This project explores multigenerational black, white, and mixed family networks in early Washington, D.C., by collecting, digitizing, making accessible, and analyzing thousands of case files from the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, Maryland state courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. We include petitions for freedom, civil, criminal, and chancery cases. And we incorporate where possible related documents about these families from special collections, archives, churches, and local historical societies. Scholars from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Maryland will collaborate by uncovering the web of litigants, jurists, legal actors, and participants in this community, and by placing these family networks in the foreground of our interpretive framework of slavery and national formation.
The project will collect, digitize, and edit relevant legal and personal records in the following order:
- All petitions for freedom cases originating in the D.C. Circuit Court sittings in Washington and Alexandria, 1800-1862
- Civil Cases involving African American families, 1800-1820
- Chancery Records involving African American families, 1800-1820
- Criminal Records involving African American families, 1800-1820
The project will also release an updated index and an enhanced EAD for the National Archives and Records Administration's index of "Black Washingtonian" legal records held in Record Group 21.
Relationship & People Encoding
The project attempts to infer relationships between every individual named in the legal records, to assemble a complete set of ascribed relationships for every individual, and to make visible what has been invisible in the history of slavery, including the networks of relationships of the enslaved and free. Scholars have written accounts of slavery based on models that have been quantitative (economic), institutional, political, and cultural. Many of these works have treated slavery as a system, and more recently, as a particularly exploitative feature of the process of capitalist development in the early modern and modern world. It was also experienced in individual actions and individual movements through space and time, the traces of these largely invisible in the historical record.
In the digital space, using the D.C. Circuit Court case files, we are attempting to model a multidimensional approach to documenting the lived experience of individual enslaved and free African Americans in the early republic. Each individual has a record where their status, color, and other attributes might change over time—presented in one way at one time and in another way at another time. Just as important, every relationship of every person, as expressed in these documents (enslaved by, parent of, child of, neighbor of, witness for, client of, . . .), will be encoded into a standard, extensible, and widely sharable format. For further information, see Data Download & Query.
Each entry points to the source document for each attribute. Each attribute can change over time. Name, age, and especially color appeared differently in different documents over time. Residences of the enslaved are named and can be tracked. Our encoding of the relationships in these legal cases begins to suggest the extraordinary range of contacts and connections in the social world of the early republic.
In 168 cases—all petitions for freedom—we have found the names of 1,244 individuals, and these 1,244 individuals had 10,146 different relationships.
If we were to extrapolate on the basis of the encoding, we have approximately 60 relationships contained in each case. With over 4,000 cases we might have 240,000 relationships.
Recovering African American Histories
The project's goal is also to make visible the lives of enslaved and free African Americans. Much information—the names, occupations, and experiences—about enslaved and free African Americans did not make it into William Cranch's reports on the cases in the D.C. Circuit Court. He rarely included last names of African Americans, yet detailed information is contained in the original case papers and minute books. Cranch's volumes have been cited routinely in appellate decisions and legal briefs, as well as relied upon by legal historians for years. Yet, Cranch excluded last names of African Americans throughout his volumes and focused mainly on legal procedures and rules. The result is a historical and genealogical erasure that needs repair.
Funding & Support
Funding and support are provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and the University of Maryland's Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.