One perk of covering higher ed is that I get to dive into the online collections of university libraries. I tell my editors it’s for work, and most of the time I’m telling the truth. You never know what you might find, right?
A lot of college and university libraries have put large portions of their institutional archives online. Having quick and easy (and free!) access to yearbooks, academic catalogs, campus histories and old campus photos has been a huge help to me over the years.
Many libraries also have digitized parts of their special collections, which is a boon for students, journalists and researchers. UNCG Libraries, for instance, is documenting beer and women veterans, among other things. N.C. A&T’s Bluford Library has collected photos and other documents about the A&T Four. UNC-Chapel Hill has Hugh Morton’s photos, a pronunciation guide of N.C. place names and an archive of The Mini Page, which ran in daily newspapers back in the day. N.C. State has architectural drawings from around the state. Wake Forest University keeps N.C. Baptist Church records. And so on.
One of the more serious and sober documentary efforts has to do with slavery. Though UNCG has no direct ties to slavery — the university wasn’t founded until 26 years after slavery was outlawed in the United States — it has compiled an impressive online collection that it calls the Digital Library on American Slavery. UNCG's own collection includes slavery petitions, runaway slave advertisements and slave deeds. This project also has links to a trans-Atlantic slave trade database kept by Emory University in Atlanta and slave insurance records compiled by the state of California.
The origin of this collection has its own fascinating history, which you can read about here. (Long story short, it started with a UNCG history professor, now retired, who drove to county courthouses all over the South in the early 1990s and filled his car with photocopies of bills of sale, wills and petitions for freedom.) UNCG’s collection got a little attention recently when author Colson Whitehead acknowledged that he used runaway slave ads he picked from UNCG’s archives in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Underground Railroad.”
UNCG’s online effort will continue to expand. The university learned recently that it had won a grant of nearly $300,000 from the National Archives to scan and transcribe nearly 10,000 slave deeds in 26 North Carolina counties. The “People, Not Property” project is based in part on a similar projects done in Buncombe County and elsewhere. Guilford County has an online collection of 254 slave deeds from 1774 to 1826. Iredell, New Hanover and Surry counties also have online collections of documents relating to enslaved persons.
The Asheville paper has more on the grant and the project. The chairwoman of a local African-American heritage committee told the Citizen-Times that the project will make it easier for people to find their missing ancestors: “There is a paper trail and this is it — this is the path of my ancestors, through slave deeds and bills of sale.”
This is fascinating — and necessary — stuff.
Update, 12:30 p.m. Monday: I probably should have included the 26 N.C. counties in the post above. They are: Alleghany, Beaufort, Brunswick, Buncombe, Chowan, Craven, Duplin, Guilford, Halifax, Haywood, Iredell, Madison, Martin, New Hanover, Orange, Perquimans, Person, Richmond, Robeson, Stanly, Stokes, Surry, Union, Wake, Washington and Yadkin.
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