New giant database lets people learn about the lives of millions of slaves

While we know the dark history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the number of Africans forcibly taken from their homes, we hardly know anything about the lives of individual slaves. Only a few historical enslaved people are known by name, and most are lost to history.

In a colossal effort to reveal the names and stories behind the lives of the enslaved, a massive, open-source database is being created by a team of academics and members of the public in order to reconstruct and document the lives of slaves in America. Located on the website, the database includes nearly 500,000 records of people and 5 million data points, all of which can be explored by events (like voyage or sale), places, and people’s age, gender, and other details.

The database includes records from archives that were either not digitized or widely accessible, and the search function allows anyone to search for this information about slaves in the Americas through one centralized database—something that has never been possible before. It also features a section for data visuals where users can create their own charts and graphs based on different details.

The idea is that by amassing all these details into a single database, scholarship on slavery can focus more on creating a story about the lives of the enslaved rather than talking about slavery in terms of generalities.

“Within the broader field of slave studies or diaspora studies or Black studies, it’s saying their name and doing biographies which talk about the lives, as fragmented as [the records] may have been through the trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself,” says Daryle Williams, project coinvestigator and University of Maryland history professor. “Then it’s also about…taking those lives and those people and putting them into family trees and genealogies, whether it’s your own genealogy or the families and lives of a certain region. We’re definitely interested in meeting that need, that hunger, which is out there.”

Fast Company reports that the searchable database was created by Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences at Michigan State University, in partnership with the MSU Department of History, the University of Maryland, and scholars from a number of different institutions.

There are still a lot of unknowns and unnamed people when it comes to piecing together this dark history, but with the help of more academics and members of the public who can submit their own family histories or documents, the database is expected to grow into the most complex and comprehensive historical account of slavery that has ever existed.

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