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Reconstructing Fragmented Lives

UMD Researcher Co-Leads New Digital Collection Piecing Together Histories of Enslaved Peoples

By Dan Novak M.Jour. ’20 illustration

Image courtesy of BNDigital, Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro

The new digital database Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade seeks to recover fuller stories of individuals such as these women pictured on the 19th century lithograph "A Market Scene" by Frederico Guilherme Briggs.

Kidnapped from home. Sold as chattel. Separated from loved ones. Worked to death. Written out of national history. The unimaginable horrors experienced by enslaved Africans and their descendants might suggest that bondage erased names, identity and personhood.

But for decades, historians and genealogists have combed through the archives, piecing together millions of documents that trace slave voyages, sales, baptisms, marriages and other events that form the life histories of named slaves. However, much of that research has been compiled in isolation at separate institutions, making it more challenging to follow the threads of individuals and families. 

Daryle Williams, a University of Maryland historian and associate dean in the College of Arts and Humanities, is working to address that as one of the leads on a massive new online database that will be an invaluable research and discovery tool: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade.

“We have lots and lots and lots of different kinds of sources that include named individuals,” said Williams, who specializes in slavery in 19th-century Brazil. “Our goal in part is to be able to provide a platform to record and recover those people.”

The new database, housed at Michigan State University (MSU) and supported by a $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will provide educational resources for K–12 classrooms as well as peer-reviewed datasets for university-level students and scholars. The project launched a new phase today to welcome contributions from the public and academic researchers.

Before, researchers might find a property record of a deceased plantation owner, listing the enslaved by name, but be unaware of the same individuals appearing in a separate baptismal record. will allow researchers to cross-reference those datasets simultaneously using linked-open data to construct biographies, trace familial lineages and see broader trends to understand the personal experience of enslavement.

“Personal history is complex, much like the way data was collected during the slave trade era. While we continue to digitize records, such as those that are handwritten, to preserve them, we know there is more to each person’s story. We hope this database will grow and evolve over time,” said Walter Hawthorne, a project co-investigator, professor of history and associate dean of academic and student affairs in MSU’s College of Social Science. 

From the removal of Confederate memorials, to the debate over reparations, to the successful (and controversial) 1619 Project from The New York Times, the United States is among many nations facing a reckoning with slavery and its historic and modern consequences. seeks to humanize those most directly impacted, while inviting all to see human bondage as part of our history.

“People are interested and troubled and compelled and grappling with slavery and its many legacies,” Williams said. “Slavery is really, really important to the foundations of America. And slavery is really, really important to America today.”

MSU’s University Communications office contributed to this article.



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College of Arts and Humanities

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