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This database could help descendants of enslaved people learn about their ancestry


If you're interested in learning more about your ancestors, you may be one of many people who've used ancestry.com to trace your genealogy. Now that website has released a new, free database of tens of thousands of old newspaper records about formerly enslaved people. The company hopes that information will help fill historical gaps for Black Americans and other researchers.

Nicka Sewell-Smith is a genealogist and senior story producer at ancestry.com and is with us to describe the collection. Nicka, thank you for coming on the show.

NICKA SEWELL-SMITH: Thanks so much for having me.

PFEIFFER: Would you give us a big overview of what is in these records? Where do they come from? What time period do they cover?

SEWELL-SMITH: These records are incredible because they come from approximately 38,000 newspaper articles, and the date range is from approximately 1788 to 1867. And amongst those 38,000 newspaper articles, we have the names and details of more than 183,000 formerly enslaved people in a free collection that potentially could help millions of descendants discover more about their ancestors.

PFEIFFER: Thirty-eight thousand articles is a lot, but I read that ancestry.com has already digitized more than 18 million records related to formerly enslaved people from sources like the U.S. Census. So what may be new in this collection?

SEWELL-SMITH: With this collection, you are really getting a bird's-eye view into the everyday nature of enslavement in the United States. A lot of times, we just think about the roles of those involved in the system, and, you know, it just is corralled to the formerly enslaved and their slaveholders. But you'll also see folks who were seeking their freedom and their actual details of what they looked like, what they wore.

There are even individuals in this collection where you get to learn about them and their personality traits, like - there's one man that I loved reading about that could speak three languages. And a lot of times, folks think that the enslaved, you know, weren't educated, or they didn't have skills other just being in agriculture, but they were just varied people who had lives and being brought back to prominence with their names being in this collection.

PFEIFFER: Can you give an example of what kind of past gaps in research this could help fill?

SEWELL-SMITH: One of the things that I think that this collection does well is it works around records destruction, where someone may have encountered, you know, the fact that the courthouse was burned down maybe during the Civil War or thereafter, and there's a lack of records documenting the enslaved or really any transactions. You can work around that because the newspaper wasn't destroyed. So you may find those auctions. You may find those fugitive slave ads within the collection, or you might be able to research just what the history of enslavement was in the area so that you have a better idea of what may have happened to your ancestors.

PFEIFFER: What has the experience of going through these archives been like for you personally?

SEWELL-SMITH: This collection, for me, has been extremely emotional because I found that one of my ancestor's slaveholders - he actually ended up going into bankruptcy, and so they had to sell off his enslaved. And had my ancestors not been sold two years prior, they would have ended up in that auction. And in that auction, they broke families apart.

And I just wondered, my gosh, would my fourth-great-grandparents - would my third-great-grandmother - would they have been a part of that? Would they have been broken up? And the fact that I'm so grateful that it didn't happen - but then I'm also thinking about the people that they were in community with who experienced that. And I'm just so grateful that we can provide another tool for people to help discover more - and especially for free.

PFEIFFER: Will it be the type of database where people can access it from home, as long as they have a computer or a phone?

SEWELL-SMITH: Absolutely. Anyone can access the database at home and for free. All you need is just a free Ancestry account and get to searching.

PFEIFFER: That is Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and senior story producer at ancestry.com. Thank you, Nicka.

SEWELL-SMITH: Thanks for having me.

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Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.