Wake County is shining a light on the area’s dark history of slavery next week with a project designed to uncover family records. 

The Enslaved Persons Project will “catalog, transcribe and make public” records from more than 30 deed books showing the sale and exchange of slaves, according to a news release. The aim is to help people today track the history of their families. 

While interest in genealogy skyrocketed in the past few years thanks to websites like ancestry.com, the records of African American families are often difficult or even impossible to locate. 

“Many people don’t realize that enslaved people were not issued birth certificates or marriage certificates,” Wake County Register of Deeds Tammy Brunner said in a news release. “Instead, property deeds and bills of sale are sometimes the only written records of the lives of these men, women and children.

“We want to make those records accessible and searchable online, because those are someone’s great-grandfather or great-great-grandmother––they were people, not property.”

County officials are asking for the help of students and volunteers to decipher the hand-written records and catalogue names and other vital information. But the project is about more than just “transcribing details from centuries-old documents,” Erin Moore, executive director of the Shaw University Center for Racial and Social Justice, said in the release. 

Erin Moore, executive director of the Shaw University Center for Racial and Social Justice. 

“Researching the names of the individuals enslaved in Wake County provides a greater context and understanding of their lives,” Moore said. “This work is just one important step in bringing a sense of justice and peace to the families of those enslaved in our region.”

The project, led by the Wake County Register of Deeds and Shaw University, is part of a larger effort by librarians and historians to create a centralized database of information about formerly enslaved people across the state, according to the news release. Once complete, people will be able to search the database for records and photographs. 

A kickoff ceremony for the project is 6 p.m. Aug. 26 at Historic Oak View County Park, a former plantation. Staff there have already been able to uncover the names of several people who were enslaved on the property, according to the release. 

“The opportunity to reclaim these stories has been transformative for the park and its visitors, many of whom are schoolchildren,” park manager Emily Catherman Fryar said in the press release. “These documents are the vehicle to bring these often-invisible stories back to the historical memory.”

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Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.