Researchers helping people find ancestors, learn history of families

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- For decades, they were stored away in government buildings, seen by nearly no one.

Now, a group of scholars and government officials are spending several years combing through thousands of documents to extract information that will, in a way, bring people back to life.

There are various parts of this project: “The Race and Slavery Petitions Project;” “The Slave Deeds Project;” “NC Runaway Slave Advertisements.”

They are all available on The Digital Library on American Slavery available through UNC-Greensboro.

“The whole purpose of the program is to help those people who really don't have much of a recorded history although they helped build the state of North Carolina,” says North Carolina A&T history professor, Arwin Smallwood, who is part of the team doing the work. “Their slave labor cleared the forest, they harvested the agricultural crops that made people millionaires.”

Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen had his own discoveries of looking for his ancestors.

“I discovered the story of my people from Scotland and Ireland and there were these unique stories and I looked back and found that one of my ancestors led a revolt out of a prison in North Africa. And that's amazing!” says Thigpen with a smile from ear-to-ear.

It was relatively easy for Thigpen to find his ancestors but for those whose ancestors are African-Americans who were slaves, records before 1865 are nearly non-existent.

For Smallwood, this isn’t about pointing fingers of guilt. It’s simply about completing people’s histories, so that they can fully know who they are.

“There's good and bad in all of us, there's good and bad in all of our histories and all of our backgrounds and all of our pasts,” says Smallwood. “We do have a tendency to lean towards the good and not really deal with the bad but you can't have reconciliation, full understanding until you have acknowledgement of hurt and harm and pain and what has happened. It doesn't mean you have to agree, it just means you acknowledge what has taken place.”

“All of this, in its totality, is about an understanding of history,” says Thigpen, “so that we can learn from it, that it can teach us and it can help lay out a foundation so that we can have better communities.”

See the documents in this edition of the Buckley Report.