Teaching Hard History Online Archives and Databases

In our 2018 report on improving the teaching of slavery, we recommended educators use original historical documents to represent the diverse voices and experiences of enslaved people. Our Teaching Hard History text library includes more than 100 of these sources, but educators looking for more will find a trove of resources online. The online archives and databases listed here are a good place to start.

We encourage educators to review these resources and, when possible, to have students explore these records on their own.

 

A Red Record

The site’s name and content refer to the work of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. An interactive map with links to records provides extensive detail about victims and the circumstances of their murders, including original historical documents. The meticulous curation of records allows students to see the extent of lynching in the Confederate South and better understand its horror.

The site is not particularly search-friendly, but its map is a useful way to find individual records of lynching and a wealth of sources, including newspaper accounts and census data. The student-facing “Documentation” resources offer insight into how the work of historical recovery often unfolds.

 

Freedom on the Move

The searchable database is a collection of more than 22,000 advertisements placed by enslavers across the nation in search of fugitives from slavery. A collaborative effort, the site is the largest collection of its kind. Entries contain original images, transcriptions and details including publication date, escapee count and newspaper location for each advertisement. 

Advertisements for people fleeing from enslavement are essential artifacts for teaching the history of slavery. Many offer extensive details—often the only to survive—about enslaved people and their lives. Each advertisement is a story of resistance.


N.C. Runaway Slave Advertisements Project

This is a searchable database of 2,300 advertisements placed in North Carolina by enslavers seeking people who escaped enslavement. Advertisements are accessible by sophisticated search features. Entries contain original images, transcripts and some additional details, such as date and location. 

The site also includes the essay “Trends in the Runaway Slave Advertisements,” which provides students a model of how historians read, understand and use primary source documents to better understand the past.


Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery

This is an easy-to-search collection of thousands of “Information Wanted” advertisements placed by formerly enslaved people looking for their families. The site features high-quality images of original advertisements, many with accompanying transcripts. Users can search the collection by keyword, tag, publisher and a wide variety of subjects. The texts themselves are extremely diverse. Some discuss the author’s experience in great detail. Others tell personal stories in attempts to trigger readers’ memories.

These texts show the impact and legacy of family separation. They illustrate the diversity of the experiences of enslaved people through detail and stories. When combined with the site’s “Mapping the Ads” feature, the texts can help students understand where and how black communities (and their newspapers) formed after emancipation. 

The site includes several K–12 lesson plans and information about its annual student art contest. It also offers students an opportunity to participate in public history-making by transcribing advertisements that could appear on the site in the future.


New York Slavery Records Index   

This searchable collection of more than 35,000 records identifies enslaved people and enslavers in New York from 1525 through the Civil War. Documents include birth notices, manumissions, bills of sale and trial records—all organized by category and by the names of individual people.

These documents can help students get a sense of the scope of slavery in the North. The index has very sophisticated search functions but is easy for students to use, and the site includes videos and written tutorials. Unlike other indexes, it can group records by name, allowing users to see more details about the lives of enslaved people and their enslavers.

 

Race and Slavery Petitions Project

The site features a searchable collection of 80,000 petitions (legal documents seeking relief from the government) about topics ranging from attaining freedom, trading enslaved people, civic life, crops and family. The petitions come from slaveholding states from 1775 to 1867. The database also features genealogical information about the nearly 150,000 people named in these documents. The site uses intuitive and effective search processes, allowing users to search individuals and petitions by date, location and other refinements. The extensive records about free people of color are also notable.

Searching by subject is an easy way to find primary sources to enrich a lesson, and the site’s glossary of terms may be a particularly useful addition to lessons about American slavery. Students will find that each petition tells a story. When read in groups, the petitions illustrate the many ways that race and slavery permeated the lives of all people living in slaveholding states.

 

Slavery Era Insurance Registry

Housed on the site of the California Department of Insurance, this archive includes a collection of policies that covered enslavers for the health of the people they enslaved. In creating the registry, the California Legislature noted, “These documents provide the first evidence of ill-gotten profits from slavery, which profits in part capitalized insurers whose successors remain in existence today.”

This legislation and the resulting documents pair well with discussions of the continuing legacy and impact of enslavement in contemporary institutions. The collection shows that slavery was a business institution whose beneficiaries extended far beyond enslavers, including corporations that exist and thrive in the present day. It is also interesting as an artifact of “corporate accountability” required by law. Students could consider the ways universities and communities are actively considering options like reparations and the removal of Confederate monuments.

 

Slave Voyages

This “digital memorial” tracks the dispersal of Africans via slave trades with a searchable archive of more than 36,000 individual slaving expeditions. The site features introductory maps, 3D views of slavers’ ships, timelines, essays, galleries of historical images linked to corresponding voyages and even sub-collections such as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Intra-American Slave Trade Database and the African Names Database.

The sheer breadth of the data here might seem intimidating, but the site’s tools make it a valuable asset to any lesson about transcontinental slavery. It includes cutting-edge online tools for data reporting and visualization. It even includes lesson plans with recommendations for incorporating these resources. 

 

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