NEW ORLEANS — Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
African Americans in Louisiana now have a direct link to those roots thanks to the work of Dr. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a prominent historian who created the first original slave database in history.
The daughter of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe before World War I, Midlo Hall grew up in New Orleans schools, but she was unimpressed.
“The problem was that American History at that time was absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “I was in public school, girl’s school and the teacher was ranting and raving about how inferior black people were and how much her parent’s slaves loved them and how good they were to their slaves.”
Midlo Hall took raw data and records and transfigured them into a slave database with more than 100,000 entries. It all started when she began researching a slave conspiracy in 1975. Today, her database is used throughout the country, including at the nation’s first interactive slave museum — the Whitney Plantation in St. John the Baptist Parish.
“In those days people thought, ‘Oh we can’t learn anything on the past of slaves because they were slaves and we have no information about them.’ It turned out that was the opposite of the truth. It’s just that nobody had looked,” Midlo Hall said.
Through her online database, you can search for names of the enslaved, slave owners, mortgage records and last wills — but it wasn’t always that easy.
During the late ’80s and early ’90s, Midlo Hall spent countless hours in courthouses looking through old paper files, many of which hadn’t been touched since the early 1900s.
It’s a skill she learned from her father, a laundry worker turned lawyer who was one of the few lawyers who took cases for African Americans while Midlo Hall was growing up.
“Ironically, perhaps, a lot of information can be found from legal records that were meant to account for them as property, so if you look them, they were really not created to preserve the history of these people, yet they do nonetheless,” explained Dr. Mary Niall Mitchell, co-director of the Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies at UNO. “If we have that information, we can better understand the history of colonial Louisiana and without that you are missing a big part of it, particularly for people of African American descent; they need to know just as anybody what their history is.”
Midlo Hall’s database is free and open to the public. You can find it here.
“What you engage people with are stories of people, individual people that survived this particularly violent institution,” Midlo Hall said.