For nearly 300 years, the documented lives of thousands of African
slaves were scattered across continents, recorded in foreign languages
and packed away in dusty courthouse basements. Then Gwendolyn Midlo
Hall set out to make high-tech sense of them all.
It took Hall 15 years to gather the more than 100,000 records of
Africans and African-descended people in Louisiana from 1719 to 1820
and make them accessible on a searchable CD-ROM. Hall is professor
emerita of history at Rutgers University and the author of the
prize-winning book Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the 18th Century
(Louisiana State University Press). She traveled to archives across her
home state as well as Texas, France and Spain to examine original
manuscripts and colonial records. She pored over documents, some
literally in pieces, and entered their information into a database she
"There's something magical about documents," she says. Though the
records were "very hard to read and assess," Hall's ability to read
French and Spanish (particularly in old-fashioned handwriting) and her
knowledge of abbreviations helped her interpret and categorize them.
She says, "Nobody realized the value of these documents" — which
included court transcripts of slaves' testimony, records of purchases
and manumission papers.