Earlier this semester, the University Libraries officially launched "The Digital Library on American Slavery," a free resource that enables anyone with access to the Internet to search through thousands of court and legislative petitions dealing with slavery in the American South (1776-1867). Just click on http://library.uncg.edu/slavery/.
What might you find? The Digital Library includes records on 83,000 individual slaves from 15 southern states and Washington D.C. Each slave is named in the records, and in some cases the Digital Library includes other identifying information, such as specific skills and family relationships. The records include documentation on slaves who ran away, on free blacks seeking to purchase family members out of slavery, and on slaveowners petitioning to reverse wills, among many other topics. Already, amateur genealogists are turning to the site for information on their family histories, and we have heard from the descendants of slaves and slaveowners alike who have found information in the resource.
The resource is also a treasure trove for historians and teachers. In it you find stories of people like James, "a slave belonging to Will Armistead of New Kent county" (Virginia) who served as a spy for the Marquis Lafayette during the Revolutionary War. James "intreats that he may be granted that Freedom, which he flatters himself he has in some degree contributed to establish." Another entry tells of Maria Townes, an enslaved minor in New Orleans who claims to be a free white woman and is petitioning to stop her imminent sale. Other records reveal family tragedies. To give just one example, Christian Limbaugh of Rowan County, NC, sues for divorce in 1805, claiming that his wife has given birth to and "barbously murdered" a mullatto child. While his wife was convicted of this crime (and later pardoned by the governor), the state denies his request for divorce.
The Digital Library of American Slavery grew out of the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, directed by Loren Schweninger (the Elizabeth Rosenthal Excellence Professor in History at UNCG). Established in 1991, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project was designed to locate, collect, organize, and publish all extant legislative petitions and a selected group of 14,500 county court petitions relevant to race and slavery. The Project has received support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and The University of North Carolina Greensboro. The Digital Library on American Slavery is the final phase of this project.