Databases : Research Made (Almost) Easy

By Sylviane A. Diouf, Director, Lapidus Center. October 9, 2015.

As a historian specializing in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, I spend a great deal of time doing research in a variety of sources scattered over several states and dozens of institutions. So when I can find huge amounts of information in one place and link them quickly to data held in another, it makes me very happy.

I have a few favorite databases that helped tremendously when I was researching my book Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. I started with runaway notices published in Southern newspapers. Though I still had to read countless microfilms of titles not yet digitized, America’s Historical Newspapers  lightened my task. It offers access to 1,000 U.S. newspapers starting in 1690. For Virginia, the most convenient source is The Geography of Slavery in Virginia  with close to 4,000 runaway ads from 1736 through 1803.

For maroons born in Africa if the ad mentioned the name of the ship or the captain that brought them to the US, I turned to the extraordinary The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database that provides a wealth of information on over 35,000 slaving voyages. Then I used the Schomburg Center’s online exhibition The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The Forgotten Story where I searched one of the four volumes of Elizabeth Donnan’s Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America for additional details.

With a few clicks I could thus follow a person’s trajectory from a port in Africa to the Southern woods and swamps. For example, Juno was barely fifteen when she landed in Charleston on June 16, 1733. She had arrived from Cabinda (Angola) on the Speaker, one of the 316 individuals (out of 370) who made it to the end of the voyage.  She disappeared two weeks later. The fastest to escape was certainly Arrow who had probably been transported on the Marlborough, the only recorded ship that came from the Bight of Benin in 1759. She landed in Charleston on July 29, with 293 men, women, and children on board; 105 individuals (26 percent) had died during the Middle Passage. Arrow left two days after arrival, on July 31 and remained a maroon for at least three years.

A site I often used is Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938Its 2,300 interviews of formerly enslaved men and women brim with personal details about life under slavery and I found wonderful and detailed information about maroon relatives and friends who lived in underground “homes” they had dug at the border of plantations. The audio recording of twenty-three interviews can be found at Voices from the Days of Slavery.

Another favorite site of mine is Documenting the American South  which provides access to countless books, including invaluable slave and ex-slave narratives. The Digital Library on American Slavery contains information on about 80,000 enslaved and 8,000 free blacks and 62,000 whites, culled from petitions, wills, inventories, deeds, bills of sale, depositions, and court proceedings.

Many more databases on Africa and the African Diaspora are available and the best place to find them is Digital Schomburg Selected Links   which lists sites that offer access to free, high-quality databases of books, articles, oral histories, images, maps, interviews, and television programs. But there’s more. The New York Public Library offers several hundred databases. Some can be consulted only from NYPL locations but you can dig into others from the comfort of your home. Our own Digital Collections, lets you browse over 800,000 images from our vast holdings.