Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719–1820
Created by Gwendolyn Midlo Hall.
Reviewed December 2003.
Afro-Louisiana History and Genealogy, 1719–1820, embodies the essence of generous scholarship and the possibilities of the digital domain. In this Web site, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, the well-known historian of slavery, offers free access to the files she created in years of study of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans in Louisiana. The core of the site is a database with demographic information on a hundred thousand African slaves who lived in colonial Louisiana. The full database, as well as a smaller database on freed slaves, is available for free download in a variety of formats. The collected material spans three regimes (French, Spanish, and early American) and covers all of the territory in historic and present-day Louisiana. Searches produce results organized alphabetically by name with accompanying material about each individual’s family, ethnicity, and work history. The site provides students, teachers, and scholars with a valuable resource for studying the history of slavery and enslaved peoples.
The site is clearly laid out and easy to navigate. Even students unfamiliar with the Web or digital resources would be able to find their way to the search engine and use it without guidance. The site does provide a small selection of primary source documents, but, without an index, translations, or transcriptions, most visitors will derive little from them. The larger hurdle visitors face is the sheer rawness of the data. Like The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM (1999), the other large slavery database, Hall’s site reflects the nature of historical materials regarding slaves and includes mostly brief personal data and numerical evidence. Reconstructing a life from numbers and names can be frustrating, and students will need careful instruction in how to generate meaningful narratives out of what they find here. Further, the search fields provided in the database are relatively limited. A larger variety of searchable fields, based on the information contained in individual cases such as work skills, family status, or price information, would enrich the site.
The two groups who will benefit the most from the site are scholars of slavery and genealogists. Because the cases in the database are organized around names, those researchers who search for specific people receive rich returns. Likewise, downloading and using the full databases within a package of statistical software offers much to scholars of slavery. Hall herself has published a prize-winning book, Africans in Colonial Louisiana (1992), drawn from her own research in these and other records. The database she has built promises to provide scholars with an important tool to continue answering questions about the identity, origin, and demographic distribution of slaves in the Americas, as well as more structural inquiries into questions of prices, mobility, and generational change. Last, it is important to note that the Louisiana State University Press published a CD-ROM of the site’s database. The press’s decision to share this data with the public through a free medium represents an impressive commitment that furthers Hall’s model of open and engaged scholarship.
University of North Florida