Dec 1, 2020 - Politics & Policy
What Matters 2020

First look: Slavery ancestor project expands

American abolitionist Harriet Tubman is photographed with a group of formerly enslaved people she helped escaped.

American abolitionist Harriet Tubman stands with a group of formerly enslaved people she helped lead to freedom. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

A database that gathers records about the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants is undergoing a massive, crowdsourcing-powered expansion to unlock Black Americans' genealogical histories, organizers tell Axios.

Why it matters: The initiative to be unveiled today by is the latest to reconstruct lost or incomplete timelines and records from the 1600s-1800s, as the U.S. and other nations reckon with systemic racism.

How it works: The general public and outside researchers can submit family histories, runaway slave ads, or documents of purchase to

  • Project manager Catherine Foley tells Axios that two levels of review will then determine if the material can be included.
  • Users can search their names and town histories and connect the experiences of enslaved people, from voyages to the changing of names, Foley said: "The records will tell the story."
  • Technological improvements have helped researchers at Michigan State University and the University of Maryland grow into one of the most comprehensive sites on slavery by organizing millions of data points from multiple university collections.

The big picture: The expansion comes as Americans show heightened interest in their family histories; as U.S. universities, cities and corporations confront legacies of how they benefited from slavery; and as public school districts face pressure to teach more clear-eyed accounts of slavery.

  • Websites like have made old primary documents like birth certificates and baptism records more accessible with a click. Interest also skyrocketed in recent years thanks to Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and his PBS shows on ancestry.
  • The University of Virginia organized a consortium of more than 40 colleges and universities to share resources as they confront the role of slavery and racism in their histories.
  • Two big British companies — insurer Lloyd's of London and brewer Greene King — promised last year to make certain amends for their historic role in slavery.
  • The New York Times Magazine's 1619 Project generated school curriculum changes but a backlash from conservatives who saw a refocusing on slavery as anti-American.

President Trump has pushed back on some efforts to educate about systemic racism and is threatening to veto defense spending to keep Confederate leaders' names on some military bases.

Flashback: "Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country," Trump said in September 2020.

  • Trump called new scholarship and the reexamining of slavery in the U.S. a "twisted web of lies" and said it was "a form of child abuse" if taught in schools.

What they’re saying: Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor, founder of the National Black Cultural Information Trust, said African Americans have long sought to reclaim their past amidst hostility.

  • "Even after the Civil War, former enslaved people put ads in newspapers looking for lost family members," she said. "This website is a continuation of that tradition as we look for our past and family but this time in a digital space."

Go deeper:

Story of the Underground Railroad to Mexico gains attention

Slavery museum in Liverpool aims to confront painful legacy

Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. on DNA testing and finding his own roots

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