Reconstructing Lives Forgotten

Vast Digital Collection Pieces Together History of Slave Trade
by Dan Novak M. Jour. ’20 | Image courtesy of “Fugitive Slaves From Maryland, 1850s,” SLAVERYIMAGES.ORG/S/SLAVERYIMAGES/ITEM/1258

Kidnapped from home. Taken to another world. Sold as chattel. Worked to death. Lost to history. The unimaginable horrors experienced by enslaved Africans and their descendants might suggest that bondage erased victims’ names, identity and personhood.

But for decades, historians and genealogists have been combing hundreds of archives and piecing together millions of documents that trace slave voyages, sales, baptisms, marriages and other events that form histories of lives enslaved. However, much of the research has been compiled in isolation at separate institutions, making it more challenging to follow threads between individuals and populations.

Daryle Williams, a UMD historian and associate dean in the College of Arts and Humanities, is working to address that shortcoming as one of the leads on a massive new online database that will be the most comprehensive digital accounting of enslavement ever created: “Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade,” at

“We have lots and lots and lots of different kinds of sources that include named individuals,” says Williams, who researches slavery in 19th-century Brazil. “Our goal in part is to be able to provide a platform to record and recover those named people.”

Before, researchers might find a property record of a plantation owner, listing names of enslaved people, but be unaware of the same individuals appearing in a separate baptismal record. will allow researchers to cross-reference those datasets simultaneously and construct biographies of those named, trace familial lineages and see broader trends to gain a better understanding of the repercussions of enslavement.

The database, housed at Michigan State University and supported by a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, launched this spring. It will provide educational resources for K–12 classrooms as well as peer-reviewed data sets for researchers.

From the removal of Confederate statues in Southern cities, to presidential candidates’ discussions of reparations, to the successful (and controversial) 1619 Project from The New York Times, the nation is facing a reckoning with slavery and its historic and modern consequences. may help bring to life the experiences of those most directly impacted.

“People are interested and troubled and compelled and grappling with slavery and its many legacies,” Williams says. “Slavery is really, really important to the foundations of America. And slavery is really, really important to America today.”


Leave a Reply

* indicates a required field