Proposed Digital Humanities Project

sc slaves
Library of Congress, South Carolina slaves 1862 

Before 1865: Archive of the African American Presence in Colonial America 1619-1865

Before 1865, a digital thematic research collection, is critically needed in African American studies, and the general field of History as a whole. At the present moment, individuals who want to research black persons from the colonial era in America have to physically locate records in various historical depositories, some of which are at that critical stage in conservation where they should be digitized if they have not been already. We, at the Acme University Digital Humanities Center, aim to create an annotated research collection which will have the primary function of facilitating primary source research for a range of users in the secondary, post-secondary, university, and professional arenas. What will anchor this information is its focus on a legally defined portion of the United States population over a manageable period of time: from 1619 when the first ship of 20 Africans arrived at Jamestown until the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1865. Digitizing analog records for individuals who were considered property is an intimidating process, but it is no more unrealistic than envisioning an entire region’s real estate records being digitized in order to understand trends in ownership and property value.


When complete, the scope of the materials included will focus the collection on a critical 250 years in the experience of Africans in the ‘New World’, as influenced by the English (colonies), for the user to query, render, and navigate. There is a significant African presence in the New World prior to Jamestown; however, mostly under the purview of the 16th century Spanish, it is beyond the means of this endeavor to include their records at this time. In an effort to be inclusive, we will attempt to catalog any documented individual existence of a black person, free or enslaved, on what was historically American soil or territory between 1661 and 1865. This will eventually include portions of the Caribbean isles that were under the control of the Americans or British. The archive will make it possible to recognize trends regarding things such as naming, distribution of age groups, vocations in relation to geographic location, miscegenation, the presence of enslaved American Indians, and most importantly it will lay the groundwork for generations of genealogists to come, who will be able to use the database and networking software that we develop to trace potential lines of ancestry. Users will be able to perform complex analytical queries and determine the intellectual relationships that exist between entities.


An example of a tool that inspires this work is the Slave Voyages Database, where the cargo lists of slave ships can be investigated using a faceted search. Working backwards from the present, or forward from the Slave Voyages Database narrative historians will be able to trace the footprints of individuals with distinctive names and histories and present these vignettes to the public. This thematic research collection will illuminate and quantify from a macro-level, the slave trade in North America and the Caribbean. It serves a unique need, because as general American census records are digitized, and increasingly networked and incorporated in to genealogy, we risk leaving out a significant portion of data regarding ancestors that literally built this country as human capital, because it is not being appropriately captured and represented.  There is often little to discern a black individual’s existence, save their age and gender on a list of possessions at a particular moment in time. The USGenWeb attempts to include African American ancestry in its genealogical efforts, but the African American Griots Project is more a collection of links than a queriable database. Another example of recently public information is the Slavery Era Insurance Registry, which was developed in the state of California out of bill SB2199, signed in to law in 2000, forcing corporations to make public insurance policies taken out on slaves. This is an incredible resource, but it also lacks the ability to satisfy complex search queries, as the information is simply indexed according to either slave name or slave owner. Creating an archive of humans viewed as property would mean rethinking the metadata used for tagging people/property, expanding on the significant work begun in California, so that users can select facets such as owner, plantation or estate, mother, trade, monetary value, physical attributes, age, geographical location, place of burial, and date sold, willed, auctioned, freed or purchased. This is similar to the tags being used in the Slave Archival Collection of, however a more interactive, faceted search is needed, as well as comprehensive database; the Slave Archival Collection is based on users contributing the data. It will also be very important to balance the information in Before 1865, if time and funding permit, with information about the free black population; this is important to reconcile the misconception that all Africans on the continent prior to 1865 were enslaved. The trends that emerge from careful conservation and editing of this socio-cultural thematic research collection will aid future historians as they continue to document human existence. Geospatial data, in particular will allow scholars to refine our understanding of the interrelations between cultural, social, economic, and geographical phenomena.


The Acme University Digital Humanities Center will serve as an institutional home for the project, as our combination of access to the #1 ranked African American studies program in the country and the most powerful computer in the world will sustain the archive forever. The players that need to be assembled include faculty and information professionals from at least one university in each state, who will train their interns and graduate assistants to use the software and monitor their progress as they populate the archive. Because these players will be so central to the process, compensation and negotiation with their institutions will be necessary, as well as a commitment to a five year timetable for data collection and metadata tagging. It will also be important to involve these faculty and information professionals in the decision making process regarding metadata; their calls regarding interpretation will have a profound effect on the final product and they will likely be major end users. This group will meet over a conference weekend with the Acme University Digital Humanities Center and the college library staff. The Acme University library staff will take an essential role at this event, as it will be their responsibility over time to deal with data migration, conservation, access, and rights management. The Acme University Digital Humanities Center will spend the remainder of the first year developing the software, hardware, metadata tags, classification scheme, authority record template, and catalog presentation, collaborating with the faculty and students at the Acme University School of Library and Information Science and the Acme University African American Studies Department. This will be the most important part of the process, as the tool that is developed to complete this task will be a product unto itself.  The extent to which it is interoperable and open source will affect its usage beyond the scope of this thematic collection, and we hope to offer an open source product to the Digital Humanities community which utilizes relational databases to facilitate the durability of data across applications.

Once the software goal is accomplished, the groundwork will begin – which will take years to do comprehensively and effectively. This information will be tracked down by graduate students and interns and coded in to machine readable format using the online software developed. The first group to do this, in a practice state/island/county, will evaluate the software tool and their findings in order to refine the process and create an organizing scheme that will endure three years of data compilation, absorb unexpected occurrences, and represent unbiased data to the best extent achievable; entering the information in to machine readable format will reflect the disciplinary perspective of the individual cataloger or the person who trained them. It is important to engage these students and interns in a conference before the major data collection effort begins, so that they grasp the analytic and communication objectives for the finished product. Once we have met the goal of populating the database, it can be previewed to the public for their input and general use. The remaining years of data visualization and networking software development will be in the domain of the Acme University Digital Humanities Center, who will conserve and interpret the data for years to come, ultimately debuting a website and body of research that sustains Acme University scholars and evolves over time.


Year Sub-Project Players


team, home, metadata, online database software* AUDHC


organization scheme, training, practice state, evaluation AUDHC


northern slaveholding states* AUDHC , Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth


southern slaveholding states* AUDHC, Spelman, Morehouse, Howard


western slaveholding states/territories* AUDHC, CSU, UN-L, Stanford, UNM


data visualization – geospatial maps & timelines* AUDHC


networking software development, website development AUDHC, AUAAS dept.


data visualization – networks*, website development AUDHC, AUAAS dept.


Research* / Website * AUDHC, AUAAS dept.




Private records

County records

Census records

Cemetery records

Church records

WPA slave narratives

Freedman’s Bureau records

Probate records

Prison records

Auction records

Emancipation records

Military records

Wills & Deeds

Court records

Insurance documents

Tax records



Cost Estimate $1,000,000.00


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