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People Not Property

People Not Property

Between 1790 and 1860, more than a million enslaved persons were transported along what historian Ira Berlin has called “The Second Middle Passage” -- the massive sale of slaves ‘down the river,’ from the older tidewater plantations of the original Southern states to the more brutal regimes of the new Cotton Kingdom. Unlike the Middle Passage between Africa and the New World, which has been the subject of a monumental digital accounting -- the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database spearheaded by Emory University -- this second forced migration has no overarching digital footprint and no dedicated database.

The historical value of such a database will be immense. First, it will be a resource second only to the slave census schedules in its importance to African Americans attempting to trace their ancestry. Second, it will, when aggregated, provide a much fuller sense of the scope, scale, timing, and value of a ‘commodity flow’ critical to the very foundation of American capitalism. Finally, it will highlight the degree to which slavery was not an anomaly of the American founding but a cornerstone. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson laid the blame for American slavery at the feet of the English king, whose ships and economic priorities had raised a tobacco empire in the colonies. He was partly right. But the responsibility for the “Second Middle Passage,” the engine of the early American economy and the largest forced migration in U.S. history, belongs to Americans alone, and we will best answer for it when we name all of its victims.

If such an undertaking is so valuable, why has no one undertaken it? The primary answer is the decentralized nature of the records themselves. Slave sales were recorded at the county level, which means the records necessary to reconstructing the interstate slave trade reside in musty deed books scattered in archives and county courthouses across the South. Working with local archivists and county clerks of deeds, the People Not Property Project is trying to channel feelings about this particularly difficult period of the country’s past into collaborative, constructive channels; we want to focus our attention on what together we can do rather than on what we can never undo.

For more, see The Center for Diversity Education at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.