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Saturday, June 10 • 1:30pm - 2:15pm
Telling the Stories of Enslaved Georgians: Using Digital Tools to Confront Archival Silences

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THE GHOSTS OF THE ENSLAVED HAUNT US STILL. We live in a nation that has yet to come to terms with its original sin, where the past has not ceased to corrode the present. Those who were kept voiceless murmur in the distance, waiting to be heard, just out of earshot but at a frequency that torments our collective sense of what it means to be American. [1]

The above passage opens our book, Seen/Unseen: Hidden Lives in a Community of Enslaved Georgians. It likely would prove provocative to lawmakers anxious to keep Critical Race Theory out of classrooms. In Georgia, for instance, the state legislature recently passed a law to prohibit teaching "divisive concepts" and bar educators from suggesting that “The United States of America and the State of Georgia are fundamentally or systemically racist.” [2] Consequently, teaching slavery in the classroom is an increasingly significant and increasingly contentious topic. Seen/Unseen has facilitated an effective means for students to engage with this complex subject. In it we draw from the Howell Cobb Papers and associated Cobb family collections housed at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia. These collections contain more than 100,000 documents and tell the previously unknown stories of a vibrant community of people held in bondage by one of the wealthiest and most politically prominent families in the United States. It is a tale of anguish and injustice, struggle and survival. A portion of these documents are written by the enslaved who had acquired literacy by a variety of means.

We have constructed a companion website, www.seenunseenbook.com, to expand upon this effort to move enslaved people to the center of a story composed of documents produced mostly by their enslavers. The website is designed with students and educators in mind to connect them with primary source material, lesson plans, and other resources that facilitate thoughtful discussion of slavery and race in the classroom. The decision to center an educational website around the lives of enslaved people prompted particular design choices as we confronted the tension between providing all of our source material while forefronting only those portions that reveal the lives of enslaved people who are so frequently marginalized in the archival record. While the collection of Cobb family papers undoubtedly focuses on the lives of a prominent white family, we demonstrate – both through the book and the more expansive website – that a new lens turned on old sources can yield new evidence and reintroduce the stories of those whose names and lives once seemed lost forever.

This project demonstration will begin with a discussion of our sources and the community of several hundred enslaved people that are revealed in these documents. We will discuss the archival challenges of finding the voices of people silenced within the archive and the process through which we devised a website and database of primary sources. The database curates documents primarily produced by enslavers in a way that shifts the focus away from them and onto the enslaved in an effort to acknowledge, and, as music historian Glenda Goodman puts it, “redress the material and epistemological effects of a colonialist archive.” [3] We will then discuss the process by which we created a database of primary sources animated by the questions: How can technology help make visible and center people who were rendered invisible in the documentary record? How do you make this digital archive accessible and intuitive for scholars, students, and the public? The demonstration will then move through a tour of the website, which includes a digital map of locations significant to this community, a text-searchable and filterable database of primary source documents that detail the lives of people in this community, and a text-searchable and filterable directory of every enslaved person identified in the primary sources as part of the community. Despite the focus on Georgia, the stories contained in the letters are sufficiently representative of the institution to be useful in a variety of history classrooms. We are collaborating with K-12 educators to produce lesson plans as suggestions of how other educators might use the materials. Finally, Randy Reid, co-author of Seen/Unseen and a teacher of 11th grade United States history, will discuss his experiences using the volume and the website in his history classroom.
Intended participants include those interested in archival challenges and strategies to reframe imbalances generated within archives, as well as K-12 and college-level educators in social studies interested in primary source material and lesson plans relating to slavery and race relations.

[1] Christopher R. Lawton, Laura E. Nelson, and Randy L. Reid, Seen/Unseen: Hidden Lives in a Community of Enslaved Georgians (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2021), 1.
[2] Georgia Senate Bill 377 (2022).
[3] Glenda Goodman, “Joseph Johnson’s Lost Gamuts: Native Hymnody, Materials of Exchange, and the Colonialist Archive,” Journal for the Society of American Music 13 no. 4 (2019): 482. For the challenges – if not impossibilities – of recovering the perspective of enslaved people from sources produced by the white power structure, see John Blassingame, “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves,” Journal of Southern History 41 no. 4 (Nov. 1975): 473-92; Jennifer L. Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 199; Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts” Small Axe: A Journal of Criticism 12 no. 2 (June 2008): 1-14; Laura Helton, Justin Leroy, Max Mishler, Samantha Seeley, and Shauna Sweeney, eds., “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom, and the Archive” special issue of Social Text 33, no. 4 (December 2015); Simon, Gikandi, “Rethinking the Archive of Enslavement” Early American Literature 50, no. 1 (2015) : 81–102. Related to our methodology and “reading against the grain” in colonialist archives, see Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). For more on archives and silences created by them, see Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).


Laura Nelson

Graduate Student, Princeton University

Saturday June 10, 2023 1:30pm - 2:15pm EDT
PS 403 (Design Center)