College of Social Science Hosting Webinar about Globally-Recognized Database

January 26, 2021 - Rebecca Jensen, Caroline Brooks, Liz Schondelmayer

On February 25th at 12:00 pm, the College of Social Science is hosting a Zoom webinar for members of the Michigan State University community to learn more about the globally-recognized Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade project. 

Those interested in attending this free virtual event can register here, and hear from two of the project's principal investigators, Dr. Walter Hawthorne, a Michigan State University historian, and Dr. Daryle Williams, a historian from the University of Maryland. Attendees will learn more about the history and goals of the project, as well as how they can contribute to the project and even learn more about their own heritage. is a searchable database containing millions of records cataloging the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants. The project recently launched a second phase that will accept contributions from the public and from academic researchers. Developed and maintained by MSU researchers, the website links data collections from multiple universities, archives, museums and family history centers. Users can run analyses of aggregated data about the enslaved and create maps, charts and graphics.

By welcoming ancestorial contributions from the public, the researchers hope to deepen the understanding, dignity and respect for the millions of people who were victim to the centuries-long slave trade.

“As the scholars at work to stitch together the life arcs of the enslaved across the globe, we turn to the general public to join us in discovery about families and communities formed from the crime of human bondage and the struggles of human freedom,” said Dr. Williams.

“Personal history is complex, much like the way data was collected during the slave trade era. While we continue to digitize records, such as those that are handwritten, to preserve them, we know there is more to each person’s story,” said Dr. Hawthorne, also an associate dean of academic and student affairs in the College of Social Science. 

Slave Biographies, the pilot project and impetus for what is now, was funded in 2011 for $99,000 by the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2018, the project received a $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“This tool has helped us learn more about African Slavery than ever before. However, the database is by no means comprehensive. That is where we need those who have knowledge of ancestry to contribute to the project. We hope by doing this we can not only learn more, but also work toward bringing respect and dignity to those who were enslaved,” said Dean Rehberger, director of Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at MSU.

Rehberger, Hawthorne and Daryle Williams of the University of Maryland, are principle investigators on the project; phase two included Ethan Watrall, an assistant professor of anthropology at MSU, as well as a team of Matrix programmers, librarians, researchers, and partners at MSU and elsewhere.

The team is excited for this opportunity to educate and collaborate with the MSU community on this groundbreaking project.