In the mid-1830s, Mary Bell and her children pleaded for the courts to uphold their manumission, or their release from slavery. Their slaveholder freed Mary upon his death but set age limits of 30-40 years old in order for the children to be freed.
The courts sided with the slaveholder’s widow, who challenged the Bells’ manumission, and the family attempted to escape through the Underground Railroad. They became involved in the Pearl Incident of 1848, when over 70 slaves in Washington, D.C., attempted to escape on a sailing ship called The Pearl.
The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has compiled over 500 cases like the Bell family’s in an online database titled, “O Say Can You See: Early Washington, D.C., Law and Family,” which details slaves suing for their freedom during the 1820s and 1830s.
Through this project, UNL history professor William Thomas said he and the center hope to give slaves a voice and teach people about a critical piece of American history.
Kaci Nash, the project manager of the center, said they chose the time period because 1835 was a pivotal year for Washington, D.C.
“There were a lot of things going on with labor disputes and issues of slavery, like riots,” she said. “It’s interesting for us to be able to see what the city looked like during this time.”
The database is divided into four categories: families, cases, stories and people. It also includes an interactive map that enables the user to see who lived where in early Washington, D.C., as well as data from the 1822 city directory.
Thomas said the project is a culmination of research he has done on this topic since 2009. He said he started out by researching the Supreme Court case Mima Queen v. Hepburn, an 1813 case of an enslaved woman claiming her freedom.
“Freedom took work and effort,” he said.
Thomas said when he went to Washington, D.C. to pull the case file, he discovered there were hundreds of cases like it, which were largely unavailable to researchers. He said he started the project to make these files available to the public.
“These stories have been written out of history and need to be in American history textbooks,” he said. “You wouldn’t know that, from day one of the United States, enslaved people were suing for their freedom.”
Nash said she encountered several challenges while working on this project, specifically the difficult-to-find documents of slaves petitioning for their freedom.
“For the slaveholders, there are additional documents you can find if you do some Google searching,” she said. “For many of the enslaved people, these are the only documents that survive.”
Nash said she believes there are connections between the petitions of freedom included in the project and the current debate over reparations, or payment to descendants of slaves.
“If you look at these cases and look at the history of enslavement in the United States, it still resonates today,” she said.
Thomas said the length of time it took for enslaved families to win these cases or even appear in court was surprising to him. He said the cases took anywhere from five to 17 years because they were appealed and overturned.
Nash said she believes this project will not only impact the way people think about American history but their personal or family history as well. She said descendants of some families have contacted them saying they’ve found family members on the project site.
Laura Weakly, a metadata encoding specialist for the center, said she wants to expand the project to include other freedom petition cases outside of Washington, D.C.
“We’d be able to paint a much bigger, clearer picture of the black inhabitants of the city if we could look at the criminal cases,” she said. “It could bring some more people to light that don’t exist in any other document record.”
Since UNL’s digital humanities program started in the late ‘90s and since the center opened in 2007, they’ve worked on hundreds of projects like “O Say Can You See.” In 2018, the center released a short film called “Anna,” which told the story of Ann Williams, a slave who tried to avoid being sold by jumping out of the third-story window of Miller’s Tavern in Washington, D.C. in 1815.
Apart from a research center, the digital humanities program has a curricular program, including a digital humanities minor. Weakly said she loves working with students and helping them develop their research skills.
With people becoming increasingly reliant on digital media, Thomas said it’s important for history, culture and literature to be available where people can see it.
“If history’s not there on that medium, a lot of people aren’t going to experience or encounter that history or literary work,” he said.
Thomas said he thinks UNL’s digital humanities program distinguishes the school from other public universities.
“My colleagues have been successful in the digital humanities program, and that success has brought renown to UNL,” he said. “There are many people around the country and world that, when you say [UNL], they may think football, but they now also think digital humanities.”