Mississippi State University Libraries is helping create the state’s first institutionally supported digital database intended to give greater access to legal records relating to people who were enslaved in the state. The Lantern Project is funded by a $340,424 grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Committee, a branch of the National Archives.
This undertaking involves digitizing 19th-century documents from across the South. The database will utilize records created or used by slave owners or the legal system to track enslaved persons, such as inventories, bills of sale, and probate and other court records, which will allow scholars and genealogists to trace victims’ movements and empower descendants to uncover their ancestries and reconstruct family trees impacted by slavery. Upon completion, the project will provide a fully text-searchable, indexed collection containing digital images of original documents that include individuals’ names and detailed physical descriptions.
Donald Shaffer, director of African American studies and an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University, said the Lantern Project will lend visibility and legitimacy to an era of history that is often erased or seen through rose-colored glasses.
“Enslavement is a deeply personal narrative involving human beings, and seeing that experience firsthand brings that home,” Dr. Shaffer said. “We need to take an unflinching view because we have to tell all stories, even those that might be difficult, if we want to grow as a society, civilization or nation.”
As in much of the South, slavery played a large role in Mississippi’s socioeconomic structure and population development. The state had approximately 437,000 enslaved persons by 1860, compared to 33,000 in 1820.