How New Efforts Are Recovering the Stories of People Who Were Deleted From History

tags: slavery, genealogy, technology, archives, social history, Electronic Records

Rachel Lance is the author of In the Waves: My Quest to Solve the Mystery of a Civil War Submarineavailable now from Dutton.

There are holes in the stories we tell ourselves about history, gaping blanks that stand out like missing teeth in a broken smile. Certain types of people are often relegated to the background, or have been deleted altogether....

It’s difficult to recover these lost stories so long after the witnesses are dead—but not impossible. To enable people to find these proverbial needles in the archival haystacks, many librarians and archivists have quietly turned to one of the most powerful tools of our time: crowdsourcing.

In general, whenever someone interacts with the federal government it generates paperwork. Our nation’s repository for important documents is the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, where climate-controlled catacombs with literal miles of shelving hold grey filing boxes stuffed with old, handwritten papers. In recent years, the National Archives has started digitizing those documents and making them available online. From there, the public has grabbed hold of the files and begun to unlock their secrets. Tens of thousands of transcribing volunteers are gradually turning the hefty boxloads of paper into searchable online databases....

Enslaved people were not tracked by the general U.S. Census. However, in 1850 and 1860, the government made separate special tallies, called the Slave Schedules. The names of the enslaved people were not generally listed, but the schedules do list the names of the slave owners. For example, plantation owner Dr. Philip Tidyman, who lived just outside Charleston, pops up readily in the 1850 Slave Schedule.

Unfortunately, to research people who were not wealthy white men, it’s often necessary to trace them through the lives of the wealthy white men around them. For example, unsurprisingly given his demographic and social status, Dr. Philip Tidyman left behind prolific records. He shows up in abundance in the South Carolina court records, which have also made their way online through the modern human-fueled digitization and transcription machine. He can be found selling enslaved men and women to neighbors in other documents that do list names and often descriptions for the slaves. Those who inherited his plantation can be identified and linked to him because the inventories of his estate conducted after his death in 1850 still list him as the true owner (his daughter, as a woman, was not permitted to own the land in her own name).


Read entire article at TIME

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