Researchers working on slave transaction history database

County Court Clerk Erica Woodford said the project promotes storytelling that inspires healing: “It’s about shedding light on the rich, rugged history of Macon and Bibb County.”

MACON, Ga. — Have you ever used platforms like “ancestry.com” or “23 & me” to trace your family history? Did they make you want to know a little more?

Well, Macon researchers have been working on a genealogy project since 2018 that will help Central Georgians dig a little deeper into their family tree.

Untold stories of enslaved African Americans have sat in the Bibb County Courthouse for decades.

That is, until Superior Court Clerk Erica Woodford stumbled upon slave deeds in a courthouse safe.

She came across a paper trail of an 11-year-old girl described as fair-skinned and with long, straight hair. She was described as “guaranteed to be sound and healthy” and was to be sold for $750.

“It gave me goosebumps and made the hairs on my arm and the back of my neck stand up because it was so unreal to find those records,” Woodford said.

So she assembled a team, including Chief Deputy Clerk Stephanie Miller, Mercer University’s Director of African Studies, Dr. Chester Fontenot, and students from the university to catalog and digitize the information in the proceedings.

They are now working to turn this information into a more accessible and searchable website.

With 980 slave transaction records found at the Bibb County Courthouse, researchers say many people will soon be able to learn much more about their family’s past.

“Our family is basically from Hancock County, then they migrated to Washington County, then from Washington County to Macon,” says Brenda Williams.

Williams is her family historian, studying their history since 2013.

“I want to know who I am and where I come from. The other thing that’s really important is that I want to know who we belong to,” she says.

Williams says the search wasn’t easy, because to find the history of written records before the 1870s, you had to go to a courthouse.

“Most of the courthouses burned down. If the clerk hadn’t taken the time to index these books or have them indexed, we would have lost all of this precious history,” she adds.

She says that with these documents, she was able to access more information about her great-great-grandmother Linnie Haines.

“It was very difficult when I found these documents to find out who did this. Not that I hold them responsible, I don’t hold anyone responsible for what their ancestors did, but it’s still good to know “, she says.

She was also able to help other relatives.

“I was able to go with my cousin when she came to visit, take her there and find out information about her great-great-grandfather just through those books,” Williams says.

Dr. Chester Fontenot says not knowing family history is a common thread in African American culture.

“What characterizes the African-American experience, wherever we are, is the disruption of slavery. Most people don’t know where they come from,” Fontenot explains.

But this research will provide them with primary source material to help them deepen their knowledge. He says the books also show how entrenched slavery was in the culture of central Georgia.

“Any time the mayor could use city funds to buy a slave for his use, to work in his office, and also at home, but also in his office, I think that’s huge,” adds- he.

These books also tell us more about the slaves of the community.

“These slaves were used to build roads and repair city roads. They were hired out to the railroad to build the railroad here,” Woodford explains.

She says they also had ties to churches and says some were used as collateral to make purchases.

They say this research even uncovered links to street names.

“It was amazing to me one day when I put two and two together, when I was driving down Napier Avenue, and I had just read five acts that transported humans as slaves from one Napier to another Napier” , adds Woodford.

Stephanie Miller adds that this project could change the outlook for the community in the future.

“We need to understand where we’ve gone, so maybe we’ll be a little less flippant when we decide to name a community a type of plantation. Maybe we’ll decide that’s no longer the type of community we want to be,” Miller says.

It doesn’t matter who you are, they say this search is for everyone.

“There are genealogical endings that are available to everyone who is part of this community, so it’s really about emphasizing the fact that we are a family. We are a community more often than we realize, and can “Maybe we even share blood,” Miller said.

They say it’s also not to point blame or cause shame.

“We promote the story, and this story will inspire healing. It’s not to point fingers or blame. It’s to shed light on the rich, rugged history of Macon and Bibb County. “Woodford said.

“I see freedom in this, I see love in this project and I also see healing in this project,” Woodford added.

Williams says her goal is to donate all of her family research to the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah, to make it easier for future generations.

All research dating back to 1823 is currently available here.

However, their planned searchable website will not be available until 2023.

If you want to follow Williams’ research and dive into his family history, you can check out his Let the Ancestors Speak website.

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