MSU Libraries to digitize records of enslaved Mississippians for the first time

Mississippi State University Libraries is helping create the state’s first institutionally supported digital database intended to give greater access to legal records identifying victims of slavery.

The Lantern Project is one of only a few in the South and is funded by a $340,424 grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Committee, a branch of the National Archives. In addition to MSU Libraries, the University of Mississippi Libraries, Delta State University, the Historic Natchez Foundation, Columbus-Lowndes County Public Library and the Montgomery County (Alabama) Archives also are participating.

This undertaking compiles a wealth of 19th-century documents from across the South and, upon completion, will provide a fully text-searchable, indexed collection containing digital images of original documents that include individuals’ names and detailed physical descriptions. Primarily inspired by patron need, the project is based on a similar effort at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture called “Unknown No Longer.”

The database will utilize records created or used by slave owners or the legal system to track enslaved persons, such as inventories, bills of sale, and probate and other court records, which will allow scholars and genealogists to trace victims’ movements and empower descendants to uncover their ancestries and reconstruct family trees impacted by slavery.

Previously, records of this nature have been identified and transcribed by African American genealogist-led projects such as www.afrigeneas.comand

Additionally, the three-year project will illustrate the realities and operations of the Deep South’s slave economy, including the mechanics of slave owners buying and selling human beings as an accepted practice during that time.

Jennifer McGillan, coordinator of manuscripts for MSU Libraries, is the university’s primary organizer for the effort which she said contributes to existing research from the genealogical and African American communities. The database also will help eliminate barriers such as a lack of proximity to physical records and difficulty reading 19th-century handwriting.

“Currently, what individuals can find is limited by their ability to access collections.” McGillan said. “MSU Libraries deeply respects the work African American genealogists have done, and our goal is to make their lives easier.”

McGillan said formerly enslaved persons were not named in the U.S. Census until 1870, which makes locating earlier records even more difficult. The Lantern Project was named to not only reflect researchers’ desire to shed light on these records, but also to recognize enslaved persons’ experiences of family separation.


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