Data and Slavery

Draft posted: 2019-02-09

In undertaking this project, I am working to surface and understand, as much as possible the enslaved community owned and sold by the Maryland Province Jesuits. In contrast to the approach that an individual genealogist or descendant might take to the materials, I am working to understand the community as a whole across all the Jesuit-owned farms during the period before the major sale in 1838. This focus on the enslaved community requires that I read the archival sources in substantially different ways than the historians who have gone before me. By centering the enslaved, I am undertaking a process to weave together the fragmentary, and often conflicting evidence of their presence in Southern Maryland. Placing the fragments in juxtaposition, allows lives to begin to arise from ledgers, sacramental records, letters, wills, and contracts. In this work, I am trying to resist the objectification and commondification that is built into the archives produced by slavery. Marissa Fuentes's approach in her masterful, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, offers an essential model. She calls her approach to archival fragments "reading along the bias grain to eke out extinguished and invisible but no less historically important lives." This requires reading both the presence and the absence of the enslaved in the Maryland Province Archives, and always being cognizant of the power of the record creators to distort the lives they describe.1

While I am carefully reading these archival sources to surface the lives of the enslaved, I am adding an array of digital history methods to my process, including using linked data and a range of visualization in addition to more traditional narrative approaches. These digital history methods offer both benefits and complexity in the effort to understand this community. This approach is fraught with complex ethical issues of representation. Rendering the history and the data from which it is derived in digital form can unintentionally suggest a degree of completeness and fixity that is simply not possible with archival sources related to enslavement. All too often, data-driven approaches to historical work have, intentionally or unintentionally, served to replicate systems of power and commodification through quantification. With a heightened awareness of these problems, I turn to Jessica Marie Johnson's call to read existing sources in new ways and to employ a "methodology attuned to black life" and to undertake an approach that creates projects "that resist and counteract slavery's dehumanizing impulses." Furthermore, my work is steeped in the questions raised by Lauren Klein in her article on James Hemings' haunting of Thomas Jefferson's papers. I share Klein's goal of working to "render visible the archival silences implicit in our understanding of chattel slavery." My hope is to establish a method for rendering visible those connections which we cannot immediately know from the archive. In doing so, I am mindful of the ethical responsibilities of representation that accompany working with these archival materials created and processed by the enslavers and their institutional descendants, and the duty I owe to the descendants of this particular community to whom this work really belongs.2

To begin the project, I scoured the Maryland Province Archives and a number of other related collections in search of clues about the enslaved community. Then, I created a derived (meso-level) data set that yields significant findings about the lives of this community of enslaved people. In reviewing the records, I searched of evidence of family status and formation, life cycle events such as birth, marriage, and death, shifts in freedom status and ownership, travel, health events, daily conditions, and labor and economic transactions. The individual farm and Georgetown College account ledgers were particularly fruitful because they listed individual day-to-day transactions about supplies, clothing, hiring, and healthcare in minute detail. They also occasionally included inventory lists of the people present at the various sites. The ledgers are necessarily uneven in their coverage and detail because they were created by many, many hands as the Jesuit personnel who managed the farms changed over time. Additionally, there a good number of contractual documents to support major transactions, such as sales and inheritances. The proceedings of the Corporation of Roman Catholic Clergymen record resolutions approved by the directors, which include planned sales, dispute resolutions, and other kinds of major transactions. These proceedings are sometimes confirmed and expanded through individual correspondence among individual Jesuits. Finally, the archival collections contain extremely important sacramental records, which provide the bulk of the data for reconstructing family and kinship networks. This network of communities includes enslaved people owned by the Jesuits, enslaved people owned by non-Jesuits, free Blacks, and a cast of white people, Jesuit and non-Jesuit, who were party to these events. I have isolated more than 1,100 enslaved people and 225 related others. Together these individuals were participants in over 1,700 events, including life cycle events, religious events, material provisions, health incidents, travel, labor and economic transactions, and inheritance, sales, or manumission transactions.

In assembling this data set, I hand-processed information out of document transcriptions into rectangular data. For each individual enslaved person in the records, I created a row with a unique identifier. I then worked to establish kinship relationships. Finally, though many of these individuals have the same first name and no last name, I undertook a painstaking process of deduplicating and disambiguating the individuals by triangulating among pieces of documentary evidence with key indicators about location, year of birth, and family connections.

I chose Omeka S as the repository for my work because it is specifically designed to make it easy to create and publish linked data. Omeka S uses JavaScript Object Notation-Linked Data (JSON-LD) as its native data format and includes with popular Resource Description Framework (RDF) vocabularies (Dublin Core Metadata Initiative Terms, DCMI Type, Bibo, and Friend Of A Friend), which makes it possible to enmesh Omeka S in the LOD world. Users may also import other RDF vocabularies for use in Resources description. To those initial schemas, I added Bio, Relationship, and Schema. Together these schema offered properties that were appropriate to describe the people, places, and events in my data. Also, Omeka S offer users the ability to use the URIs for other Omeka S Resources as descriptive values within metadata fields, in essence linking one Omeka S Resource to another (i.e. using a Person type Resource for John Archbishop Carroll as the value for the Creator field in the description of a Text type Resource). Alternatively, a user could input a URI for an external resource (i.e. John Carroll's WikiData page). For this project, I used people's unique IDs and Omeka S IDs to build the relationship links networking them to family members, Jesuits, and external related individuals.

In addition to establishing the kinship networks, I developed a set of event types that represent each appearance of an enslaved person in the records. These types include: birth, baptism, marriage, death, inventory, health, sale, manumission, transfer, legal, labor, commerce, conditions, travel, punishment, and run away. For each event, I have extracted key details including the date, event participants, and a link to the digitized copy of the document itself when it is available through the Georgetown Slavery Archive.

Despite all of this work, the resulting data set is still only a partial glimpse of the universe of enslavement under the Maryland Province Jesuits. The archival sources are far from complete. They offer spotty coverage over time and place and are reflective of the interest and blind-spots of their creators. Furthermore, the sources are frequently in conflict with one another, offering different details for the same person over time. Sometimes this is evidence shifting attention, other times of clerical error, and in still others, it could be evidence of more complex motivations at play. Nonetheless, these fissures open up the fabric created by the documents, rendering the digital depiction of this community ultimately incomplete.


  1. Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
  2. Jessica Marie Johnson, "Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads," Social Text 36 (2018): 65, 66. Lauren F. Klein, "The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings," American Literature 85, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 665,