who rezidez n my same city last nite who never met hiz father but izza distant kuzzin 2 me in hiz fatherz side… I am the 1st person frum that side who haz responded 2 or contacted him.. we shall meet soon.. just do it 😁

  • Santiago says:

    I doubt it because they tried 2 strip everything away frum us. 2 uze our true namez & languagez wud havv been counterproductive. 2,their d-zirez 2,dehumanize & chattelize us,….

  • John David Mayo says:

    William H Gaines is my 3rd great grandfather. He freed 165 slaves from there. I am willing to share stories. I have a diary and letters photos of my 2nd generation. All my family freed total of 250 slaves. Every male in my family under the age of 18 fought in the civil war. Captain Morgan was the step father of Sir John Gaines my 11th great grandfather.

    Sincerely John David Mayo

  • Angela B Bell says:

    Please let me know when I can access the database

  • Betty Graham says:

    I would like to be informed as soon as this database becomes available.

  • Angela Mallory says:

    Hi, my family surname is Mcdaniel or Mcdaniels depending on which member you ask. They are from Amherst, virgina but I have not been able to go further than 1863. We may be related some where along the line, please shoot me an email.

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