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By Daniel Lewis, Product Manager
From January 2-5, 2015, members of the American Historical Association (AHA) kicked off the New Year in New York at the organization’s 129th annual meeting. As always, attendance at the conference in New York was considerable, and there were a wide range of interesting and thought-provoking sessions. ProQuest sponsored a booth in the exhibit hall, and ProQuest employees attended conference sessions.
The fascinating sessions included topics like civil rights, digital humanities, slavery, contested archives, Latino radicalisms, and teaching. This post focuses on one session I attended at AHA: “Digital Histories of Slavery.” This panel featured presentations by four teams of scholars regarding the websites they have created or are in the process of creating.
The first presenter was Ed Baptist of Cornell University. Baptist’s “Freedom on the Move” database gathers thousands of runaway slave advertisements. The website is still in development, but when it is fully up and running, it will feature extensive metadata gathered from runaway slave advertisements. During his talk, Baptist mentioned that John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s book on runaway slaves provided the inspiration for the creation of the database. (As Baptist was presenting, I thought of Loren Schweninger’s other major project of slavery petitions. These slavery petitions with their extensive metadata, are available in ProQuest History Vault. Like the runaway slave ads collected by Baptist and his team, the petitions in ProQuest History Vault should allow for new discoveries in the study of slavery.)
The second presenter was Don DeBats of Flinders University. DeBats is working with the University of Virginia on a project that charts social networks in Alexandria, Virginia in the 1850s, and in Newport, Kentucky in the 1870s.
Vanessa M. Holden and Jessica Johnson from Michigan State University gave the third presentation. Their presentation, “Taste the Sweat to Check for Sickness” discussed the website they have developed on Tumblr as part of their work with the Queering Slavery Working Group.
The fourth project, “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, DC Law and Family Project” was presented by William Thomas of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Jennifer E. Guiliano, recently from the University of Maryland and now at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The Early Washington website uses case files from the D.C. courts from 1808 to 1815 to explore black and white family networks in early Washington, D.C.
One of the themes of all four of presentations was telling new stories about slavery. ProQuest, with its Black Studies Center, Black Abolitionist Papers, and two major collections on Slavery and Southern Life in its History Vault database also can help researchers tell new stories about slavery. Slavery and the Law features petitions collected from hundreds of courthouses and historical societies in 10 states and the District of Columbia (by Loren Schweninger of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro). The petitions document the realities of slavery at the most immediate local level and with amazing candor. The Plantation Records in Southern Life and African American History illuminate nearly every aspect of plantation life, from 1775-1915. Plantations records reveal not only business operations and day-to-day labor routines, but family life, the roles of women, relations between masters and slaves, and social and cultural life.
One example from the Plantation Records comes from a diary kept by William T. Palfrey from 1842 through 1859. Palfrey owned a plantation in St. Martin Parish, Louisiana. Palfrey’s diary entries cover topics like sugar production, weather, and health, but focus mostly on references to Palfrey’s slaves. Palfrey carefully tracked the birth of slave children, usually listing the mother’s name and the sex of the baby. Some entries are tragic, recording the death of the babies a few days or weeks after birth.
Palfrey also made notes about the rest of his labor force. In December 1847, for example, the slaves had a holiday until January 3, 1848. In December 1851, a slave named Ambrose fell from a wagon and broke his arm. In December 1855, Palfrey’s slave named Richard lost one of his fingers when his hand was lacerated by an engine. In May 1848, Palfrey wrote of a slave named Sarah who had run away but “returned of her own accord.”
While entries on the weather are often mundane, Palfrey wrote on August 10, 1856, that “a hurricane commenced at dark.” The next day, he wrote: “Gale continues till evening … buildings blown down in many places—at Lost Island every building blown down & carried away by the waves—the island submerged & about 200 lives lost!!!” [See image at top, one page from Palfrey’s Plantation diary from 1842-1859. Image used with permission of Louisiana State University Libraries. Source: William T. Palfrey Papers from the Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections.]
This plantation diary is just one example of the ProQuest primary source products that work together with databases to help historians tell new stories about slavery.