In the 1980s, while conducting research in a Louisiana courthouse, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall discovered a book written by 18th-century notaries that meticulously recorded details of hundreds of slaves: their names, their origin, their skills, even their penchant for rebellion.
As Hall told the New York Times‘ David Firestone in 2000, she was ‘stunned’; English colonists rarely documented such information about individuals brought from Africa to work as slaves in America. Most researchers had assumed that the details of their identity were simply lost over time.
Hall, a scholar of Caribbean and Afro-Latin history, then began a years-long investigation of neglected records in Louisiana, France, and Spain, where she found similar revealing records of slaves in late Louisiana. colonial era. With the help of five assistants, she compiled this information into the “Louisiana Slave Database and Louisiana Free Database 1719-1820″, a groundbreaking digital compendium that included searchable information on some 107,000 people.
Hall died on August 29, at the age of 93, reports the New York Times‘Clay resurrected. She leaves behind an indelible legacy of scientific understanding and public perception of America’s colonial past. As Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas, said on his 90th birthday in 2019, Hall was “someone who completely transformed our understanding and restored voice, life and agency. of those who made our world”.
Born in 1929, in New Orleans, Hall was immersed from an early age in a militant world. His father, a Jewish civil rights and labor lawyer, was among the few local members of his profession who were willing to defend black clients. Segregation and other discriminatory policies “have always bothered” Hall, his friend Ned Sublette tells the Times-Picayune/New Orleans Lawyerit is John Pope. As a teenager, she joined several civil rights causes, including the New Orleans Youth Council, an interracial group that protested segregation and helped register black voters. In 1949, she was arrested for “violation of a municipal segregation ordinance”, according to the New York Times.
Hall spent time in Paris, where she met and married her first husband, Michael Yuspeh. The union was short-lived, and Hall later married American civil rights activist Haywood Hall. He was black; he was also a communist. Upon the couple’s return to the United States in the 1950s, they became targets of racial hostility. The Halls moved to Mexico City, where Gwendolyn enrolled at Mexico City College. She studied Latin American history, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
In 1970 Hall received his doctorate from the University of Michigan. After that, she spent 25 years teaching Latin American and Caribbean history at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Hall’s research into slave identity was groundbreaking not only for its subject matter, but also for the way it made it accessible to the public.
“Nobody was doing databases then,” Hall told Ned Sublette of the “Afropop Worldwide” radio show in 2005. The database, released in 2000, was first available in CD format, then online, allowing descendants of enslaved individuals to trace histories previously unreachable.
The information collected by Hall also served as the basis for his award-winning 1992 book, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century. According to New York Times, the book “went against the conventional wisdom that colonial Louisiana was largely shaped by Haiti and other parts of the French-speaking Caribbean”, showing that a majority of Africans enslaved in Louisiana came from Senegal and Gambia. Hall’s portrayal of a unique Afro-Creole culture—born from the interactions of enslaved individuals with Native Americans and French and German settlers—has become required reading not only for scholars, but also for musicians and New Orleans artists. Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields” jazz oratorio, the first jazz work to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music, was inspired by Hall’s book.
In 2011, Hall’s database became part of Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network, which also included historian Walter Hawthorne’s dataset of slaves in the Brazilian state of Maranhão. Slave Biographies in turn “laid the foundation for Enslaved.org, a site capable not only of hosting dozens of datasets, but of interacting with each other,” wrote Smithsonian Meilan Solly from the magazine in 2020.
“For so long, there was this tendency, even in the most prestigious academic circles, to see Africans as an abstraction, coming from just a single place,” Hall told the New York Times“Fire Stone. She expressed hope that her database would “help smooth the way for others to make Africans into concrete human beings” – a wish she would live to see come true.