When we read about the history of slavery in the Americas, it’s often through generalities and numbers: The trans-Atlantic slave trade forcibly took some 12.5 million Africans from their homes, and some 10.6 million survived the Middle Passage across the Atlantic. We know that enslaved people accounted for about a third of the population in the antebellum-era south, that they were sold as property and often barred from learning to read and write. We know about the brutal punishments meted out by masters. We know they married and raised families.
But none of this tells us about the individuals. We only know a few historical enslaved people by name; the rest (and most) are seen as lost to history. For millions of Americans, that means their family histories are lost, as well. But now a massive, free, open-source database is helping to reconstruct and document the lives of the enslaved, and researchers are asking the public and others in academia to contribute to the ongoing project.