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Researching your family history is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States. But for many Black and African Americans, the search ends when they hit Colonial times. That's because in those times, enslaved persons didn't get birth certificates, marriage licenses, or death certificates...their lives were documented instead in property deeds. And now there is a project to catalog and make them available to the public.
The Enslaved Persons Project is a collaborative endeavor between the University of North Carolina Greensboro Libraries, North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, Wake County Register of Deeds and Shaw University. The goal is to create a centralized database of information about formerly enslaved people contained in bills of sale from Wake County. Once complete, the community will have access to search these historic documents and high-resolution images.
Slave deeds are bills of sale, deeds of gift, wills, and other documents that record the transfer of ownership of enslaved people. For the purposes of this project, we are considering those documents included in deed books at the Wake County Register of Deeds office. Later phases may expand to include documents from other sources. These documents sometimes contain very little information, referring to the enslaved people only as “slaves” or “negroes.” Other deeds, however, include the names, ages, and even occupations or special skills. Because enslaved people were excluded from the kinds of historical records that are used in historical and genealogical research (such as birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, and detailed census information), these documents are some of the only written records of their lives. Transcribing and indexing these thousands of documents will make it much easier for historians and genealogists to find this information.
The North Carolina Slave Deeds will form one part of the larger Digital Library on American Slavery (DLAS). The DLAS is an expanding resource of various independent online collections related to race and slavery in the United States, made searchable through a single, simple interface. Although the current focus of DLAS is sources associated with North Carolina, it contains considerable data related to all 15 slave states and Washington, D.C., including detailed personal information about slaves, slaveholders, and free people of color. The other components of the DLAS are currently: the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements Project, and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
Opportunities for Volunteers
There are several things volunteers can do to contribute to this project, and most of them can be done from any computer with an internet connection. When you sign up as a volunteer, you have the option of locating and labeling deeds or indexing them.
Locating and labeling deeds
The first step in the process is identifying records in the county deed books that include information about enslaved people. In deed books, these records are mixed in with all kinds of other deeds – mostly land deeds – and we need volunteers to help locate and label the deeds that are relevant to the project. This involves looking through deed books online, identifying passages about enslaved people, and giving each document a unique identification number. We recommend that most volunteers start here.
Indexing involves locating and labeling deeds plus recording the detailed information in the deed in a spreadsheet. Indexing is more complex and time-consuming process, but it makes the documents searchable by names, dates, and other data. Volunteers who have more experience with historical documents and/or with data-entry may want to begin with indexing.
Transcription, or typing out the content of the deeds, makes them fully searchable. This is the final phase of the project, set to begin in early 2021. Through Family Search, a specially designed website, volunteers can log on to the site and complete transcription from any computer.