Researching the Artifacts and Evidence of Slavery

Beyond published materials, preserved first-hand accounts of slavery from the point of view of the enslaved are few and far between. Our archival collections, though largely limited to the documentary byproducts of slavery created by the slaveowners, contain a wide variety of materials that help enrich our understanding of the institution and its effects. They include personal papers (diaries, letters), materials related to plantation farming (ledgers, receipts), and artifacts of everyday life during the period (other documents and ephemera). Photographs are rare: photography was still in its infancy and was not often used to capture images of enslaved people.

Archival materials generated by freed people and those born in the generation after emancipation can also be difficult to find.

Note: Some collections appear in multiple sections; the larger they are, the more likely they cover multiple areas of interest, and they have been included in all appropriate lists. In the case of these larger collections, the box and folder with materials pertinent to that section have been given.

You can search for unpublished materials held by Special Collections in ArchivesSpace, our archives database. Some of this can also be found through Acumen, our digital archives interface, which contains digitized materials as well as all available Finding Aids, even for collections which have not been digitized.

By Record Type

1. Church Records

Handwritten page from First United Methodist Church record book
This page from the First United Methodist Church records (MSS.0519) features a list of enslaved members and their owners.

Includes church registers and notes on activities, generally with African Americans included in a separate section or given the notation “colored.”

2. Financial Documents

Preprinted receipt filled in with handwriting in ink
Preprinted receipt from 1853 for purchase of an enslaved man named Lewis (James Boykin papers, MSS.0196).

Includes bills of sale, rental agreements, and other financial transactions involving enslaved people.

From business or organizational papers

From personal or family papers

Single receipts or bills of sale

Other single documents

3. Legal Documents

Handwritten will of Samuel Townsend, 1856
Samuel Townsend’s 1856 will decrees that some of his “servants” should be “emancipated and forever freed from the bondage of slavery.”

Includes wills as well as documents on legal proceedings related to slavery or enslaved people.

By Topic

4. Slavery and slave trade

Handwritten letter
In the Richard Dennis letter (MSS.1691), a concerned citizen writes about the plight of a group of free Africans seized in Baltimore.

Includes items discussing slavery as an institution.

5. Plantation system

Handwritten page from plantation record book
The 1840 record book for a plantation in Barbour Counter, Alabama, lists the clothing allotted to some 30 enslaved people (John Horry Dent papers, MSS.0430).

Information about the running of a plantation, including the work done by enslaved people and their care. See Financial Documents for bills of sale, rental receipts, and other transactions.

6. Antebellum race attitudes

Handwritten essay on slavery
An 1848 essay on slavery leans on the arguments of John C. Calhoun (from the Woodward Family papers, MSS.1577, digitized item at http://purl.lib.ua.edu/29812)

Includes expression of personal opinions on race and accounts of race relations.

7. Fugitive slaves

Handwritten deposition
An 1864 deposition relates the story of how three white men in blackface disguise caught three other white men in the act of attempting to help an enslaved man cross the Ohio River (James S. Fruit, L. R. Burk, and John L. Blangy Deposition, MSS.1678).

Includes expression of personal opinions on fugitive slave law and accounts of slave escape and capture.

8. Free people of color

Partial page of handwritten letter
Freedman Horace King writes to Robert Jemison in 1870, giving him cost estimates for various construction projects.

Includes materials related to the lives of free people of color, whether born free, manumitted, or emancipated. For discussion of emancipation as a phenomenon, see the section Emancipation below.

9. Emancipation

Handwritten page from plantation record book
An 1868 account statement for a freedman named Roger, evidently a sharecropper (John Cocke papers, MSS.0328; see section below)

Includes information about and opinions on emancipation as well as the system set up for freedmen.

10. Post-war race attitudes

Handwritten letter
An 1870 letter from an Alabama chapter of the Ku Klux Klan threatens a local advocate of the rights of African Americans (Citizens of Macon County (Ala.) Ku Klux Klan Letter, MSS.0303).

Includes expression of personal opinions on race and accounts of race relations.

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