‘People Not Property’ project shines new light on state history

Posted on June 09, 2020

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Photo of Claire Heckel, Richard Cox, James Hill, Chancellor Giliiam, Brian Robinson
L to r: “People Not Property” project coordinator Dr. Claire Heckel, digital technology consultant Richard Cox, Guilford Courthouse National Memorial Park superintendent James Hill, Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr., and Dr. Brian Robinson, postdoctoral fellow in data curation for African American and African Studies, during an award ceremony at UNCG. The Digital Library on American Slavery at UNC Greensboro was recognized early this year by the National Park Service as the first-ever “virtual” stop on the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Deep within the public archives at the Guilford County Register of Deeds, mixed in with property deeds for land and farm animals, are bills of sale and ownership for African American slaves. Until now, those people have remained faceless and placeless, sometimes existing only as a number or dollar amount on a court document or receipt. But a project has been underway to bring those unidentified people to the fore, and to give them an acknowledged place within North Carolina and American history.

“People Not Property: Slave Deeds of North Carolina” is a unique collaboration between UNC Greensboro Libraries, registers of deeds in counties across North Carolina, the North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, faculty and staff from other colleges and universities, and members of the public.

“This process is an important part of healing for individuals and for communities to bridge racial divides, class divides, to start making history more inclusive, and more honest and representative.” – Dr. Claire Heckel, project manager

The ongoing project includes a growing, searchable database built upon robust metadata, an expanding collection of high-resolution images, and full-text searchable transcripts. The project includes a collection of slave ads through 1840, and they are currently working to expand the collection through 1865. The project is currently focused on North Carolina, with 26 counties having been assessed to date.

The project in its current form began in the fall of 2018. UNCG Libraries received a three-year, $294,603 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize nearly 10,000 North Carolina slave deeds and bills of sale, to create a comprehensive database for the digitized records, and to transcribe the full text of these documents.

A key goal of the project is to identify and transcribe as many deeds as possible. But an important service and outreach aspect of the project emphasizes the involvement of students and engagement with communities.

Get Involved
For volunteer opportunities on the project see: http://library.uncg.edu/slavery/deeds/
For learning about family history visit: http://library.uncg.edu/slavery/
For more information or questions contact project coordinator Claire Heckel at ceheckel@uncg.edu

UNCG undergraduate and graduate students get the chance to interact directly with primary source documents and to engage communities, giving them invaluable experience working on history projects that operate well beyond the classroom. Students’ hands-on experience with archived documents lets them physically connect with history. Their engagement with communities allows the opportunity to bring the public into academia and vice-versa, and to make historical research a participatory, inclusive activity.

Student involvement has been supported by UNCG-held grants from the “North Carolina Humanities Corridor” initiative, which supported three students (from A&T, NC Central, and UNCG) and faculty members in attending and presenting at the annual conference of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in Washington, D.C. in 2019. Two student fellows were also supported by the Mellon Foundation initiative, “Transforming the Humanities.” These students are using GIS to map historic populations and create an engaging “StoryMap” that features primary documents from UNCG Libraries’ Digital Library of American Slavery (DLAS).

The “People Not Property” project coordinator, Dr. Claire Heckel, notes that the project helps students’ gain professionalization and outreach experience by “… getting students involved in working with historical records, doing community outreach, and supporting students working in various heritage fields by exposing them to what registers of deeds offices do and how slavery is interpreted at various sites.” Students have the opportunity to run public workshops and information sessions that are located within the communities that are a focus of the research, such as places where the slaves lived, worked, or moved through.

The project encourages the public to participate in different ways, including helping to transcribe the deeds and doing their own research using the project’s database and other resources. “Communities learn about how they can be directly involved in their own historical record, how they are producers of knowledge. They can get involved in producing their own narrative,” says Heckel.

The project seeks both formal and informal partners, working with organizations who focus on similar issues. As the network grows, so does awareness and knowledge. Examples of partners include cemeteries, the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom project, genealogical societies, and Emory University’s database on Transatlantic Slave Trade.

