From email@example.com Mon Jul 31 08:31:03 2000
Anonymous Louisiana Slaves Regain Identity
By David Firestone <firstname.lastname@example.org>, New York Times, 30 July 2000
NEW ORLEANS -- From the darkness of history they emerge out of a silver spinning disc: two black slaves sold by a sugar plantation owner named Levi Foster on Feb. 11, 1818, to his in-laws. The first slave, named Kit, was 28 years old, and sold for $975. The other, named Alick, was 9, and was possibly Kit's son. He was sold for $400.
For nearly two centuries, the names of those two slaves were lost in time, with tens of thousands of others who worked the sugar and cotton fields of Louisiana and made fortunes for their owners. Their identities, scratched with quill pens on transaction records of human property, have moldered in the basements of parish courthouses for more than 150 years, virtually untouched by researchers who were usually put off by the difficult French and Spanish script.
Black families often lacked the resources for the extensive detective work required to find their original African forebears, and many white families simply did not want to know about slaveholding ancestors. Levi Foster, in fact, is the great-great-grandfather of Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana, who said recently on a radio program that it would be "news to me" if anyone in his family had owned slaves.
Now, however, the identities and backgrounds of Louisiana slaves are beginning to emerge from centuries of anonymity, infusing property once sold like livestock with names like Kit and Alick. Thanks to years of painstaking work by a 71-year-old historian who lives in a small house here surrounded by plantain trees, an enormous amount of information is coming to light about the captives who were brought to Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a New Orleans native who has devoted much of her life to the study of slavery, spent 15 years in the courthouses of Louisiana, as well as in archives in Spain, France and Texas, seeking all records of slave transactions and entering them into laptop computers. Aided by several research assistants, she amassed computerized records on more than 100,000 slaves -- the largest collection of individual slave information ever assembled -- and in March the Louisiana State University Press published the documents as a searchable database on a CD-ROM.
The disc has amazed historians of slavery and genealogists with the breadth of its information about the slaves. Because the French and Spanish proprietors of Louisiana kept far more detailed records than their British counterparts at slave ports on the Atlantic coast, the records show not only the names of the slaves, but also their birthplaces in Africa, their skills, their health, and in many cases a description of their personality and degree of rebel- liousness. For historians who thought such information was lost or could never be collected and analyzed, the database is a once-unimaginable prize.
"This is groundbreaking work," said Ibrahim K. Sundiata, chairman of the history department at Howard University and a scholar of African history. "Americans have tended to think of the slaves as simply being Africans, but now we can begin to understand where these Africans came from and who they were. For the first time, this takes us beyond the guestimates, and it's very exciting."
It also has a great deal of unpublished information about who owned the slaves, which many prominent white families have never been particularly eager to research. Marsanne Golsby, a spokeswoman for Governor Foster, said he learned about his family's ownership of slaves after The New York Times looked up his ancestors on the disc and found transactions involving eight slaves, three of them children. Unrelated documents on file in the Tulane University library show that his great-grandfather, Thomas J. Foster, owned 50 slaves in 1860, three years before emancipation. (The governor was not particularly happy about the disclosure; Ms. Golsby said the newspaper should not have singled out his family from the many others that owned slaves.)
Dr. Hall's database is the latest example of a recent explosion of popular and scholarly interest in the African diaspora, the scattering of African people after they left or were removed from their home continent. The field has grown in part because of the availability of computerized tools that make research a less tedious task than tracking down crumbling documents, often in foreign languages.
Another CD-ROM, compiled at Harvard University and published in December by Cambridge University Press, documented more than 27,000 trans-Atlantic slave ship voyages, describing their human cargo, their points of origin and destination, and the outcome of the voyages. A popular Web site, <http://www.afrigeneas.com>, has collected and published large amounts of slave data and encourages those tracing their roots to share their information with others on the Internet. Genetic researchers have been assembling a DNA database that may someday allow African-Americans to trace their origins to specific regions in Africa.
Tony Burroughs, an African-American genealogist who lectures widely on the subject, said the Louisiana database is as significant as the publication of Alex Haley's "Roots" in 1976, in part because the demand is even greater now for accessible information. It also provides hope to those who believed they could never trace their origins back more than a few generations.
"We've got all these baby boomers now who want to learn about their families' past, and they want to use a computer," said Mr. Burroughs, who teaches genealogy at Chicago State University and was a consultant on the PBS "Ancestors" series. "They can't go around and find all the old documents and do the translations, but now we're starting to get these amazing databases like Gwen Hall's, and people can use them. If you have ancestors from Louisiana, it's like a treasure chest."
