A new tool hopes to uncover the lost ancestry of enslaved African Americans

Prior to 1870, records rarely noted names of enslaved and formerly-enslaved people—this database is pooling resources to render a more complete picture.

Isaac Granger Jefferson of Petersburg, Virginia (c. 1845) was an enslaved tinsmith and blacksmith at Monticello for his family's enslaver, Thomas Jefferson. By 1822, Granger Jefferson, who lived from 1775 to about 1850, gained his freedom, according to his memoirs.
Photograph by John Plumbe, Jr.,. Albert H. Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia / Alamy

I would give everything I own for the chance to interview Mary Jen Burton Jessie.

My mother’s grandmother was born in 1875 near Aiken, South Carolina, 12 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Without ever seeing a picture or drawing of her, I visualize a stocky build, prominent cheekbones, rounded shoulders. All physical trademarks courtesy of my maternal side.

And if I thought my mother Eloise got carried away by birthing 10 children, Mary Jen one-upped her. The 11 surviving children she and Henry Jessie created are half the leaves on part of my family tree I’ve been able to pluck and prune together since joining Ancestry.com back in 2018.

But blips on a screen can’t really animate the skeleton of my past. Like many African Americans, my search was blocked by what’s referred to as the “1870’s wall.” That’s because prior to 1870, the United States Census did not note enslaved and formerly-enslaved Africans by name. They were included in the count of household property of slaveowners, their gender and approximate age being the only labels they were granted.

Had any of my ancestors escaped the savagery of the Transatlantic Slave Trade? For those who were enslaved, on which plantations and in which states? Would a deeper dive reveal stories that would break my heart and rattle my soul?

After America’s tumultuous racial reckoning in 2020, I’d bet that I’m probably not alone in craving a better understanding of why unhealed wounds detonated across the country like land mines. So if knowledge is power, the launch of Enslaved.org seemed like just what I’d need to get some answers. The website, which is free of charge and doesn’t require registration, launched on December 1, 2020. It’s inarguably one of the most ambitious attempts in history to deepen the understanding of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the people involved.

Unlocking the depths of slavery

When I tried to explain Enslaved.org to a friend, I used the analogy of the recent phenomenon of creating holographic concerts featuring deceased superstars like Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson. It’s a clunky comparison, but the project does involve layers of data that when aggregated, can flesh out a bit of information from the slavery era, creating a more textured collage where once there was only a number or name in a dusty book.

The open-source data project is a collaborative effort between Michigan State University’s Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, the MSU Department of History, and the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland, among others.

The extraordinary initiative involves the excruciatingly meticulous process of identifying and collating the records and references to more than 600,000 people and five million archival citations of places and events in order to expand what we know, what we think we know, and what is yet to be discovered about slavery in the Americas, Africa and in parts of Europe.

“When I think about being a person of color, in a moment of racial justice and reconciliation in places like America and Brazil, I think this vehicle, this platform for multiple audiences, is so important,” says Daryle Williams, a 27-year veteran of the University of Maryland’s History department and one of three co-principal investigators of the Enslaved.org project.

Early in his career, Williams’ original interest in Latin America led to a critical epiphany, deep within various Brazilian archives.

“I was fascinated by the lives I was able to reconstruct through exploring and analyzing archival information,” Williams says.  “Suddenly, you can empathize with people or imagine them, sometimes even laugh and cry with them. There’s a connection to people that transcends an intellectual analysis.”

Though historical documents, oral histories and artifacts related to slavery abound, in many ways it’s taken technological advances to truly unlock the depths of the tortured period between the late 16th the mid-19th centuries.

About 10 years ago, Williams started a small digital project looking at movement of legally-enslaved Africans in Rio de Janeiro throughout Brazil, using Geographic Information System mapping (GIS) to trace the locations associated with their work.

This introduction to the field of digital slave studies eventually enabled Williams to develop a website at Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis. That’s where Williams met Walter Hawthorne and Dean Rehberger, two Michigan State University historians who had been working on the Slave Biographies project to publish slavery-related data sets

That networking sparked an intriguing hypothesis, Williams says.

