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Unlocking stories of slavery, County Register of Deeds and Shaw research history of enslaved people locally

<i>WRAL</i><br/>Enslaved people didn't get birth certificates or marriage certificates
Enslaved people didn't get birth certificates or marriage certificates

By Lora Lavigne

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     RALEIGH, North Carolina (WRAL) — This past year has been a time for many to reflect and learn about the systemic racial barriers created by slavery in our country.

Now, a new approach in Wake County will unlock the unknown of where exactly enslaved people came from and where their descendants are today.

Historic Oak View County Park was once a plantation. Now, the community can learn even more about the people who lived there.

Wake County Register of Deeds and Shaw University hosted a kick-off event Thursday at the historic site to announce a project that will connect some of these stories.

Enslaved people didn’t get birth certificates or marriage certificates, instead, sometimes a property of sale document was the only written record of their lives.

The Wake County Register of Deeds transcribed some of the painful, but important history out loud.

“A boy by the name of James Henderson. About three years old. For $450,” Tammy Brunner said reading a document.

Brunner is leading the Wake County Register of Deeds in cracking it all wide open.

“It’s enraging that it hasn’t been done. It is shocking. It’s just been sitting in books all this time,” she added.

At least 23 other counties are also uncovering the history of enslaved people. Inspired by University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s People Not Property Digital Library, Brunner started the effort to create one here.

The project will aim to catalog, transcribe and make public the records and bills of sale and property exchanges of Black people across Wake County. Volunteers will be digging through about 30 deed books.

“Where we can then trace movements, steps and families and actually learn about the actual people, not just the names,” added Brunner.

It’s called the Enslaved Persons Project. Historians and students at Shaw University will help to get it done. Leading the project at Shaw is is Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson, the dean of Arts, Sciences and Humanities.

“We’re going to help them decipher all of that writing. If you think about the beginning of Wake County, we’re going back to the 1700s, so all of those materials will have to be looked through try to decipher who it is, their occupation, their age and them transcribe it,” said Johnson.

It’s a process that can take anywhere from two months to two years. Social Justice leaders believe it’s more critical now than ever.

“In this particular moment in time we have people who want to act like slavery is not important anymore. That we should just brush it aside,” said Dr. Erin Moore, the executive director of the Shaw University Center for Racial and Social Justice.

The Center for Racial and Social Justice is also involved in the project.

“If we’re going to promote or advance racial healing in his country we have the first acknowledge that it happened,” added Moore.

The process is going to take some time. The documents are difficult to read, not just visually but emotionally. More than 100 volunteers have signed up to help.

The end goal is to digitize all of the findings in libraries, museums and more for anyone to have access.

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