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Using Records about Slavery in the Southern Historical Collection: The Southern Historical Collection

This tutorial is meant to orient and direct users to materials that document the history of slavery in the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Special Collections Library.

The Past...

The Southern Historical Collection is housed within the Wilson Special Collections Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the early twentieth century, UNC history professor, Dr. J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton, motivated by his vision to create a repository for the preservation and study of the history of the American South, began a concerted effort to search and collect materials from the white, elite landowning families from this region. Through his networks, Hamilton collected letters, plantation journals, account books, diaries, financial papers, and a multitude of other documents to create the archive we know today as the Southern Historical Collection. These materials document the lived experience of thousands of individuals, including that of hundreds of enslaved Africans and African Americans.

The early archivists who were responsible for arranging and describing these materials reflected Hamilton's aims to represent the white elite families of the South. In doing so, they failed to represent the lived experience of individuals of color, most of whom were enslaved. In short, many of the first finding aids, or descriptive guides for these collections included discriminatory or altogether absent description for enslaved individuals or free people of color. 

...and the Present

Archival practices have come a long way since that time, but archaic language persists in much of our collection description and it continues to be one of the biggest obstacles to accessing information about slavery in the SHC. Today, librarians and archivists at UNC-Chapel Hill are developing new descriptive standards and practices which include correcting confusing and discriminatory language in archival finding aids. Many of our finding aids do not reflect what historians and other scholars of American slavery recommend as inclusive language. We recommend the following resource if you are researching or writing about slavery: P. Gabrielle Foreman, et al, "Writing about Slavery/Teaching About Slavery: This Might Help," community-sourced document, accessed September 2019. 

Complicating ineffective and insufficient description is the inherent difficulty of finding records about those who were enslaved. The institution of slavery sought to destroy an enslaved individual's agency and basic human rights. It was illegal for enslaved people to read and write and most enslaved people were illiterate. Rarely do we see their own expressions in the records that survive today. Often the story of an enslaved person's life must be pieced together through a variety of different materials recorded from someone else's perspective. Many enslaved people were not referred to in the records with last names. People who were enslaved were considered human property and thus they are referred to in historic documents as commodities. They were not meant to have a unique identity, making it difficult for us as researchers to trace individuals from one piece of evidence to another.

These issues are just some of the factors that complicate researching enslaved people. This tutorial is designed with these obstacles in mind. It provides research tips, examples of document types, key terms, and suggests specific collections for searching to help you navigate the research landscape in the Southern Historical Collection.