Dr. Hall's odyssey through the whispered history of her state shows how daunting such research can be. She had taught Caribbean and African-Latin history for many years at Rutgers University in New Jersey when she began researching a book in 1984on the development of Creole culture in Louisiana. In the courthouse at New Roads, La., the seat of Pointe Coupee Parish, she discovered a cache of documents set down by French-speaking notaries in the 1770's that showed the ethnicity of hundreds of slaves.
"I was astounded at how much information there was in the records," said Dr. Hall, whose eventual book "Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the 18th Century," on the Louisiana Africans won several history prizes in 1992. "In the English colonies, there was almost no information like this. The French just seemed more interested in the origins of people, who they were and where they came from. Maybe it's because they had a much longer history of slave trading posts in Africa."
After deciding to pursue the potential of such records around Louisiana, she won a research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and began a lengthy trek through every courthouse and archives depot in the state, where slave transactions were recorded as carefully as exchanges of real estate.
Clerks would frequently tell her that the documents were unusable because they were in French or Spanish, although she is fluent in both languages. Often, she and her assistants would find old record books on a shelf next to a heater, or in a damp basement. In one courthouse, she said, someone had tried to burn the records, apparently afraid they would expose a black family that had been passing for white for several generations.
The years of staring at documents and computer screens took a toll on Dr. Hall's eyesight, which deteriorated to the point that she could barely make out black ink on a white page. A pair of specially designed eyeglasses has since improved her ability to see contrasting colors.
She also had to familiarize herself with the design of computer databases, working to make the collection of information as flexible as possible to answer any conceivable question a researcher might ask. Using the disc requires a separate database program but with a little experience it is possible to enter a first or last name and find out a great deal about a matching slave or owner.
The disc is available from major Internet book sellers for $45.
An entry for a slave named Hector is typical: Born in the Congo, he was sold by St. Pierre Etier on Jan. 1, 1797, for 400 piastre gourdes (about $700) to Francois Prevost, in St. Martin Parish. But the bill of sale went on to note that Hector was a chronic runaway who was at large at the time of sale. The buyer "will be responsible for his care if he is found and is suffering from any illnesses or wounds," the document says in French.
Many of the records were originally produced for trials or other legal actions regarding slaves. One describes an accusation against two slaves, Pierrot, of the Bamana ethnic group from Senegambia, and Nicolas, a Louisiana Creole, for killing and eating their owner's cow in 1764 in the New Orleans region. Both were publicly flogged.
"Finally we're going to be able to recover these workers as people with pasts, with names and families," said Michael Gomez, a professor of history at New York University and a leader of the growing movement to study the African diaspora. "These records humanize people who were thought of as a kind of undifferentiated mass."
Beyond the light that the collection has strewn on individuals, it has also illuminated many larger cultural questions. Dr. Hall and other experts in the field say the data have conclusively proved that two-thirds of African captives brought to Louisiana in the early part of the slave trade, before 1730, were from the Senegambia area of West Africa, unlike other ethnic groups that went to the East Coast. The culture they brought with them -- music, language, food, folklore -- became the foundation of Louisiana's distinctive Creole culture, a way of life for both whites and blacks for hundreds of years to this day.
"Even the Uncle Remus stories were originally Wolof folktales which were first written down in Louisiana," Dr. Hall said, referring to one of the Senegambian ethnic groups. "For so long there was this tendency, even in the most prestigious academic circles, to see Africans as an abstraction, coming from a simple single place. But now we're starting to see it as a place of great complexity, and the different ethnicities greatly affected the development of African-American culture."
Dr. Hall, who is white, has never hesitated to buck academic or social conventions. The daughter of Herman Midlo, a labor and civil rights lawyer in New Orleans who defended many black clients in the 1930's and 40's when other white lawyers would not, she became radicalized as a young woman by the segregation she had observed growing up. After a brief flirtation with the Communist Party in the 1950's, she married Harry Haywood, an outspoken black Communist, who died in 1985.
She championed the study of African ethnicities at a time when mainstream scholarly opinion was not interested, and says she is delighted that the field has finally caught up.
"I'm hoping this database will help smooth the path for others to make Africans concrete as human beings," she said. "Some day, people will be asking this database questions that I can't even imagine right now."
Copyright (c) 2000 New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.
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