In October of 2008, the Washington Post published a feature on First Lady Michelle Obama’s ancestry, in which it was revealed that she was in fact the descendent of African slaves who had resided in South Carolina. According to the first lady, the discovery brought a great deal of closure for her — and illustrates the potential beneficial impact of a new initiative spearheaded by some of Emory’s most distinguished faculty and staff to explore the origins of blacks whose ancestors were involved in the slave trade.
Over past years, Emory has strived to make positive differences in the global community through several academic and program initiatives. Recent sustainability initiatives are just one example. It is always important, however, for a university to narrow its gaze and act with an eye toward the community that immediately surrounds it. For Emory’s own instance, this means the Atlanta area. Especially in light of Atlanta’s demographics — according to data compiled by the Census Bureau, Atlanta’s population was 56.8 percent black as of the year 2006 — it is especially notable that this June, Emory will be unveiling the website for the African Origins Project, an online database that will track the origins of close to 100,000 African slaves that were brought to America as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The project began in January of last year when history professor David Eltis and Martin Halbert of the Woodruff Library Digital Programs and Systems Division initiated the effort to explore the origins and the histories of African slaves before their voyages to the Americas in the 19th century. This new database, which will derive the bulk of its information from previous initiatives, will coordinate data regarding tribal associations and name pronunciations which will be contributed by the public, once the information has been reviewed and compared with prior contributions.
The project has the potential to become a priceless resource for obvious reasons. Emory developments in the fields of medical and scientific research frequently garner headlines, but developments in the liberal arts have the potential to carry Emory’s name and reputation to further, possibly more diverse, audiences. But more importantly, the database will foster a positive relationship between Emory and the Atlanta community. By helping people both explore their heritage and learn about the history of any slave ancestry that they might have, this database should prove to be an invaluable asset to the community.
Similar projects exist already at Emory, including a 2008 project by Halbert and Eltis, “Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.” This database compiles information collected from registers of the international courts and provides data such as names of slaves and their ports of embarkation. The unveiling of the new online database in June should prove to be a positive and well-received event for Emory, and hopefully, the African Origins Project will only continue to grow in the future for the mutual benefit of members of the Emory and Atlanta communities.
The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s editorial board.