Between the arrival of the first colonists in the 1500's and the end of the Civil War in 1865, an estimated 10 million men, women and children of African descent were enslaved within the present day borders of the United States. Now a new collaborative project called 10 Million Names, spearheaded by the New England Historic Genealogical Society and American Ancestors, is seeking to identify and name each one of those enslaved people.
With more than 40 million Americans being able to trace their ancestry to enslaved Africans, the project aims to connect people with the origins and life stories of their ancestors while growing the document-based data researchers have on enslaved people and their descendants.
10 Million Name's chief historian, Dr. Kendra Tara Field, spoke with GBH's All Things Considered guest host Craig LeMoult about the project. Field is also an associate professor of history and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
LeMoult: So to start off, can you tell us about where the idea for this project came from and how it all came together?
Field: So the 10 Million Names project began in earnest with the founding of the Georgetown Memory Project, which was a project founded by Richard Celini, who led an initial team of researchers who conducted the genealogical study of the enslaved individuals who were ultimately sold by the founders of Georgetown University. American Ancestors then created a publicly accessible database for this research and made a public facing website and conducted oral histories with descendants. Ultimately, this work on what we call the GU-272, those enslaved individuals and their descendants at Georgetown and beyond, became the pilot or the test case that has now expanded into 10 Million Names.
LeMoult: So how many of those 10 million names do we have already? What are the information gaps here that we're trying to fill?
Field: So we are just at the beginning. It's an incredibly ambitious undertaking that aims to document the names of the 10 million women, men and children who were enslaved here in the land that became the United States between the 16th century and the American Civil War. Those 10 million people have approximately 44 million descendants living here today, and the ultimate goal is to trace the 10 million down to the 44 million descendants. So it's a massive project that we are just at the very beginning of and we are in to the tens of thousands, and we will soon be into the hundreds of thousands. I think fairly quickly we will move into the millions and then I imagine that we will plateau at some point as we move past the lower hanging fruit and the existing work that's been done into more challenging terrain.
LeMoult: So how does this research work? How do you find those names?
Field: So we have a number of research areas, and these essentially span the history of enslavement on the land that became the United States both before and after the American Revolution. This includes sites of labor, plantation ledgers, for instance, records of universities or colleges that held people enslaved. It also includes military records. We have soldiers and family members, women, men and children who were recorded in one way or the other in relationship to the American military that spans from the American Revolution through the American Civil War.
We also have the memories of formerly enslaved women and men and children who were interviewed in the post-Emancipation era. So, for instance, the WPA interviews that were conducted in the 1930's were with 2,300 formerly enslaved individuals. In each one of those interviews, you very often find a dozen other names of people that were enslaved alongside them.
So we see and we encounter exponential growth in these early days. I would say also as a historian, these individual datasets or documents are not unfamiliar. I encounter, as a historian of slavery, the names of enslaved and formerly enslaved individuals every day on smaller records, on plantation letters, and diaries and interviews. My peers do as well. But I didn't quite imagine there would be one place where all this information might live; a single database that would allow the data to interact with one another and make a larger whole.
LeMoult: And that's what you're trying to create.
Field: Yes, exactly.
LeMoult: So how long is this expected to take? Is it even possible to find all 10 million names?
Field: I think that we will make a lot of progress quite quickly. We've already made progress through early partnerships. 10 Million Names is a container for many, many datasets, some of which already exist. So there have been individuals and organizations doing this work for a long time.
What's new here is the coalescence of advances in technology and resources and collective, will to bring it all together in one place. So it's very much a collaborative project. One of our leading partners is the African American Historical and Genealogical Society, and we have many other partners that we're working with to bring existing datasets together in one place and then to trace those down to present day descendants.
I think, in some ways, we can talk about it as a generational project. I think it will take a number of years, if not decades, to get all the way there. But I think we will have a very robust database within a few years. Again, this is a collaborative project and we can't do this without the public. In many ways, what 10 Million Names is doing is crowdsourcing data. The more people submit data, go to the website as an individual or or something beyond that and upload information that they've been working with, the faster I think the the project and its entirety will advance. This might be not only explicitly historically oriented institutions like historical societies, but also private homeowners, businesses and other entities which may have within their walls valuable records that lead us to these names.
LeMoult: You've studied your own family history and researched it and written about that. How important do you think this work that you're doing now is to other modern day descendants of enslaved people, many of whom don't know their family histories?
Field: In the classroom, I teach students how to research and write about their own ancestors. That involves students who have records of enslaved ancestors. It also involves oral histories about enslaved ancestors. It also involves students who have records of slave owning ancestors, and sometimes it's descendants who have family members in both of those categories. Or perhaps, there's a history attached to the house where one grew up. There, of course, are vast inequalities and unevenness in our access to the past, our access to records and in particular, written records. So in many ways, this project is attempting to repair or to correct that vast gap that often exists and our uneven access to the past.
You know, I think the experience of being able to name one's ancestors is incredibly powerful. Psychologists have talked about the importance of what they call intergenerational identity or children knowing that they belong to something bigger than themselves. I think the implications of this for African communities in particular are incredibly profound. Our hope is that this project will will make a difference in how we see ourselves and how we understand not only where we've been built, but where we're headed.
LeMoult: How can people find out more about this project?
Field: So there's a website, 10millionnames.org, where you can find out how to participate, how to partner, how to upload data that can contribute to this database, and also how to get help with your own genealogical work that may be ongoing. So we encourage the public to go to that website.