Guilford County Register of Deeds to display slave deed exhibit at Civil Rights Museum

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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- On Thursday, Guilford County will launch an exhibit called Bills of Sale: Slave Deeds of Guilford County. About six years ago the Register of Deeds Department began compiling and digitized the 254 names found in 30 property deeds books dating back to 1771.

Register of Deeds Director Jeff Thigpen said the exhibit turns those names on just a piece of paper into context.

“What we've done, about a year ago we began this project of going through our old deed books and finding deeds and bills of sale that allowed us to find these needles in a haystack and triangulate these slave deeds so we could index them and make them searchable in such a way people can look at them,” Thigpen said.

Historians at NC A&T State University, UNCG and Greensboro College were pivotal in making those connections.

Dr. Arwin Smallwood at NC A&T said that the hardest part in tracing history for African- Americans is digging into the slave era.

“When we look at Ancestry.com and the different ways in which people trace their ancestry, for African-Americans, we have to be creative. We have to come up with more traditional ways in which to document the contributions of our ancestors,” Smallwood said. “The best way for you to track your family history beyond into slavery, beyond 1870 and 1865, is you have to look at the plantation owners and look at their records, because most plantation owners kept excellent records. Slaves were property and they paid taxes on their slaves so they did keep up with the ages, sexes and the different skills.”

The four major families of Guilford County features will be the Morehead, Mendenhall, Coffin and Donnell families.
“We have these four families during a time period long ago struggling with societal, political, moral and economic questions around this institution of slavery and what it meant,” Thigpen said.

Reneé Donnell said she always knew her family had lived in Greensboro for years but did not know the extent until she became involved in the slave deeds project.

“The most impactful thing that I learned is that we owned land, before the 1900s,” Donnell said. “What it's encouraged me to want to do is to do more research, see how much further I can go.”

The reception and program launching the Bills of Sale exhibit will be Thursday at 6 p.m. at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.

The exhibit will remain in display through Oct. 31.

To search the 254 names in the Guilford County Slave Deed Directory, click here.

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