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Interview with Dean Rehberger on the "Enslaved: People of the Historic Slave Trade" Project

Michigan State University is embarking on a grand new adventure. Dean Rehberger, the director of Matrix: The Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences in the College of Social Sciences at Michigan State University is also the principal investigator on Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade, a new initiative to facilitate research on the lives of the enslaved. This project will entail the creation of a digital hub for research projects across the country. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is generously funding this project, including a grant for a planning period. The project is currently in phase 1: the proof of concept. This asks whether the project can be done. But Rehberger’s hopes are high for the project’s longevity. He foresees it still publishing data and bringing things together ten years from now as the project’s goals are “work that needs to continue on.”


Dean Rehberger was kind enough to speak with me about the project and described three forces behind the idea. First, people generally believe that you cannot know much about enslaved people but because they were owned as objects, there is actually quite a bit of data: probate records, baptismal records, and case files, just to name a few types of sources. “The sad thing about this work,” Rehberger notes, “is that people were only people once they were recorded.” This information, however, tends to be siloed; you can only look through one database at a time, so the idea is to break down the silo so that you can search across databases. This project will bring multiple databases together, creating a hub and providing a more expansive researching experience.


The second force behind the project is preservation. In the humanities, researchers finish their projects, seal their records and then, if something happens to them (a database lapses, a grant runs out, etc.), their work disappears and others are left to reinvent the wheel. Enslaved offers not only the opportunity for users to deposit your data but to protect it and be credited for your work. Another difficulty with online projects is that they can go offline if the school is unable to continue or encounters a financial difficulty, but Enslaved is working to have longevity so that this will not happen with this data.


The third and final force was recognizing the need for better education about the slave trade. Rehberger said, “There has never been a time when we needed to understand slavery more.” It’s time to bring these lives back into public discourse. A lot of what Matrix does is open to the public and in fact is created for the public. Rehberger cited two particular projects, The Quilt Index and What America Ate, as examples for the kind of public engagement Enslaved will offer. Rehberger cited three groups people they are targeting and who will benefit most from Enslaved: the researcher, for whom this project will offer a new way of understanding slavery by utilizing large data banks; and students, for whom this will be a useful classroom tool; and genealogists.

Rehberger said there was no one moment of inspiration but rather “moments of luck” which involved all of the partners. He recognizes that part of the inspiration, however, did come from their first attempt at being able to search across repositories with the NEH funded Slave Biographies Project. When asked how will this transform the ways we teach and learn, Rehberger responded that it makes the history of slavery more accessible. “People who were enslaved often had adventurous and amazing lives,” Rehberger said, “They weren’t thin lives to be forgotten.”  


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