Michigan State University helps people learn about slavery and family history

MSU asks for help with historical database
Published: Dec. 4, 2020 at 4:50 PM EST
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LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - Michigan State University is helping more people learn about slavery with a massive new database.

The one-of-a-kind hub, enslaved.org, was put together by MSU researchers and has millions of slave records. It links data collections from multiple universities, archives, museums and family history centers to make it easier for people to connect to their roots.

“The possibilities for genealogical research for African Americans is really restricted by the nature of the source,” said Walter Hawthorne, co-investigator of the project. “By compiling a lot of this information and making it machine readable, searchable, African Americans in the U.S. can do genealogical research on on this platform.”

Jessica Trotter is a librarian, archivist and Vice President of Lansing Area African-American Genealogical Society. Understanding the work that goes into tracking down ancestry, she says the tool should be a huge help.

“Just giving people more access to those records that exists,” said Trotter. “It’s connecting to those stories, even if you’re just in the steps of talking to your family, you get that, you know, getting those stories out of people, and really having a discussion about your roots. I think... gives you some ideas. It can go both ways. It can be ideas of, you know, the empowering aspects of it or it can be, I’m not going to be like that we’re going to move forward in a different way.”

Hawthorne says all the platform needs now is more data. Researchers are hoping outside scholars, researchers, and the general public will consider contributing to expand the millions of records.

“As it turns out, there are a lot of scholars out there with information similar to mine as well as members of the general public, put together these things for their own interest,” said Hawthorn.

Whether your ancestors have connections to slavery or not, Hawthone says this history is American history.

“It’s a historical project that’s revealing a great deal about the United States,” said Hawthorne.

The more data they get from the public, the better. If all goes well, researchers on the project hope people will be able to widely trace their ancestry sometime in 2021.

Slave Biographies, the pilot project for enslaved.org, was funded in 2011 with $99,000 by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In 2018, the project received a $2 million grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

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