Mar 4, 2011 8:14 PM by Alison Haynes
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The Virginia Historical Society will draw from its vast collections to create a database of slave names to help scholars and family historians examine centuries of the state's slave-holding past.
"Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names" will tap some of the more than 8 million processed manuscripts in the society's collection. The online results will be available at no cost to researchers, families and genealogists.
The database will be launched in September with 1,000 names, which curator of African- American history Lauranett Lee calls "a point from which to start." Virginia held more slaves than any other state.
The society's records includes letters, wills, deeds, insurance policies, receipts, diaries, memoirs and other documents. They date back to the 1700s.
"A website visitor could enter as much as or as little information as he or she knows about a particular African American to conduct a search," the society's CEO, Paul Levengood, said in a news release. "The results can lead to previously unknown connections between people, families and places."
Early African-American history, defined as the arrival of the first slaves through the Civil war, is often based on the words of white observers or freed persons who reflected on the era.
The database will use searchable keywords such as name, gender, location, occupation and plantation. It will also include images of original source documents.
"Existing databases profile specific plantations and ship manifests with African names of their human cargo or other force migratory information," Lee said. "Unknown No Longer will be the first database of names that relate back to plantations or places of work across all of slaveholding Virginia."
Lee said in an interview Friday that many African-Americans were inspired by Alex Haley's epic "Roots" to trace their families' histories, and that thirst continues to this day.
"It's difficult to trace family history during slavery because enslaved people were frequently moved around," Lee said. "That's the biggest challenge. Oftentimes they might not know where their family came from."
The society's database draws extensively from its African-American collections. "This database gets down into the weeds," Lee said.
"This would be the place where people should start their search," she added.
The database is being funded with a $100,000 grant from Dominion Resources and The Dominion Foundation.