The Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard is pleased to announce a new iteration of our partnership with Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade (Enslaved.org), an online, open-source discovery tool which allows anyone to explore and reconstruct the lives of individuals who were enslaved, owned slaves, or participated in the historical trade. This Spring, Enslaved.org, led by Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences at Michigan State University, in partnership with the MSU Department of History and the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland, received generous grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. With the new funding, the project grows a section called “Stories” that features biographies of Black people from Africa and the Americas across the fifteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. Co-Principal Investigator Daryle Williams (University of Maryland) shares:
We are honored to be able to expand our partnership with the Hutchins Center to take online audiences #behindthedata and make available synthetic, open-access entries about the everyday experiences and heroic accomplishments of Black people in the era of enslavement and slave emancipation. This is a wonderful opportunity to bring together narrative biography, historical research, and data sciences to highlight important dimensions of black life matters.
At the center of the collaboration is the Hutchins Center’s collection of Biographical Dictionaries of African and African American people, edited by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others and published by Oxford University Press in print and online as part of its African American Studies Center. We thank OUP for permission to use 75 of these AASC biographies on Enslaved.org. “For too long,” Professor Gates believes:
Important details about enslaved people have been hidden, scattered across distant archives, or siloed in different online projects. The information is out there, but hard to find. Enslaved.org is transformational because it provides everyone—not just academics—easy access to this wealth of knowledge in the datasets, and because its primary focus is on people. And the Stories section, guided by the Hutchins Center’s Steven J. Niven, is where all this remarkable data comes to life.
For Niven, Executive Editor of the OUP-Hutchins Center’s Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, Dictionary of African Biography, and African American National Biography (all of which are available on AASC), these stories highlight the common thread of 500 years of Black resistance, persistence, and creativity across Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
When we learn about Dandara of Palmares leading the largest quilombo (maroon community) in 17th-century Brazil, or Belinda Sutton seeking—and winning—reparations for her enslaved labor in 18th-century Massachusetts, we begin to get ‘behind the data’ to the lived experience of slavery and freedom. We get to the complexities of people’s lives. The data we see in Enslaved.org can provide the building blocks of future biographies: a baptismal certificate, a military record, a receipt for services, or newspaper ads looking to recapture self-liberated women, men, and children. Add those data points together and you might have the beginnings of a new story. And I think it’s always good to hear and remember new stories that can add to our understanding of what it meant to be enslaved.
By sharing these stories with researchers and the general public, the team hopes to build a community of visitors who are eager to learn more about the diverse experiences of enslaved people—and the limits to liberty of those who gained legal freedom. You can watch the project and partnership develop by following @HutchinsCenter or @Matrix_MSU on Twitter and looking out for hashtags #stories and #behindthedata. You can also follow Enslaved.org on LinkedIn or visit the dedicated Hutchins Center website at https://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/enslaved.
Since its Twitter debut on March 29, 2021, the Stories feature of #behindthedata has already generated a steady increase in visibility and audience engagement, and with the success of this collaborative effort the partners plan to publish on Enslaved.org an additional 75 biographies over the next year. Some will draw on existing biographies from the Oxford AASC. Others will be original contributions to feature people who appear in one of the datasets published in the Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation. By late summer 2021, be on the lookout for a podcast to expand further the reach, voice, and media channels of this fruitful partnership in Black Studies.