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NC County Deed Books Help Build Database Of Enslaved People

The story of how a young Black woman named Eliza came to live — and work — on a plantation in eastern Wake County in 1841 might have been lost to history if not for property deeds.

Eliza was an enslaved woman, one of at least 14 enslaved people who toiled for the family of Benton and Burchett Williams on what is now known as Oak View County Park in Raleigh. Her arrival at the Williamses’ farm was noted legally as the transfer of an asset, a gift to Burchett from her father, William Powell, because at the time, enslaved people weren’t considered people, but property.


The Wake County Register of Deeds office, Shaw University and other professional and volunteer historians are now working to decipher more than 30 deed books that have been digitized and put online to glean information about people such as Eliza. Ultimately, the information will go into an online database that will include high-resolution images and full-text searchable transcripts the public can use for genealogical and other research.

Similar work, begun as a three-year grant-funded project at UNC Greensboro and the North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, is underway in 26 North Carolina counties. Organizers hope it will spread to all 100 counties and become a model for other states, part of a larger process that might humanize what some historians say has become an abstract concept from a distant past.

“They were people,” Dr. Erin Moore, executive director of Shaw’s Center for Racial and Social Justice, said at an event at Oak View Thursday announcing the new phase of the project. “They had hopes and they had dreams.”

In addition to university students who might help do the work as part of class projects, volunteers are invited to help read through deed books looking for clues about North Carolina’s slaveholding history.

In Wake County, volunteers can offer their services to the Enslaved Persons Project through the Register of Deeds’ website. From there, they’ll get a handbook that describes the kinds of documents to be searched, including bills of sale; deeds of gift; deeds of trust; apprenticeship bonds; wills and testaments; emancipations; and marriage contracts.

Once trained, volunteers will be assigned blocks of pages from the books and be asked to transcribe the relevant information they find.

The hardest part of the work, said Tammy Brunner, Wake County Register of Deeds, is learning to read the idiosyncratic cursive on the handwritten documents and deciphering the antiquated language. Readers will be trained to look for key words and phrases. Enslaved people often were listed by a first name only, or with no name, only as “Negro,” with possibly an age, gender, physical description or the note of a special skill.

“These names and these lives have been hidden in these books for just way too long,” Brunner said at the event.

Benton Williams started his plantation in 1829 with the $135 purchase of 85 acres of land. By 1860, the farm spanned 900 acres, most of it dedicated to the labor-intensive production of cotton. Records associated with the farm show Williams and his wife bought or received as gifts enslaved children and adults whose work made the enterprise possible.

Researchers say Eliza was the first enslaved woman to arrive at the plantation, at about age 19. After emancipation in 1865, she married a Reddick Hutchings, who had been enslaved on a nearby farm. The family worked as paid laborers on the Williams plantation for another 12 years, before buying 43 acres from the Williams family in 1877.

Even now, five of the enslaved people who were part of the Williams’ labor force remain nameless, unknown except for the ages and genders that were recorded in the 1860 census.

Historic Oak View County Park, like other historic sites in North Carolina and across the South, now includes the slave-owning history of the property and the roles enslaved people played in the operation of the farm. Fourth-graders who visit the site on school field trips learn about Eliza and others who worked in the fields, in the Williams’ two-story Greek revival house, in the plank kitchen, the cotton gin house and other outbuildings.

The Enslaved Persons Project will build on other research being done in at UNC-Greensboro, inluding the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, an online database with information on about 80,000 enslaved individuals; the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisement Project, featuring more than 2,300 ads placed in newspapers by slaveholders; and People Not Property — Slave deeds of North Carolina, an under-construction database that will index names of enslaved people across the state.

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