I dig through archives to unearth hidden stories from African-American history

Many years ago, as a graduate student searching in the archives of Spanish Florida, I discovered the first “underground railroad” of enslaved Africans escaping from Protestant Carolina to find religious sanctuary in Catholic Florida. In 1738, these runaways formed Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first free black settlement in what became the U.S.

The excitement of that discovery encouraged me to keep digging. After doing additional research in Spain, I followed the trail of the Mose villagers to Cuba, where they had emigrated when Great Britain acquired Florida. I found many of them in 18th-century church records in Havana, Matanzas, Regla, Guanabacoa and San Miguel del Padrón.

Today, those records and others live on in the Slave Societies Digital Archive. This archive, which I launched in 2003, now holds approximately 600,000 images dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Since its creation, the archive has led to new insights into African populations in the Americas.

An archivist works with a document from Paraiba, Brazil. David Lafevor, CC BY-SA

What we’ve found

The Slave Societies Digital Archive documents the lives of approximately 6 million free and enslaved Africans, their descendants, and the indigenous, European and Asian people with whom they interacted.

When searching for and preserving archives, our researchers must race against time. These fast-vanishing records are threatened daily by tropical humidity, hurricanes, political instability and neglect.

The work is usually challenging and sometimes risky. Our equipment has been stolen in several locations. Soon after we left the remote community of Quibdó, Colombia, a gun battle erupted in the surrounding jungles between the government military forces and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, better known as FARC. It’s no wonder that one of our team members called what we do “guerrilla preservation.”

This hard work has allowed us to discover more about the lives of slaves in the Americas. For example, the Catholic Church mandated the baptism of enslaved Africans in the 15th century. The baptismal records now preserved in the Slave Societies Digital Archive are the oldest and most uniform serial data available for African-American history.

The cover sheet of Baptisms for St. Augustine, dating from 1716. Slave Societies Digital Archive, CC BY-SA
These unique documents also offer detailed information regarding the diverse ethnic origins of Africans in the Atlantic world. Once baptized, Africans and their descendants were eligible for the sacraments of Christian marriage and burial, adding to their historical record. Through membership in the Catholic Church, families also generated a host of other religious documentation, such as confirmations, petitions to wed, wills and even annulments.

In addition, Africans and their descendants joined church brotherhoods organized along ethnic lines. These groups recorded not only ceremonial and religious aspects of their members’ lives, but also their social, political and economic networks.