“What could you do with this work that’s been done in slave studies, slave trade, slave societies, slave biographies, to get these data sets to talk to each other, to have them work in coordination instead of in their own silos?” Williams pondered.

The men developed a concept paper that yielded funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the Enslaved.org launch last December. The team effort brought together, data analysts, information scientists, and programmers to develop and launch the site. Ongoing partnerships with entities such as the National Endowment for Humanities, Virginia Untold, and the Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland will help the website’s database grow and will fuel the content of its accompanying Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation.

And on April 7, project coordinators announced the receipt of an additional $1.4 million grant from the Mellon Foundation. The funding includes extended partnerships with Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and the Omohundro Institute of the College of William and Mary. With the new partnership, Enslaved.org can provide the public with free access to the Hutchins Center’s Biographical diaries portal.

“For generations, the descendants of enslaved people seeking to uncover the story of their families in this country and beyond have had to contend with barriers to knowledge about their forebearers," said Patricia Hswe, the program officer for public knowledge at Mellon Foundation. "With Michigan State University’s open-source Enslaved.org platform, historians, archivists, genealogists, and the general public alike have the opportunity to both reference and contribute to an ever-growing database that aims to document and preserve the missing fragments needed to honor the experiences of enslaved people, and to help inform our collective understanding of our country’s complex history.”

The website builds on an extensive body of local, regional and national repositories of information about slavery. Most notably, the Library of Congress houses the “Born in Slavery:  The Federal Writers’ Project,” ran from 1936 to 1938, and collected interviews from more than 2,000 formerly enslaved people in at least 17 states.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has emerged as the ultimate touchstone of historical reflection for many African Americans. Mary Elliott, the museum’s curator of American slavery, says that though reams of information about slavery exists, it can be difficult to connect the diverse threads and themes.

“Even when I was doing my original research, I felt like our history was torn up and blown to the wind,” Elliott says. “Today, these dynamic scholars not only bring forward the primary source material, but they help users think more in depth about why this resource matters, how does it connect to another resource, what can it tell us?”

Elliott believes the link between last year’s racial justice uprisings and the pandemic can’t be understated. “I think the quarantines and all of us being in place and watching things unfold, having time to participate in protests, and then having the headspace to focus on what was happening, it really opened up people’s minds to want to learn more about the origins of this outrage. People are trying to contextualize what is happening. And to do that, you have to look at lynching, you have to look at slavery. And then in 2019 you had the 1619 Project. And now you have the big debate in schools about what can and can’t be taught related to racial justice.”

 “People reach a point where they need to have more information to fully understand what’s going on.”

Searching for my Mary

My online journey into my past ended almost as soon as it began. My father Lewis was born in 1916 in Yalobusha County, Mississippi to Stella Jane and Fred Jones. The paternal trail screeches to a halt there; there are no living relatives to help me flesh out his story, and Williams says that so far, the Enslaved.org project has very little information from Mississippi.

But I hoped to at least glean a bit of insight from my mother’s side. So I asked Williams for a shared-screen Zoom tour through the Enslaved.org portal on behalf of Mary Jen Burton. I was hoping for a glimpse into life for a young Black girl born in 1875 to former slaves.

On the home page, Williams started by typing in the name “Mary.”

“So there are 6,707 results with Mary,” he says, “associated with about 4,800 events, 421 places, and drawn from 19 different sources. So, one way to do this is to start clicking on each one to see if there are details connected to the information that you have.”

The Mary search consisted mostly of references from Louisiana. But as the project expands and adds more data, one day I may be able to type in “Mary Jen Burton, Aiken County, South Carolina” and stumble across an event, or a mention of the sale of one of her parents. I may one day be able to travel to the place where her grandparents toiled in the fields. I may be able to stand on that soil and give thanks for all she sacrificed to rear 11 children—and maybe for the grit and determination that she passed down to me.

“What’s really exciting is people are seeing primary information that can no longer be denied,” Williams says. “They’re also understanding how to pull it together to help understand our human story, our personal story, our African American story, our American story—and our diasporic story.”

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