The Lantern Project is helping to bring enslaved persons’ records to light

The project, a collaborative effort involving six institutions, aims to digitize and make publicly available the legal records documenting enslaved persons in Mississippi and beyond.

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African American families seeking to trace their ancestry back to the 1800s can now do so, thanks to a new and improved collaborative effort from a few libraries and Mississippi universities working together to bridge the information gap.

According to The Mississippi Clarion Ledger, the Lantern Project aims to digitize and make publicly available the legal records that document enslaved persons in Mississippi and beyond. The objective is to simplify access and gather all the documents in one place for families and historians to research without having to travel the distance to every courthouse for information.

The six institutions taking part are the Historic Natchez Foundation, University of Mississippi, Delta State, Mississippi State University, Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, and Montgomery County (Alabama) Archives.

The Lantern Project
The Lantern Project is a new collaborative effort to make it easier for African American families to trace the history of their enslaved ancestors. (Photo: Screenshot/ Public Broadcasting)

Jennifer McGillan, the coordinator of manuscripts at the Mississippi State library, is coordinating the initiative. She said part of the effort involved harnessing the strength of a large institution to cover all the bases. 

“We have really been focusing on dates from colonization (and prior in the case of Natchez) to around 1865,” McGillan said, per the Clarion Ledger. “There are some territory time records of enslaved persons and the families of their enslavers for Mississippi that are included in this.”

McGillan and her collaborators are now transcribing, categorizing and uploading thousands of documents into the MSU digital collections.

They will also share the data with the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Digital Library of American Slavery and The National Historical Publication and Records Commission approved funding for the project in 2019, but COVID-19 delayed its launch. McGillan has now completed a good amount of work and research.

The investigation has uncovered plantation records in personal and family files, including individual receipts and plantation journals documenting people’s transactions into slavery.

“Jennifer has been an incredible asset because when you do family research, much of it leads back to the 10 Southern states that were slave-holding states,” said Sharon Morgan, an African American genealogist from Lowndes County, according to The Clarion Ledger. “Mississippi is a big one.”

More than 37,000 people interested in their family history belong to Morgan’s online community. She has spent years researching the Noxubee County courthouse records and believes the Lantern Project is a vital resource for people who want to trace their identity and family history.

“This is an extremely important thing to do to be able to document the historical information that allows you to connect with your ancestors,” she said, the Clarion Ledger reported. “This is a major resource.”

Thanks to the Lantern Project, Morgan now has access to materials from as early as 1840. For historians and genealogists, the 1870 census is the point at which freedmen first showed up with a human identity rather than being viewed as property, and getting past that point has been a considerable challenge.

“As an example, I am now able to research my family names of Nicholson and Gavin (because of the Lantern Project),” Morgan added, according to The Clarion Ledger.

Morgan said the effort is also a step toward educating the public about the natural history of the slave-holding South, the formerly colonized states and Mississippi. She expressed frustration with the state’s resistance to face its history.

“I live here, and I love Mississippi,” Morgan said, according to the Clarion Ledger, “but we need to bring the history to light because the people who do not study the history are doomed to repeat it.”

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