A Massive New Online Database Will Connect Billions Of Historic Records To Tell The Full Story Of American Slavery

A Massive New Online Database Will Connect Billions Of Historic Records To Tell The Full Story Of American Slavery

“Enslaved”, a massive new online database, uses tech and “triplestores” to turn ship manifests and census records into machine-readable data. Photo: MMG

Billions of records exist of the 12.5 million people kidnapped from Africa and shipped to the New World between 1525 and 1866 in the largest forced migration in history — but the records are not all in one place.

Forbidden to write about themselves, slaves were treated as cargo or property in official documents. “Still, even a few facts can shape the outline of a life of sorrow, adversity, perseverance and triumph,” Amy Crawford wrote for Smithsonian.

A massive new online database called “Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade” aims to serve as a clearinghouse for information about enslaved people and their captors. Planned for launch in 2020, it’s based at Michigan State University’s Matrix Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences. Funded by a founding $1.5-million grant from the Mellon Foundation, it will serve as a hub for many smaller digitization projects.

With linked open data at the database’s core, anyone from amateur genealogists to academic historians will be able trace individuals, families, ethnic groups and populations through thousands of archives. They will be able to make connections that will enrich our understanding of slavery, says Daryle Williams, a historian at the University of Maryland.

“One of the biggest challenges in slave studies is this idea that people were unknowable, that the slave trade destroyed individuality,” said Williams, who is one of the principal investigators of the database. “But the slave trade didn’t erase people. We have all kinds of information that’s knowable—property records, records related to births, deaths and marriages. There are billions of records. It just takes a lot of time to go look at them, and to trace the arc of an individual life.”

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It has been difficult or impossible to write histories of all but a few Americans of African descent because of the way documents are organized, said Walter Hawthorne, a historian at Michigan State and one of the Enslaved project’s principal investigators. “Documentation often exists, but it has not been well preserved, well cataloged and made searchable,” he said.

“What we want to do is take a portion of everyone’s data and put it in one big pot,” said Dean Rehberger, the director of Matrix and another of Enslaved’s principal investigators. “Then we can see if the same person appears in more than one, and we can build up these fragments and put them together.”

Technology is making that possible. It’s called the semantic triple and involves entering information in three-part sentences, each with a subject, a predicate and an object, like, “Maria Picard was born in 1822,” or “Maria Picard married Manuel Vidau.”

These three-part units of information can be mined from any biography, list, article or directory, and then linked to other information in a large network. Thanks to modern computing power, “triplestores” as they’re called now exist with hundreds of billions of entries on every imaginable topic. It’s a way to turn life histories, ship manifests, census records and other information into machine-readable data, Rehberger said.

Michigan State has been developing its own network of triples for two years. It may never be done. The slave trade lasted almost 350 years. Little-known troves of information exist around the world. “Even a family Bible could hold a valuable data point,” Smithsonian reported. In addition to acting as a database for existing slavery information, Enslaved will also offer a publishing platform for data with a peer-review process modeled after scholarly journals.

Iowa architect Jobie Hill, who specializes in historic preservation, spent the past seven years visiting former slave dwellings, recording GPS coordinates and making a site plan. The fact that the houses are still standing more than 150 years after emancipation, testifies to the ingenuity and skill of the enslaved people who built them. “These were not just helpless, hopeless people,” Hill said.