Vanderbilt Group Preserves Deteriorating Slave Records - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Vanderbilt Group Preserves Deteriorating Slave Records

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By Adam Ghassemi

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There are thousands of pages of names, places and people that are disappearing by the second.

"Right as we're talking, we're losing things," said Vanderbilt history professor Jane Landers who has been working to stop it for a decade. "As if it's a broken piece of pottery and you have to put things back together."

Landers and her team have been to country after country photographing every page they're allowed to.

Many come from churches, and are possibly the only way to track slaves brought to Central and South America from Africa.

"We have them from the 16th century forward in Havana, and from the 17th century forward in Rio," she said.

Moisture, insects or just time are letting history slip away. That's why they created the Ecclesiastical & Secular Sources for Slave Societies to organize to present every document they've found, opening up genealogy records to thousands.

The group will host speakers from many countries to talk about their findings during a three day conference (Feb. 2nd - 4th) called "New Sources For The Study Of Slave Societies."

"It's amazing to be able to capture this kind of information that's really in jeopardy," said Marshall Breeding, Director of Innovative Technologies and Research who is in charge of making sure the records are preserved digitally forever.

Sometimes the high-resolution images allow you decipher handwritten records that would otherwise be lost. "With good resolution be able to take a much closer look at these documents then maybe you could even if you had the physical document in your hand," Breeding said.

The system could be the key for many families to track their ancestors back through slavery.

"[If] you knew which neighborhood your family lived in Havana. We could go to the church, we could begin to look up the years and see the family names and that sort of thing," Landers said.

Some pages have already been transcribed, which will make it easier to track genealogy records.

Landers says documents are deteriorating so fast some of the first ones they started photographing years ago don't exist today.


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