Online Library Offers Guide to Forgotten Stories of Slavery
The 1860 U.S. Census registered the names of slave owners and the age, gender and color of slaves. But there, as in much of the historical record, slaves are nameless.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro's new Digital Library on American Slavery -- http://library.uncg.edu/slavery/ -- provides the names of more than 83,000 individual slaves from 15 states and the District of Columbia.
The database indexes petitions related to slavery filed in county courts and state legislatures. The petitions cover a wide range of legal issues, including wills, divorce proceedings, punishment of runaway slaves, calls for abolition, property disputes and more. The full text of the petitions is available on microfilm at many university libraries.
"It's among the most specific and detailed databases and Web sites dealing with slavery in the U.S. between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War," said Dr. Loren Schweninger, the UNCG history professor who directed the collection of the petitions. "There's no Web site like this, either in extent or content. The amount of information in here to be mined is enormous."
Schweninger, the Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor in History, led the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, an 18-year effort to collect, organize and publish the petitions that began in 1991. The Digital Library on American Slavery, created in cooperation with University Libraries of UNCG, is the final phase of the project.
A complete collection of the full petitions, "Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks: Petitions to Southern Legislatures and County Courts, 1775-1867," has been published on 151 reels of microfilm. In addition to UNCG's Jackson Library, North Carolina university libraries with all or part of the microfilm collection are located at Duke, East Carolina, N.C. A&T, UNC-Chapel Hill and Wake Forest.
Schweninger knows the value of conducting research from primary sources, something he learned from his mentor, the late Dr. John Hope Franklin. The stories he found in legal records were often not preserved anywhere else.
"This was info that was not tapped," he said. "Very few scholars had gone to county courts."
Building the database for the archive was painstaking work. Schweninger visited about 160 county courthouses in the South and 15 state archives between 1991 and 1995.
"The first three years, I was on the road 540 days," he said.
Marguerite Ross Howell, senior associate editor, worked on the project for 11 years and was responsible for entering tens of thousands of slave names and connecting them with their own family members as well as their owners, creating a unique resource from original documents. Nicole Mazgaj, associate editor, worked on the project for seven years and focused her analysis especially on the rich documentary evidence from parish court houses in Louisiana.
"The archive is chock-full of information detailing the personal life of slaves," Mazgaj said. "It's probably about the most detailed that you'll find."
The project was supported by $1.5 million in grant money, a particularly impressive sum in the humanities, from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and UNCG.
The library includes petitions by more than 2,500 slaves and free blacks who sought redress for numerous causes. For example, George Sears of Randolph County, a blacksmith and a free man of color, purchased his slave wife, Tillah, for $300. He then petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly in 1818 to emancipate his wife and daughters and "render them Competent in Law to inherit the Estate of your Petitioner."
Other petitions show how race and slave status were sometimes in dispute. In one case, a Georgia slave owner sued one of his neighbors for slander for calling him a "damned negro," averring that he was a black man. In another, a woman in Baltimore petitioned for divorce because her husband "instead of being a white man is a mulatto and in reality had been born a slave." A New Orleans teenager who was put on the auction block to be sold as a slave asserted in her petition that she was in fact a free white woman.
A number of the petitions also speak to how slaves fought their enslavement, providing details of slaves who ran away, burned down plantations or plotted to murder slave owners. As the petitions show, the position of free blacks in the South was also precarious, especially as certain states and counties sought to expel them or refused to allow them to enter.
In some cases, whites petitioned for free blacks to be allowed to remain in the state, citing their value to the community. In others, a few free blacks petitioned to be returned to slavery so that they could be with loved ones who were slaves.
One such case occurred in Davidson County in the midst of the Civil War, when free black Percy Ann Martin petitioned to become a slave. Martin states "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."
She laments that her 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 [sic] from him," Martin cites that she is "poor, has no property" and is unsure of how she will support herself "in these times of scarcity of provisions and high prices."
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