UNCG Campus Weekly

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Untold stories: American slavery archives at UNCG

In UNCG’s University Libraries there exists a nationally significant resource for American history. It was built in-house, and it’s gaining more and more recognition.

The Digital Library on American Slavery (DLAS) is an extensive collection of documents focused on race and slavery in the American South. It’s the largest single index to slave-related public documents from the pre-Civil war era from the Southern states, and the largest collection of names of African Americans from that period. The collections are not only valuable to the UNCG community, but to scholars and writers worldwide—for instance, writer Colson Whitehead, who mentions the DLAS in his acknowledgments of his novel, the 2016 National Book Award winner, “The Underground Railroad.”

Additionally, media attention for the resource is growing. Recently, Richard Cox, UNCG’s digital technology consultant who manages the DLAS, was interviewed by Fox 8 News about the collections – the report will air Feb. 22. This spring, he will also give presentations on it at The High Point Museum and at several history-focused conferences.

“The value is in the uniqueness of the resource,” Cox says. “The amount of information, through primary sources, available here that gives the user a window not only into slavery but into broader aspects of life at the time, is amazing. It helps people better understand their personal history as well as finding a place in the broader history of the country.”

The library staff is constantly taking in other public document groups as they receive them. In building and promoting the databases, Cox is also joined by developer Daniel Nanez, and other partners in the community, such as the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the Heritage Research Center, and the Division of Archives and Records and the Register of Deeds.

How was this outstanding resource created at UNCG?

Since 1991, Dr. Loren Schweninger, now professor emeritus of history at UNCG, had been at work on the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, a collection of petitions that came from 200 county courthouse and 15 state archives, and covered a wide range of legal issues, including wills, inventories, bills of sales, divorce proceedings, punishment of runaway slaves, calls for abolition, property disputes, amended petitions and more—a goldmine of untold biographies.

In the field of American history, there was a tremendous need for such a project—while the 1860 U.S. Census registered the names of slave owners and the age, gender and color of slaves, the slaves’ names were not recorded. Before Schweninger began the Petitions project, few scholars had dug into county courts with such intensity, and his work became one of the most—if not the most—detailed database concerning slavery in the U.S. between the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

In 2005, Schweninger received a $200,000 award from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create the DLAS. It was one of the largest humanities grants in the UNCG’s history. Marguerite Ross Howell, senior associate editor, and Nicole Mazgaj, associate editor, worked with Schweninger on entering data and connecting histories through the documents.

Their work, the searchable Race and Slavery Petitions Project includes information on 150,000 people, 2,975 legislative petitions and 14,512 county court petitions, with more than 2,500 from slaves and free blacks. There are records of purchasing and emancipation, escapes, petitions from whites on behalf of slaves and even petitions from freed slaves to be returned to slavery in order to be with loved ones who had not been emancipated. The number of petitions provides a clear record of the fight against enslavement by the slaves.

The entire resource holds three other crucial collections. One of those is the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements database, managed by University Libraries’ digital projects coordinator David Gwynn. That database provides online access to all known runaway slave advertisements—more than 2300 items—published in North Carolina newspapers from 1751 to 1840. The brief ads provide a glimpse into the social, economic and cultural world of the American slave system and the specific experience within North Carolina. The NCRSA website includes digital scans of the ads, contextual essays to address their historical research value, full text transcripts, an annotated bibliography to aid researchers and a searchable database.

There’s also the People Not Property, Slave Deeds of North Carolina project, the first major effort to digitize slave records statewide. It has involved the work of Sarah Koontz, director of archives and records for North Carolina, and Drew Reisinger, register of deeds for Buncombe County, who have helped in indexing the names of enslaved people from across North Carolina. When completed, the database will include robust metadata, high resolution images and full-text searchable transcripts. The project is currently seeking funding in order to add thousands of new primary source documents, and the intention is open the project to states beyond North Carolina, creating a central location for accessing and researching slave deeds from across the Southern United States.

Also in the DLAS is is a link to Emory University’s Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, which includes 34,946 voyages, 86,689 slave names and 34,551 captain names. It is the culmination of several decades of independent and collaborative research by scholars around the Atlantic world. As part of this project the Voyages website was developed over two years by a multidisciplinary team of historians, librarians, curriculum specialists, cartographers, computer programmers and web designers, in consultation with scholars of the slave trade from universities in Europe, Africa, South America and North America

With this unparalleled set of collections, UNCG offers the campus, and the entire world, access to new ways of studying history and American slavery. Cox reports that the level of community engagement in expanding the resource has been high—local historical research organizations are very interested in making available the documents that explain our past as a state and as a nation, and individual researchers are energized.

“I’ve gotten phone calls from people around the country,” Cox shares. “Not only with questions, but also who just want to talk about what they found, and tell me about their families. It’s very gratifying.  I just want to try to be a good custodian of the data and provide access to the data, and let people do amazing things with it.”

Although the current focus of DLAS is on sources associated with North Carolina, there is considerable data contained relating to all 15 slave states and Washington, D.C., including detailed personal information about slaves, slaveholders and free people of color.

Concerning the possible expansion of the resource, Cox says, “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to work more with partner states to expand our scope, and that one day researchers will pull out data from the project and find something new and exciting that hasn’t been explored before. Finally, I’m hopeful that we can keep working with community leaders to continue to make it an important part of their vibrant communities.”

Upcoming Related Events:

  • The University Archives’ “Hops Into History” event at Gibbs Brewery on Feb. 16 will focus on slavery, through the DLAS, well as through items from the Quaker collections at Guilford College. Come to chat with an archivist 5 to 7 p.m.
  • On Saturday, Feb. 25, at 1 p.m., Richard Cox, manager of the DLAS, will give a presentation at The High Point Museum regarding an exhibit titled “Bills of Sale: Slave Deeds of Guilford County.” The exhibit will be open through April 14 and Cox was on the steering committee.  More details may be found here.
  • On Thursday, March 16, Richard Cox will be joined by Christy Hyman, Marcellaus Joiner and Erin Lawrimore in a presentation exploring hidden African-American history in North Carolina, at the Society of North Carolina Archivists Conference in Asheville.

By Susan Kirby-Smith with some copy drawn from University Libraries’ website and the DLAS.

Next week: Learn how some UNCG faculty are using the DLAS as a teaching tool in their courses.