History & Matrix awarded Mellon Foundation Grant

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History and Matrix receive $1.5M Mellon Foundation grant to build extensive database on the historic slave trade research on historic slave trade

January 9, 2018

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University, supported by nearly $1.5 million from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will create a unique online data hub that will change the way scholars and the public understand African slavery.

By linking data collections from multiple universities, the website will allow people to search over millions of pieces of slave data to identify enslaved individuals and their descendants from a central source. Users can also run analyses of enslaved populations and create maps, charts and graphics.

The project, called “Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade,” is funded by a $1.47 million grant from the Mellon Foundation.

“’Enslaved’ brings new digital tools and analytical approaches to the study of African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade,” said project co-investigator Walter Hawthorne, professor and chair of MSU’s Department of History. “By linking data compiled by some of the world’s foremost historians, it will allow scholars and the public to learn about individuals’ lives and to draw new, broad conclusions about processes that had an indelible impact on the world.”

Dean Rehberger, director of Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at MSU, will lead the project along with Hawthorne and Ethan Watrall, associate director of Matrix and assistant professor of anthropology.

This project, which will take 18 months, is the first phase of a multi-phase plan. In phase one, MSU and partners will develop a proof-of-concept to show data can be linked across eight well-established online databases, including the collection at MSU’s Matrix.

In addition to Matrix – one of the premier humanities computing centers – MSU has the top-ranked African history graduate program in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.

“’Enslaved’ reaffirms Michigan State University’s longstanding commitment to Africa-centered research,” Watrall said, “and to creating tools and digital experiences that engage researchers, students and the public in critical questions about our collective past, culture and heritage.”

The partner projects in phase one are African Origins and Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database led by David Eltis, Professor Emeritus, Emory University and Paul Lachance; The Slave Societies Digital Archive, led by Jane Landers, Vanderbilt University; Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography and Dictionary of African Biography and African American National Biography, led by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Steven Niven, and Abby Wolf, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University;  Freedom Narratives, led by Paul Lovejoy, York University; Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, led by Keith McClelland, University College, London; and The Liberated Africans Project, led by Henry Lovejoy, University of Colorado Boulder, and Daryle Williams, University of Maryland.

The funding follows a $19,450 Mellon grant for project planning.

“We and our partners value the support of the Mellon Foundation,” Rehberger said. “In bringing together data from a number of highly successful projects, we have the opportunity from many small threads of data to weave together lives of enslaved individuals once thought lost to history.”


Dean Rehberger, rehberge@msu.edu

Walter Hawthorne, walterh@msu.edu