Digitizing Incarceration: A Database of Unfreedoms

From the colonial period onward, the English and American legal systems targeted the freedom and civil rights of Black people, both free and enslaved. There have been a number of digital projects that collect records documenting the lives of fugitive slaves, with a particular focus on freedom suits. This project seeks to collect eighteenth and nineteenth-century court records that detail criminal proceedings heard in Commissions of Oyer and Terminer, as well as federal and state courts with a particular focus on courts in major cities and ports in the British North American Colonies, and later the United States. These records are held by the National Archives and Records Administration, state archives, historical societies, and courthouse archives around the country.

In the past decades, there has been growing public and academic attention to inequities in the criminal justice system. Much of this attention has focused on police violence, the rates of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of African Americans, and dismantling the prison industrial complex. Groups and activists such as The Marshall Project, Black Lives Matter, Critical Resistance, and the International have been working to keep better records events in this area, and to draw public attention. But although the history behind historical inequities are well-known, it is still difficult to access historical records, due to the lack of centralized records. This project will digitize a large collection of incarceration records of enslaved persons from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Our project will create a database of these records, which will be free to access and search via an interactive website. The data will also be available to download.

We hope that this project, which combines the fields of Computer Science and History, will serve as an example of how collaboration between academic disciplines can strengthen research in both fields.