Project aims to uncover the untold stories of African-Americans in Middle Georgia
A 12-year-old girl named Harriet. A 5-year-old boy named Nathan. They are written into the pages of Bibb County historical deed books, right beside the sale of land and horses.
These black children are among more than 400 records of slave transactions that Mercer researchers have discovered so far in just seven volumes. They still have 10 more deed books to go through at the Bibb County Superior Court Clerk’s Office, followed by collections on chattel mortgages, chain gang records and plantation maps.
The clerk’s office, Mercer University Library and the Department of Africana Studies have teamed up on an ambitious project to digitize historical documents from 1823 to 1865 related to slavery. They are focusing on Bibb County first but hope to later expand the project to other counties in Middle Georgia.
A chilling discovery
Bibb County Superior Court Clerk Erica Woodford, who earned bachelor’s degrees in African American studies and political science at Mercer, said she discovered slave records within the deed books during her inventory after taking office in January 2013. Soon after, she shared her findings with Dr. Chester Fontenot Jr., director of Mercer’s Africana Studies program and Baptist Professor of English.
“It was very interesting just to see the actual conveyance of a human, a slave, in writing right here in Bibb County,” Woodford said. “We learned about it in school, and we all know and were taught that it happened, but to actually see it in writing in the office … I knew that it was important to give access to these documents to the public.”
These historical documents, stored in the mezzanine area of the records vault at the Superior Court Clerk’s Office, are already available to the public for viewing, but the project will preserve the collections in their entirety in a digital format, she said. In addition, a separate, searchable database and narrative component will be created for the slave records, Dr. Fontenot said. Long-term plans include creating a curriculum and lesson plans around the latter portion of the project.
“Typically, online resources don’t provide all that extra material. It’s not just that we want to put this stuff out there, but we want to also make it so that people can engage with it,” said Research Services Librarian Adam Griggs. “In my mind, it’s about making it stand out. The prospect of making something that people can discover – is really what motivates me.”
The project got off the ground in summer 2018, when funding from the University’s Research That Reaches Out Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) Office allowed for the employment of two student researchers – Tiffany Alexander and Addison Robinson – who spent 10 weeks reading records and taking notes at the courthouse, Griggs said.
“It helps to create narratives to the history that we do already know, but it also collects the history that was either taught wrong or wasn’t taught at all,” said Robinson, an Africana studies major and journalism minor who is set to graduate in May.
“I just feel like going back to these documents is showing respect and bringing these people to life who otherwise we would have never know about.”
This semester, the two students are continuing this work as their senior seminar research project. They spend two hours a week at the courthouse, in addition to working on a series of podcasts. The podcasts focus on the project’s findings and importance, said Alexander, a double-major in Africana studies and media studies.
“This is part of history that is extremely sugarcoated sometimes. A lot of times, we don’t have adequate access to the truth. This project allows people to get first-hand experience of looking at what happened,” Alexander said. “I’ve been extremely grateful to be a part of it, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.”
They presented a poster on the project at the library in early fall. They will exhibit their research at the University’s BEAR Day in the spring and have applied to take it to conferences this academic year. The team hopes to be able to involve more students and is looking into grant funding to propel the project forward.
“Essentially what we’re doing is building a digital database … that literally paints a portrait of what life was like for African-Americans during that era in Bibb County,” Dr. Fontenot said. “Throughout the country, you don’t have many projects like this.”
It’s rare to have these records on hand, since many courthouses lost their historical documents to fires or floods, Woodford said. The research team is lucky to have a superior court clerk on board who recognizes the value of this research and has made the records so accessible, Dr. Fontenot added.
This is cutting-edge research, nationally, for Africana studies. The field doesn’t have the historical collections that other subject areas do, and this online database would provide a vital resource that’s currently missing. These documents provide proof that things happened in Middle Georgia just like they did in other parts of the South, which people sometimes don’t realize, Dr. Fontenot said.
“There’s really so much history that’s been covered up and forgotten, and that’s kind of what we’re hoping to do … uncover those things,” Griggs said.
“The human toll, the human cost, it is right there in those documents. This was out in the open. This was legal. It was normal. It is shocking, but also not surprising at the same time. It’s what you would expect to see, but it is beyond distressing to actually see it.”
A project by Dr. Matt Harper, assistant professor of history and Africana studies, and Dr. Michele Prettyman Beverly, assistant professor of media studies, to tell the stories of slaves who worked at the historic Jarrell Plantation in Jones County will be incorporated into this larger digitization project.
“There were 38 slaves, but we didn’t really know who they were or what happened to them or what contributions they had made to the area,” Dr. Harper said. “We’re hoping that in working with the plantation historic site and working with this larger project of digitizing black life in Middle Georgia we’ll find the right avenues to get those stories out to the general public.”
While the larger project is finding stories through the close examination of a few kinds of records, the Jarrell Plantation project takes a different approach by using a variety of records to tell the story of people at one particular site. Mercer students have pulled together documents from the county courthouse, state archives, census records and interviews and shared their reports with the plantation site.
“We’ve got the digital tools that can not only make the archiving and research easier, but it can also make it accessible to people,” Dr. Beverly said. “Part of our job is to add something to what Dr. Fontenot’s larger project is, and that’s to give people a much broader sense of what life was like in this region, going back through slavery, reconstruction and more contemporary context.”
It’s important for future generations to be able to look back on the history of what happened in Macon, Woodford said. These digitized resources will make it easier for people to learn about their families and heritage, trace their property or see just what life was like back then. Bibb County residents and Mercer students, as well as people outside the city, state and country, will be able to access these records in a convenient format.
“I am nervous that some people won’t receive it as well as I did, but I’m equally excited because I feel like the impact that will be made will be greater than the criticism,” Robinson said. “I want whoever it reaches to feel as impacted and as moved by this whole initiative as I was.”
The project is a huge endeavor that is going to take a while, Dr. Fontenot said. The team hopes to complete the first phase of the project – on the property deeds collection – within the next three years. The database “will be a living, breathing thing we can continuously update,” Griggs said.
This work is already generating buzz outside Bibb County. Dr. Fontenot said the Library of Congress has expressed interest, and he has received calls and emails from people around the country who want to know more about what the project entails and how it’s being done.
“The kind of people, the kind of resources that we’ve been able to marshal is very unique, and speaks well of the kinds of things that Mercer wants to do and promotes itself as. Yes, we want to do research, but we want to do research that means something,” Dr. Fontenot said.
“In terms of scholarship, it’s probably the most meaningful research that I’ve ever developed and worked on.”