African American News and Genealogy

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Thursday, September 08, 2005

Project reveals details of slave life

GREENSBORO -- The information she has could help someone find that missing branch in their family tree.That's what Marguerite Ross Howell thought each time she came across new data taken from centuries old court petitions."Genealogists may know their family history and that they were enslaved by so and so, and their ancestors lived on this plantation, but they may not know that one of their relatives was a cook or a carpenter or suffered a disease. These documents tell a lot of personal detail," Howell said. "They fill in the gaps a little bit and give a face to the individuals."Howell, a former student of UNCG history professor Loren Schweninger, has helped him compile 14 years worth of data taken from court petitions submitted by Southern slave owners, slaves and free blacks. Schweninger's Race and Slavery Petitions Project 1776-1867 is a compilation of 17,487 legislative and court documents from 200 county courthouses in the 15 former slaveholding states and the District of Columbia.The information is available on microfilm and a letterpress collection of select petitions titled "The Southern Debate over Slavery." Work on a second volume is under way.This year Schweninger received a $200,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a digital library on American slavery. It will include data on 120,000 slaves, including cross-references to the slaves' owners, genealogy, occupation and their appraised value. Some history of free people of color also will be available. The library, expected to be complete by 2008, will be available to scholars, genealogists and others.Schweninger, a Colorado native, studied European history and briefly taught high school students. He completed his doctoral work at the University of Chicago, where his interest in African American history was sparked by the dynamic college professor John Hope Franklin. Franklin so inspired Schweninger that his eldest son is named after the distinguished scholar and author. They now work on projects as colleagues.The petitions project stemmed from Schweninger's research for his doctoral dissertation on James Rapier, a black Alabama congressman. Schweninger went to Rapier's hometown to peruse court documents for information on his family. It was there that he came across his first court petition.The petitions project has been tedious but rewarding, Schweninger said. He spent summers in Alabama, Louisiana and Virginia poring over faded court documents that were, at times, hard to read."There wasn't a day that went by that there wasn't exciting information," he said.Many students assisted Schweninger on the project, as well as Howell and Nicole Marcon Mazgaj, whose husband also is a history professor. Howell began work on the project in 1998 and Mazgaj joined them three years ago. Both women, who helped edit the project, spoke of the challenges in reading the documents. The handwriting was often hard to discern, ink blots blocked words and the language of that time period was different.But learning the details of the personal lives of slaves has been rewarding, Howell said. Some documents reveal a slave's occupation or the amount of money paid toward their purchase.More than 3,000 petitions deal with emancipation. These documents identify slaveholders who wanted to free their slaves and freed slaves who wanted to buy their wife or child, then free them.Howell's favorite petition is one from Alabama in 1852. It spans 20 pages in which the heirs talk about the slaves within the estate and how they've lost money because the slaves were mistreated and unable to work. They gave detailed description of plantation life and an abusive overseer."While you could say, 'How nice that they were concerned,' but they bring it back to money," Howell said. "In my opinion it brings it back to the crux the institution of slavery is all about -- property." Contact Tina Firesheets at 373-3498 or


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