© 2023 WUKY
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Lexington is digitizing slavery-era documents to help historians and families piece together the past

African-American historian Dr. Yvonne Giles recounts the difficulty of tracing family documents pertaining to enslaved individuals in Kentucky

Lexington is embarking on a project to digitize the historical property records containing information about enslaved people in the commonwealth from the late 1700s through 1865.

"We were told there is no history of Blacks. You won't find your family. And it absolutely is not true."
African-American historian Dr. Yvonne Giles

At the unveiling of the Digital Access Project, African-American historian Dr. Yvonne Giles recounted her early efforts to trace her family's roots back through some of the darkest periods in Kentucky history — where finding one's ancestors involves searching through documents that treated people as property.

But now some 60,000 pages of dusty paper records at the County Clerks office will be converted into digital form and made available online for those who wish to piece together family histories.

"The project we're announcing today, on the site of one of the most important slave markets in the United States then, is part of a long tradition of memory keeping, community curation, and intentional preservation," Dr. Vanessa Holden, the director of the Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative, said. The old county courthouse site once acted as one of the largest slave markets in the southeastern U.S.

"Our work together honors those enslaved people, bought and sold right here, those who were torn away from kith and kin, and their descendants, who after emancipation kept searching and kept looking for them," Holden continued.

With the project already underway, Fayette County is on track to become the first county in the state to digitize its historical property records dating back to the 1700s.

Once it's complete, organizers say the easier-to-access records will enable not only historians to look back but future generations to see a more complete picture of themselves and maybe a clearer path forward.

Read more about the project, which is a collaboration between Fayette County Clerk, University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies (CIBS), the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative, Blue Grass Community Foundation and its Knight Foundation Donor Advised Charitable Fund.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.