The Possibilities and Perils of Slavery’s Digital Archive

Robert Colby
An image of a legal form, partly printed and partly handwritten, with a seal in the lower right corner.

In 1857, Elizabeth Frazier registered herself as a free woman of color living in Richmond, even though she lived there in violation of the 1806 removal statute. Richmond Free Negro and Slave Records, LVA.

I first encountered the subjects of my recent JER article, the Frazier family—David, Elizabeth, and their children, John, Emily, and David—entirely by accident. While reviewing records digitized by the Library of Virginia for information on Richmond slave trader Hector Davis (a prominent figure in my book project on the slave trade during the Civil War), I stumbled across a petition the Fraziers filed in that city’s Hustings Court. In December 1860, two months after David’s manumission, he and Elizabeth asked the court’s permission to remain in Virginia despite an 1806 law that required free people of color to leave the Commonwealth within a year of exiting slavery. Their efforts succeeded in part because many of Richmond’s leading slave traders (including Davis) vouched for them, offering assurances they would not threaten the racial order. Intrigued by the juxtaposition of a Black family securing its right to remain in the state through the backing of men who made their living by exporting others, I began looking for any other information I could find on the Fraziers. In doing so, I experienced the remarkable possibilities of microhistory in the digital age—including unsuspected connections across once-siloed archives—while also confronting the continued silences those archives imbue upon the lives and afterlives of the enslaved.

An array of digital tools facilitated my reconstruction of the Fraziers’ journey. The work of LVA archivists in digitizing their petition and that of the unknown transcribers who entered it into the LVA’s Virginia Untold: The African-American Narrative project made the initial introduction. Searches in newspaper databases yielded additional hints regarding the Fraziers’ experiences. Most importantly, they explained their link to Richmond’s slave dealers. An 1852 advertisement showed that the trader Benjamin Davis hired David Frazier and deployed him in various aspects of his operations (a common experience for enslaved men and women, as Alexandra Finley has recently shown). Further advertisements suggested that Davis had already done so for several years and continued to do so for several more. Newspapers also recorded tantalizing details of David’s two confrontations with white men in the 1850s, reflecting the boiling over of racial tensions within the city’s working classes. And digitized Freedmen’s Bureau records offered indications of the family’s relationships and living arrangements both in slavery and in the Civil War’s aftermath.

The true breakthrough came, however, via the LVA’s Chancery Records Index. The Library’s archivists have poured over thousands of cases and digitized millions of pages of chancery court records (at least 12.5 million, at last count). They have noted not only the plaintiffs and defendants, but witnesses and—critically—the enslaved people all too often ensnared by disputes over property. Luckily, the indexed records included those from Chesterfield County, where the Fraziers were born and initially enslaved. Still more fortuitously, Elizabeth Frazier was among the plaintiffs. As a host of scholars—Laura Edwards, Kimberly Welch, Ariela Gross, Anne Twitty, Kelly Kennington, Loren Schweninger, and more—have demonstrated, enslaved people could occasionally force their way through cracks in the southern legal system and make themselves heard on a range of topics. Elizabeth Frazier did just this, suing her enslavers’ estate over property owed her and over her right not to be deported to Liberia. In doing so, she entered the historical record, though I would never have known this had not contemporary court officials listed her by her surname, which LVA archivists then added to the Chancery Records Index. Without this chance notation, Elizabeth would have disappeared into a multi-million page haystack (historians asking different questions might have encountered her there, but I assuredly would not have). She thus won not only won a modicum of authority over her and her children’s fate but registered their presence in Virginia’s official archives. Their voices can be heard faintly there, often indistinguishably from their enslaved fellows, and often in the rote language of litigation, but heard nonetheless.

An image of a newspaper advertisement.

Slave trader Benjamin Davis hired David Frazier for several years in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Davis forced Frazier to meet and convey people from the city’s entry points to his jail in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom. Richmond Whig, June 8, 1852.

I share these research endeavors in part to thank all those whose labor made them possible and in part to indicate the potential increased digitization of records offers to historians seeking to recover enslaved peoples’ experiences. That the Fraziers appeared in so many different sources is almost certainly serendipitous. Most enslaved people and free people of people did not file official petitions, feature in newspaper articles, or inaugurate lawsuits against white southerners—much less all three. Indeed, given their precarious existence in many southern communities, I suspect few would have wanted to. But as I hope the connections I have made among trace elements of the Fraziers’ experience shows, digitization offers opportunities to find and amplify the voices of those few who did and to relay the realities of slavery and freedom from new perspectives.

That said, this approach requires a clear awareness of the challenges and limitations of archival work involving the enslaved. As Marisa Fuentes makes clear in Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive, slaveholding states’ recordkeeping practices intentionally obscured and erased those held in bondage, leaving only mutilated fragments of their experience. “The very call to ‘find more sources’ about people who left few if any of their own,” she argues, “reproduces the same erasures and silences they experienced . . . by demanding the impossible.”[1]Digitization certainly allows us to, in the literal sense, find more sources. When brought together, arranged in novel ways, and read against the grain, they can, indubitably, provide new insight into the lives and experiences of the enslaved, conveying more accurately the triumphs and horrors of the worlds they built under captivity.

But even as we fit these pieces together in the dim light new archival access casts, we must not allow a whiggish sense of a coming dawn blind us to the surrounding darkness. The archives of slavery, even when opened and made accessible by digitization, cannot entirely shed the originating biases of their creators and, therefore, will always obscure at least as much as they reveal. No matter how we read and re-read the evidence, the odds of the archive answering questions no one ever cared to ask—how the Fraziers felt about their trials, what it cost them to work among slave traders or seek their assistance, why they attached themselves to a state increasingly ambivalent about their presence—remain vanishingly slim. The producers of antebellum records—official and unofficial—largely disregarded even as assertive a clan as the Fraziers and as a result, broad swathes of their existences remain hidden in all but impenetrable shadow. Their glimmering self-insertions in the archival record thus reveal the deep gloaming created by the multi-tiered power structures arrayed against them.


[1] Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, 2016), 6.

22 September 2022

About the Author

Robert Colby is assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi.

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