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MSU receives $1.4M grant to expand slavery database research

By compiling fragmentary archival information and making it machine-readable, Enslaved.org offers the opportunity to honor and learn from the lives of enslaved people whose stories have not been told.
FILE - This Feb. 18, 2005, file photo shows the original Emancipation Proclamation on display...
FILE - This Feb. 18, 2005, file photo shows the original Emancipation Proclamation on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington. President Abraham Lincoln first issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free in Confederate territory on Sept. 22, 1862. Juneteenth, the oldest holiday that commemorates the ending of slavery in the United States, originated 155 years ago. Celebrations have typically included parades, barbecues, concerts and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)(Evan Vucci | AP)
Published: Apr. 7, 2021 at 10:54 AM EDT
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (WILX) - Wednesday Michigan State University announced it had been awarded $1.4 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade, also known as Enslaved.org, a first-of-its-kind database containing millions of records cataloging the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants.

Enslaved.org was developed and is maintained by MSU researchers. The site links data collections from multiple universities, archives, museums, and family history centers. The Mellon Foundation funded the initial two phases of Enslaved.org, which provided support for both proof-of-concept and implementation. The first phase began in 2018 and the second in 2020.

The third phase of funding will run through March 2023 and aims to expand the reach of the project by refining infrastructure; driving sustainability; strengthening a commitment to the inclusion of underrepresented voices in humanities scholarship; and continuing partnerships with scholars, heritage and cultural organizations, and the public.

“The early response to the Enslaved.org project has been overwhelmingly positive, but it also speaks to the great amount of work still to be done,” said Dean Rehberger, principal investigator, and director of Matrix at MSU. “We could not do this work or envision sustainability for the project without the critical support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.”

The project is a collaboration between Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Department of History both within the College of Social Science at MSU; the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland; the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University; the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; and the Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science at Kansas State University.

“Historians, archivists, librarians, genealogists, data scientists, and the general public have shown an immense interest in the data that is available on an open-access platform optimized to handle billions of pieces of data in a flexible and open-source manner,” said Walter Hawthorne, project co-investigator, professor of African history, and associate dean of academic and student affairs in MSU’s College of Social Science. “While we continue to digitize records, such as those that are handwritten, to preserve them, we know there is more to each person’s story,” he said.

The project team will expand its endeavor by refining the data infrastructure, publishing both more datasets and narrative stories, and introducing new features for data visualizations.

“I am especially energized by the expanded partnership with Harvard University’s renowned Hutchins Center to tell the stories of the lives of the enslaved, as well as a new collaboration with the Omohundro Institute centered around the rigorous historical scholarship of the Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation, and inclusive careers in a scholarly publication about people in slavery and freedom,” said UMD’s Daryle Williams, co-principal investigator and associate professor of history and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Arts and Humanities.

By compiling fragmentary archival information and making it machine-readable, Enslaved.org offers the opportunity to honor and learn from the lives of enslaved people whose stories have not been told.

“The Mellon Foundation’s new grant will allow for expansion into the millions the number of enslaved people we have knowledge of, opening up new possibilities for historical research, genealogical discoveries, and new understandings of our shared past,” Hawthorne added.

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