By Tabitha Cary

Session 8, “Promoting transparency in the legacy of slavery: turning data into people in Maryland’s slave records,” at the October meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) was a well-delivered, inspiring, and thought-provoking presentation. Speakers from the Maryland State Archives and the University of Maryland discussed the partnership between these two institutions. Through the digitization and transcription of records for The Legacy of Slavery in Maryland database, they are working to tell the stories of the African American experience during slavery.

The moderator, Christopher Haley (Maryland State Archives), began the session with three words: known, unknown, and erased. He elaborated by explaining that slave traders transported Africans from their known world to an unknown world where their owners worked to erase their history because they were not viewed as equals. Inspired by the stories of unknown heroes of slave flight and resistance found in the Maryland State Archives, this endeavor seeks to stop the erasure of African American stories and to make them accessible to today’s researchers.

Maya Davis (Maryland State Archives) provided the context behind the project, including its funding sources and inspiration. This study began in 2001 with volunteers, and has since been funded by grants, particularly those from the National Park Service and the Department of Education. Davis recalled a story about Phebe Jacobsen, an archivist who worked in the Maryland State Archives, who believed that all people deserve to know their history and background, and made it her life’s work to help African Americans conduct genealogical research. Jacobsen penned a guide that was published in 1984 titled Researching African American Families at the Maryland State Archives,1 which has been helpful to many people, including those working on this initiative. The project extends Jacobsen’s work to make research easier for users by making records relating to slaves and slavery accessible and searchable in an online database.  

Ryan Cox (Maryland State Archives) explained how materials are selected for digitization and transcription. Some of the more obvious records, such as manumissions, certificates of freedom, runaway slave ads, and the census table on free blacks, are easy selections. However, it is important to note that many stories are left out of those records, and so it is up to archivists to determine where more information is hidden, which can be done by examining who kept what records and why. For example, chattel records (tax records for the slave owner) and accounts of sale are being repurposed to help descendants of slaves find their ancestors and to tell the stories of the enslaved. As more was scanned and transcribed, using the information became difficult because there was no standardization or central storage of information. By remedying these problems, the database on The Legacy of Slavery in Maryland became searchable.

Katrina Fenlon (University of Maryland) discussed how the Digital Curation Innovation Center at the University of Maryland is working with their students to transcribe the information found in the records being digitized. The type of record being transcribed brings its own set of challenges because the same information can be represented differently in different types of records. For example, a tabular census provides information differently than a runaway slave notice. By evaluating how the information is presented in each record, they’re working to standardize the data entry and make it machine readable without sacrificing the information found in the record. This increases accessibility and usability. Better standardization helps improve the analysis of the data so that we can better understand slavery and the stories of the people it affected.  

Tabitha Cary is a Digital Projects Assistant in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University.


1. View more resources related to African-American history at the Maryland State Archives here.

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