‘Educate and enlighten.’ New project will digitize Lexington slave records

·4 min read
Charles Bertram/cbertram@herald-leader.com

The stories of enslaved people in Fayette County will soon be more widely told, thanks to a historical property record digitizing project.

The initiative, known as the Digital Access Project, is a partnership between the University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies (CIBS), the Blue Grass Community Foundation (BGCF), the Fayette County Clerk, the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative and the Knight Foundation Donor Advised Charitable Fund.

Through the project, over 60,000 pages of Fayette County’s historical records containing information about enslaved people will be available online to the public. The paper records, dating from the late 1700s to 1865, have been available at the county clerk’s office, but this program will allow the public to access them for free through a searchable database.

Shea Brown, special projects deputy clerk for the Fayette County clerk, said the digitizing process entails scanning 137 deed and probate books containing paper records that are hundreds of years old — an undertaking that he said “won’t be a speedy process.”

“There’s a lot of different challenges involved with these books,” he said. “Some of the books are large-sized, heavy books ... and when you look at the quality of ink, print and handwriting on those old records, they vary from page to page or even vary on the same page.”

The digitizing began on May 23, and Dr. Anastasia Curwood, a UK professor of history and director of CIBS, said it will take at least five years to finish the process.

The lengthy timeline is partly due to an added feature of searchable metadata. Curwood said that in addition to providing scanned images of the records, the database will also allow the public to access transcriptions of the text and follow cross links to other records referencing the individual they are researching.

“If you have the metadata, then your search is that much more powerful, and you can start to draw connections between people,” she said.

BGCF President and CEO Lisa Adkins said the nonprofit organization provided $85,000 in seed funding to help start the project, along with funding from the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative and the Knight Foundation, while UK students and the clerk’s office will do the work of digitizing the documents.

Curwood said grants offered for the next three years will pay a team of UK students to help digitize the records throughout the semesters and summers, working with the project’s partners to scan and transcribe the documents.

Fayette is the first Kentucky county to take on such a project, but BGCF’s Director of Strategic Initiatives and Communications Lauren Parsons said the program is meant to be a “blueprint” for other counties to similarly digitize their historical records. Brown added that current legislation requires county clerks in Kentucky to digitize their records going back at least 60 years, which opens a door for other counties to begin similar projects.

Curwood said a goal of the project, in addition to providing resources for Black families to more easily trace their ancestry, is to bring attention to the history of slavery in Lexington — something she believes is not commonly known. According to her, one in four Lexingtonians were enslaved in 1860.

“Lexington was the scene of one of the largest slave markets, and so in this area, we have a much stronger connection to slavery than I think most people realize,” she said. “For us to understand where we’ve come from, we need to understand just how important slavery was in the bluegrass.”

Brown added that he hopes the project will encourage important conversations about race and history in Lexington, helping to “educate and enlighten the concerns that we’re still going through today as a society.”

Adkins said the project is also meant to bring to light stories of Lexington that have not been widely told by increasing the public’s access to the records.

“What we’re trying to daylight is the hidden stories of the enslaved people of Fayette County and to tell the fuller story of what Lexington was, and what it is and what it can be,” she said. “There are so many untold stories. And this is part of really acknowledging that ... and giving names and life to those people who are contained in those 137 record books.”

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