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'These deeds give names': Lexington's digitization project sheds new light on the lives of enslaved people

Josh James

Lexington’s Digital Access Project is marking a milestone as more than 77,000 pages of historical documents dating back to the 1700s are being made available online. But the project is far from simple paperwork.

The Digital Access Project, sometimes shortened to DAP, may have a run-of-the-mill sounding government name and acronym, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is an ordinary project.

"Tonight, we celebrate a groundbreaking product," Deputy Fayette County Clerk Shea Brown announced to applause in Lexington's Old Courthouse.

"Some of those exchanges of property were people," Dr. Vanessa Holden says.

Most county clerks’ offices are digitizing their records from the late 20th century backwards, but Lexington is using funding from the Knight Foundation to digitize records in the other direction, starting with the oldest. While it’s a project that’s revealing plenty of facts for local and national historians to comb over, doing the deep dive into wills, deeds, and other property filings unearths painful pictures of the past.

"Some of those exchanges of property were people," says Dr. Vanessa Holden, a UK professor and director of the Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative. "And unlike other documents that pertain to enslaved people, these deeds give names. Sometimes they give locations. They give a richer, fuller picture of someone's whole life."

These are records many Black residents were told didn’t exist, but thanks to the work of the Digital Access Project some are finally getting to see those names and reclaim family once thought lost to time.

Holden says one striking aspect is seeing the region’s economic history laid bare.

"What's overwhelming is when you find a prominent citizen of Lexington, who had a lot of property over a long period of time, you can fairly quickly reconstruct the way that they profited from the business of slavery, not just the labor of enslaved people, but how they bought and sold people with impunity over time," Holden adds.

With the first phase of the project complete, the professor says the focus will shift to documents originating after 1865 through to 1900 — as well as a community engagement component of the project.

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.