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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