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Project digitizing slavery-era documents hopes to preserve history for generations to come

Project digitizing slavery-era documents hopes to preserve history for generations to come
Posted at 11:22 AM, Jul 15, 2022

These old, weathered books hold information that could help families piece their history together.

Deputy Clerk Shea Brown took us inside the Fayette County Clerk’s Office in Kentucky where rows and rows of records live. A wealth of information you’d traditionally have to be there to see.

Now, all these records are being put online as part of the digital access project.

“Census records are being digitized. Birth certificate records you can gain access by calling and requesting,” Shea Brown, the special projects deputy clerk at the Fayette County Clerk's Office in Kentucky, said. “We’re looking to digitize 137 books that cover over 60,000 pages.”

The books were created anywhere from the 1700s to 1865 and hold a lot of information about families in the era of slavery.

“For enslaved people, you can explore conversations on racial barriers. Of how races were considered personal property. Just like a couch, a piece of furniture, a lamp,” Brown said.

For Yvonne Giles, these records help her efforts.

“Everybody calls me the cemetery lady,” Yvonne Giles, a genealogy researcher, said.

Giles began her research two decades ago, focusing a lot of time on the history of those buried at a nearby cemetery called African Cemetery #2.

“I surveyed all of the headstones. There were 1,132,” she said.

She uses the records here to piece their stories together, including her own.

“There was a mother who had three daughters. Her husband had died and she decided to write her will. In her will, she had listed the enslaved family that they owned. They were my family. I never expected to find it,“ Giles said.

Having these records online will only make her research, and the research of others, easier.

“This project will allow people to expand their genealogy, to confirm what they had suspected or didn’t know,” she said.

The Digital Access Project is a partnership between the University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Institute of Black Studies, the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative, and the clerk’s office. They began digitizing on May 23 and will continue until the work is done. Six interns are helping with the process.

Brown hopes their efforts will inspire other counties to do the same.

“Books will fade, pages will tear, and eventually, the records will be at a point where it’s hard to read. But by getting them digitized it's something that will last forever,” he said. “Kentucky is usually the last state to do anything, but I've looked around in other states. People digitize county clerk records but they don't necessarily go back to the very beginning of their initial book.”