Chicago Historical Society-Blog: Updated Archived Descriptions of Slavery Documents



CHM Collections Intern Ella Trotter writes about the critical process of describing archival material relating to enslaved people in the United States.

Engraving by Robert Carter, 1801. Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, artist. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

While Carter can be considered a politically and morally progressive for voluntarily freeing those he enslaved, his story is not representative of the rest of the white landowner community of the time. Archival description aspires to the neutrality and passivity of facts; however, it is also a form of classification and narration. Throughout this project, I was sometimes overwhelmed by the agency I had to describe these precious historical documents, and I learned first-hand that archival description is not at all neutral or passive. I didn’t want to reproduce injustice in my archival descriptions, and I wanted the story I tell to focus above all on the enslaved people and their experiences.

According to Describe archive content standards (DACS), item titles should include the name of the person who is “primarily responsible for the creation, assembly, accumulation and / or maintenance of the materials”. When you think of pre-Civil War United States documents, it is very rare that documents are created by enslaved people due to their lack of access to reading and writing. Based on DACS standards, the titles of almost any document that contains valuable information about enslaved people and their stories will be named after white slavers and auctioneers.

After researching and learning more about DACS, the question became, what name should appear in the title and what would that mean? Given Carter’s historical recognition, including only his name in the title of documents would be sufficient from a research standpoint. However, for this collection, I have decided to title the postage documents with the name of the newly released person, eg “Natt manumission”. The full title would be “Robert Carter manumission of [Name], [Date]. “With this title format, we are able to retain both the name of Robert Carter to meet the standards and the name of the newly released person, who is not called upon by the standards.

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