The “People Not Property” project is an expansion of the larger Digital Library of American Slavery at UNCG. According to UNCG Libraries digital technology consultant Richard Cox, he and his team were looking for other ways to share the collection and reach a broader public, and they zeroed in on slave deeds as a focal point. David Gwynn, associate professor and UNCG Libraries digitization coordinator, is a co-principal investigator on the project.

The origins of the project and DLAS can be traced back to 1991, when Dr. Loren Schweninger, now professor emeritus of history at UNCG, had been at work on the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, a collection of petitions that came from 200 county courthouse and 15 state archives, and covered a wide range of legal issues, including wills, inventories, bills of sales, divorce proceedings, punishment of runaway slaves, calls for abolition, property disputes, amended petitions and more – a goldmine of untold biographies.

As Cox and his team were thinking about how to expand the project, an organized group of state registers of deeds – including Guilford and Buncombe Counties – and the N.C. state archivist, were also looking to do something publicly with slave deeds. Ultimately, these efforts came together so that their resources, efforts, and public portal into this information was centralized. They received a joint grant from the National Archives to begin work on the first 26 North Carolina counties identified in the deeds.

One of the project’s mandates is to keep the data, information, and working process as transparent and accessible as possible. “Keeping the project accessible and viewable online as we work on it helps inform the community on what we are doing and gives them ways to engage,” says Cox.

The project’s ultimate goal is to identify those who were lost over time to the archives, their existence reduced to a massive collection of documents that recorded the sale and ownership of land, animals, and slaves, and who until now have been forgotten. Giving a name, a face, and a place to slaves who have been identified in the documents humanizes them, brings them into the larger historical narrative, and as Heckel points out, “… makes the data personal and connects it to local landscapes.”

As an anthropologist, Heckel says that it is important for her “… to look at histories as identity narratives. Who is memorialized, and how? Who is part of the dominant historical narratives? Who gets a face, who gets a voice? I think public records are an important part of democratizing historical narrative.”

Cox notes the real world impact that the project has. “Through this kind of work, I’ve been able to see firsthand how this sort of work impacts people on a personal level. This kind of work can change people’s lives, and their perspectives as well,” he says.

Other UNCG faculty who have participated on the project include Dr. Anne Parsons, director of Public History and Museum Studies, and Dr. Torren Gatson, assistant professor of Public History.

As a precursor to the latest incarnation of the project, and in collaboration with the International Civil Rights Center and Museum and Guilford County Register of Deeds, Parsons helped develop the “Bills of Sale” exhibition in 2015. In that project, Parsons and graduate students from the Public History program dug into the deeds looking for the stories they could tell. The students learned about the process of research, curating content, project management, and publicly displaying the results through graphics, fabrication, and installation.

Gatson is interested in creating a conversation between historical documents and events in contemporary life and culture, and identifies himself as a “publicly engaged scholar.” A key aspect of Gatson and his students’ work is to directly engage the general public on history, illustrating how history flows through everything around them. He notes that allowing academics and the public to interact directly with primary historical documents inspires a much more meaningful and productive experience.

Gatson points out that an important focal point for the researchers is to look at the “average individual,” versus historically known figures and names. Taking this approach allows for a much more nuanced and complex picture of historical events and relationships.

Heckel and Cox encourage anyone to get involved with the project by reaching out to them directly or through the project’s website or social media accounts.

Guilford County Register of Deeds project-related YouTube interviews which feature UNCG faculty, staff, and students:

Dr. Claire Heckel and Richard Cox: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgB8MbtLSAE
Dr. Anne Parsons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDzLI4UcpaU
Dr. Torren Gatson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhCHlhhjcpQ
Lance Wheeler, UNCG Public History alumnus Public History who did research for the “Bills of Sale” exhibition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9YI0LJ8Rc4

National Digital Library on American Slavery: library.uncg.edy/slavery

Story by Matthew Bryant, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications


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