Monday, December 7, 2009

Digital Database Names The Nameless

An Advertisement For A 1769 Slave Auction.

Imagine you're an amateur genealogist. You want to learn more about the history of your family. Where do you start? By tracing legal records bearing your family name, of course. But what if in the legal census, the age, race, and gender of your ancestors was recorded but never their names. What if your family members were considered not people but property?

This is the dilemma facing not only genealogists but historians when they wish to find out more about the estimated 12 million men, women, and children who came to the United States not as immigrants but as slaves. A new online resource, The Digital Library on American Slavery, has uncovered the previously lost identities of roughly 80,000 slaves and 8,000 free people of color. The database offers a fascinating, if tragic, glimpse into the lives of a small fraction of the United States residents deemed "three-fifths of a person" by the Founding Fathers.

An 1861 "Slave Map." The darker areas represent proportionally higher slave populations. Compiled by mapmaker A. von Steinwehr.

The Digital Library on American Slavery is the product of 18 years of painstaking research conducted by the History Department of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Led by Professor Loren Schweninger, the researchers visited hundreds of county courthouses and archives in 15 states and the District of Columbia uncovering legal documents, called "petitions" which were often the only records ever to include the names of slaves.

Chowan County Courthouse, Edenton, NC.
One source of the documents used to create The Digital Library On American Slavery.

And the names are only the beginning of the tales told by the petitions. The database includes a summary of the contents of each document, (The full documents are available on microfilm.) and the stories they tell are amazingly detailed and unbearably sad. Petitions by emancipated slaves attempting to free their own, still enslaved, family members are among the most heartbreaking.

Cover of A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks, Series II: Petitions to Southern County Courts, 1775-1867, Part B: Maryland (1775-1866, Delaware (1779-1857), District of Columbia (1803-1865)

The story of William Moreton, a freed slave from Lousiana is recounted in Petition Analysis Record #11000014: "William Moreton and his wife, Violet, were emancipated by Jesse Carter in Louisiana about 1814. The Moretons left their daughter, Charlotte, in the possession of Carter, as a slave for life. After Carter's death, the couple bought Charlotte for $352. Moreton now petitions to free his daughter. He writes, "Your Petitioner although' a colored man is not devoid of feelings of humanity and nature & considers it against the laws of nature to hold his own offspring in a state of servitude."

Poster For The Play: Let My People Go.
An Original Theatre Piece Based On The Stories In The Petitions.

Even more shocking is the tale of Percy Ann Martin, a free woman of color asking the North Carolina courts to make her once again a slave. The abstract of Petition Number 11286301 reads: "Percy Ann Martin states that "she belongs to that class of our population called 'free negroes' and has had a husband for the last five years who is a slave." Martin laments that her said husband "has been sold under execution, and she is informed that the marriage and cohabitation between her and her husband is against the law and will be broken off." Confiding that "she is attached to her husband and does not wish to be seperated from him," Martin cites that she is "poor, has no property" and is unsure of how she will support herself "in these time of scarcity of provisions and high prices." Being “fully of the opinion that her Condition as a slave under a good master is greatly to be preferred to her Condition as a houseless and suffering free negro," Martin prays that an act be passed "reducing her to slavery and respectfully solicits that she may be made the slave of Henderson Adams Esqr who is the owner of her husband."

The Digital Library on American Slavery may be searched by names, keywords, and subject headings. Each slave and free person of color in the database has been give a "Personal Profile" including as much information as can be gleaned from the legal record. Last name, first name, nicknames, aliases, age, gender, date and place of birth and death, occupation, education, physical attributes, and personal history of emancipation, punishment, residence on a plantation or in an urban or rural area, and even any references to the individual's moral character are all included whenever possible. In short, the database attempts to humanize those who for so long were considered merely property.

An 1811 Portrait of Elizabeth Freeman,
The First Slave To Win Her Freedom In A Massachusetts Court.

When one segment of humanity endeavors to subjugate or eliminate another, the first step is to paint those to be dominated as inferior and less than fully human. If history tells the tale of an individual and insists on that person's unique identity and singular life story, he can no longer be treated as part of a nameless, faceless, class undeserving of common decency. The Digital Library On American Slavery, and others projects like it, let us see the individual tragedies of the previously unknown millions destroyed by hatred, greed, and prejudice. And as writer and social critic Lillian Smith noted: "Here is the real enemy of the people: our own selves dehumanized into 'the masses'.''

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