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April 7, 2021

$1.4M Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant expands research

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded $1.4 million to Michigan State University for Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade, or, a first-of-its-kind database containing millions of records cataloging the lives of enslaved Africans and their descendants., developed and maintained by MSU researchers, links data collections from multiple universities, archives, museums and family history centers. The

Mellon Foundation funded the initial two phases of – the first beginning in 2018 and the second in 2020 – which provided support for both proof-of-concept and implementation.


The third phase of funding will run through March 2023 and will expand the reach of the project by refining infrastructure; driving sustainability; strengthening a commitment to the inclusion of underrepresented voices in humanities scholarship; and continuing partnerships with scholars, heritage and cultural organizations and the public.


"The early response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive, but it also speaks to the great amount of work still to be done," said Dean Rehberger, principal investigator and director of Matrix at MSU. "We could not do this work or envision sustainability for the project without the critical support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation."


The project is a collaborative effort between Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Department of History both within the College of Social Science at MSU; the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland; the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University; the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture; and the Center for Artificial Intelligence and Data Science at Kansas State University.


“Historians, archivists, librarians, genealogists, data scientists and the general public have shown an immense interest in the data that is available on an open-access platform optimized to handle billions of pieces of data in a flexible and open-source manner,” said Walter Hawthorne, project co-investigator, professor of African history, and associate dean of academic and student affairs in MSU’s College of Social Science. “While we continue to digitize records, such as those that are handwritten, to preserve them, we know there is more to each person’s story,” he said.


The project team will expand its venture by refining the data infrastructure, publishing both more datasets and narrative stories, and introducing new features for data visualizations.


"I am especially energized by the expanded partnership with Harvard University’s renowned Hutchins Center to tell the stories of the lives of the enslaved, as well as a new collaboration with the Omohundro Institute centered around the rigorous historical scholarship of the Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation, and inclusive careers in scholarly publication about people in slavery and freedom," said UMD’s Daryle Williams, co-principal investigator and associate professor of history and associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Arts and Humanities.


By compiling fragmentary archival information and making it machine readable, offers us the opportunity to honor and learn from the lives of enslaved people whose stories have not been told.


Hawthorne adds: “The Mellon Foundation's new grant will allow for expansion into the millions the number of enslaved people we have knowledge of, opening up new possibilities for historical research, genealogical discoveries and new understandings of our shared past."


More information about the project can be found at

By: Caroline Brooks

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