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Who Were America’s Enslaved? A New Database Humanizes the Names Behind the Numbers


The night before Christmas in 1836, an enslaved man named Jim made final preparations for his escape. As his enslavers, the Roberts family of Charlotte County, Virginia, celebrated the holiday, Jim fled west to Kanawha County, where his wife’s enslaver, Joseph Friend, had recently moved. Two years had passed without Jim’s capture when Thomas Roberts published a runaway ad pledging $200 (around $5,600 today) for the 38- to 40-year-old’s return.

“Jim is … six feet or upwards high, tolerably spare made, dark complexion, has rather an unpleasant countenance,” wrote Roberts in the January 5, 1839, issue of the Richmond Enquirer. “[O]ne of his legs is smaller than the other, he limps a little as he walks—he is a good blacksmith, works with his left hand to the hammer.” 

In his advertisement, Roberts admits that Jim may have obtained free papers, but beyond that, Jim’s fate, and that of his wife, is lost to history.

Fragments of stories like Jim’s—of lives lived under duress, in the framework of an inhumane system whose aftershocks continue to shape the United States—are scattered across archives, libraries, museums, historical societies, databases and countless other repositories, many of which remain uncatalogued and undigitized. All too often, scholars pick up loose threads like Jim’s, incomplete narratives that struggle to be sewn together despite the wealth of information available.

Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade, a newly launched digital database featuring 613,458 entries (and counting), seeks to streamline the research process by placing dozens of complex datasets in conservation with each other. If, for instance, a user searches for a woman whose transport to the Americas is documented in one database but whose later life is recorded in another, the portal can connect these details and synthesize them.

“We have these data sets, which have a lot of specific information taken in a particular way, [in] fragments,” says Daryle Williams, a historian at the University of Maryland and one of the project’s principal investigators. “... [If] you put enough fragments together and you put them together by name, by place, by chronology, you begin to have pieces of lives, which were lived in a whole way, even with the violence and the disruptions and the distortions of enslavement itself. We [can] begin then to construct or at least understand a narrative life.”

Continue reading the full article here. 


Date of Publication: 
Friday, December 11, 2020