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Grant project to compile history of free Blacks in Louisiana

24th June 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Whitney Gaston-Loyd
Contributing Writer

With websites like Ancestry.com, it’s no secret that many people take an interest in being able to retrace their family history. Now, Louisiana State University is offering assistance in helping people discover their roots with an ongoing project titled, “Free People of Color in Louisiana: Revealing an Unknown Past.”

The project, spurred by LSU’s curator of manuscripts and special collections, Tara Laver, began with a $194,000 grant awarded to the institution in May by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Personnel will be appointed to oversee the scanning of no less than 25,000 documents pertaining to free people of color in Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley. Once these documents have been digitized, they will be compiled, archived and made available online for public access via a project website and also the Louisiana Digital Library.

By obtaining all relevant holdings from five institutions, the project will combine the information in one location for the first time. Documents for the project will come from LSU Libraries, the Louisiana State Museum, the New Orleans Public Library, the Historical New Orleans Collection and Tulane University Louisiana Research Center. With each of these centers contributing upwards of 1,000 records apiece, more than 11,000 in the case of LSU, family papers that have been separated for years will be united and available to study collectively.

As archivist for the New Orleans Public Library, Irene Wainwright states that the documents being contributed to the online collection are just the tip of the iceberg.

“The New Orleans Public Library is the official archive for the city of New Orleans, so practically everything we have in this time period is valuable for this kind of research,” said Wainwright.

The online resources created by this project will further scholarship about the intricate history of free people of color and their contributions to America. The collection will also unveil new resources for teaching African-American history and give the general public a chance to learn about this exclusive group of people.

Kendric Perkins, a New Orleans native and historian, has recently taken on the task of tracing his family lineage. Using resources from public historical archives in the ancestor’s hometown coupled with Ancestry.com, Perkins has had some success filling out his family tree. However, he does admit that obtaining conclusive evidence linking a new ancestor to the tree takes a bit of extra work.

“Each of these parishes has its own historical society,” said Perkins, “So one day I have to go to St. Charles Parish, and one day I have to go to Point Coupee Parish and it’s scattered. So I think it’ll be fantastic to have this in one central location online.”

Although communities of free Black citizens did exist, most documentation shedding light on their history did not survive due to the social norms of the time period. Additionally, many records that have survived are mixed in with larger collections and scattered between historical resource centers in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

Lee Miller, head of Tulane University Louisiana Research Center, thinks the project will help researchers and instructors by simplifying the work they have to do to find and access these documents.

“One of the great things about this project is that it will bring together documents from several different institutions,” Miller said, “by putting them together in one easy place that’s online, I think it will promote the study of the African American experience in Louisiana to people around the world.”

By assembling these records, people that wish to study the documents may be able to connect the dots between specific occurrences that were not visible before the documents were amassed.

“I think this will allow for a big picture view of things and allow connections to be made where it was unclear before,” Laver said.

Laver and her team are very hopeful for the success of this project and its ability to increase scholarship for students engaged in not only higher learning, but middle school and high school also.

Though the project is still in its first stages, participants expect the process will take two years, projecting completion around April 2015.

“Were excited. We can’t predict how revolutionary it will be,” said Laver, “but I think it certainly makes a lot possible.”

This article originally published in the June 24, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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