A bronze bust of Cudjoe Lewis, brought to the US on the last known slave ship to the Americas. His story and those of other enslaved people are illuminated in the Enslaved.org database. (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded a $1.4 million grant to Michigan State University for its online database Enslaved.org, the first open-access catalogue focused on the lives of the people implicated in and affected by the slave trade. The website houses millions of records related to more than 600,000 enslaved people and their descendants as well as emancipation activists and enslavers — including newspaper articles, bills of sales and auction notices, emancipation documents, census records, “runaway ads,” and other critical primary sources.

As society reckons with the past and present repercussions of the historical enslavement of Africans, a growing number of archives, collections, and other research tools dedicated to the subject have become available in recent years. But the data they amass, however valuable, is scattered across platforms, with a lack of standardized best practices threatening access and discovery.

Enslaved.org, a collaboration between MSU’s Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, its Department of History, and the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland (UMD), functions as an interconnected and centralized hub for these diverse records.

“We are trying to understand and trying to make visible the fullness and the various dimensions of life and human life for the enslaved,” Daryle Williams, the project’s principal investigator and founder, said in an interview with UNC MediaHub.

Users can narrow their search by people, events, places, and source type or “visualize” these data points through interactive graphics. They can also read biographies for selected figures in the history of the slave trade, both prominent and lesser-known, in a dedicated section of the catalog.

One such page, for instance, tells the story of Albina Maria da Conceição, an African woman who went before the judicial system to demand her freedom after she was illegally enslaved in Brazil. Born in the Portuguese colony of Angola, Albina was abducted by a slave merchant as a child in 1851, more than two decades after the trans-Atlantic slave trade was formally banned. Though the ship that carried her was seized, and she was taken to Brazil as a liberta (“liberated African”), Albina continued to be illegally sold by enslavers. In 1876, when she was 30 years old, she challenged her enslavement in court and won her freedom — but only after paying a fee, even though her bondage had been unlawful.

Enslaved.org brings the individual experiences of enslaved people like Albina to the fore, illuminating their tribulations and achievements, and may also facilitate genealogical research.

“The website itself is a reflection of our goal to create an open-source, open access, digital discovery tool to understand the lives of the enslaved,” Williams said. “We also see ourselves as being part of a broader conversation about race and racism in the Americas and probably the world.” 

The Mellon Foundation funded the first two phases of the project in 2018 and 2020. This latest round of funding will help expand the database’s audience and reach, enabling partnerships with researchers, organizations, and the public and making it more inclusive of underrepresented voices.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...