Race and Slavery Petitions Project

History of the Project

Perquimans County Courthouse
Hertford, North Carolina

Established in 1991, the Race and Slavery Petitions Project was designed to locate, collect, organize, and publish all extant legislative petitions relevant to slavery, and a selected group of county court petitions from the fifteen former slaveholding states and the District of Columbia, during the period from the American Revolution through the Civil War. Between 1991 and 1995, the Project Director and editor Loren Schweninger traveled across the South to photocopy and microfilm petitions meeting that criterion. During the initial three years, he visited fourteen state archives and about one hundred and sixty county courthouses. In subsequent years, he added to the collection: 945 Orleans Parish petitions in 1998; 200 petitions from records of Louisiana Supreme Court (various parishes) in 1999; 53 Boone County, and 149 St. Louis, Missouri, petitions in 2000; 84 Shelby County, Tennessee, petitions in 1998 and 2000; and 71 Noxubee County, Mississippi, petitions in 2001. With the exception of 563 North Carolina county court petitions, selected from five discrete record sets by experienced research assistants, the director chose all of the documents.

The Project now holds 2,975 legislative petitions and approximately 14,512 county court petitions. The massive number of surviving relevant county court petitions, estimated to be more than a quarter of a million, is dispersed in state archives and county courthouses across the South. Due to their wide distribution, the cost of travel and photocopying, the limited time for collection, and, in certain counties, the large number of petitions that mention slaves, the editor adopted the following selection procedures:

  1. Every major geographical region within each state is represented. For example, in Virginia, counties were selected from Appalachia (Scott), Shenandoah Valley (Franklin, Frederick), Piedmont (Albemarle, Amherst, Caroline, Fluvanna, Goochland), as well as the more densely black-populated Southside and Tidewater counties, and cities such as Richmond, Lynchburg, Norfolk, and Petersburg. Each state follows the same pattern, with selected counties from each major geographical region.
  2. All accessible petitions written on behalf of or by slaves and on behalf of or by free blacks from the selected counties were included.
  3. All accessible petitions written by slaveholding white women seeking divorce or alimony from the selected counties were included.
  4. The guiding principle for the collection of all other county court petitions was to select, after a thorough canvass, documents that reflect and represent the scope of the county's holdings.

In all, the Project has collected 17,487 petitions (legislative and county court) representing about half of the counties (606 of 1,127 in 1860) in the fifteen southern states. The following table gives the number of legislative and county court petitions in each state.

Compilation of Petitions Collected

State Legislative County Totals
Alabama 18 753 771
Arkansas * 118 118
Delaware 418 420 838
D.C. 0 357 357
Florida 11 256 267
Georgia 1 1103 1104
Kentucky * 908 908
Louisiana 1 2412 2413
Maryland * 1348 1348
Mississippi 151 640 791
Missouri 6 340 346
North Carolina 442 1003 1445
South Carolina 613 2041 2654
Tennessee 415 1050 1465
Texas 113 303 416
Virginia 786 1460 2246
Totals 2975 14512 17487

* = none extant

Beginning in 1993, Project staff and the director began entering Petition Analysis Records [PARs] into a database. Each set of documents, including the petition and all the documents related to it, is uniquely identified by an eight-digit PAR (Petition Analysis Record) number.

The use of PAR numbers facilitates the user's ability to locate a specific petition in the 151-reel microfilm edition, which was published in two Series and seven Parts, complete with seven guides/indexes, by LexisNexis under the general title "Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks: Petitions to Southern Legislatures and County Courts, 1775-1867." In all, the microfilm edition includes about 140,000 pages of documentary evidence and PAR data. All or part of the microfilm edition is housed at more than fifty libraries, archives, and universities in the United States, England, Germany, and China.

The Project has received support from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives [NHPRC] (1991-2005), the National Endowment for the Humanities [NEH](1995-2009), the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (1997-2005), and the University of North Carolina Greensboro [UNCG] (1991-2009).

The final phase of the Petitions Project is the creation of a Digital Library on American Slavery, created in cooperation with Jackson Library at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Repositories

The historic documents indexed by the Race and Slavery Petitions Project were accessed and duplicated at various archival repositories. All of the original legislative petitions can be found at the respective state archives, a list of which is below. Some county court petitions are available at state archives, but in the majority of cases, the original court petitions remain in the county courthouses where they were filed. To see a microfilmed copy of the original petitions, please refer to the list of libraries that own the microfilm edition, which is entitled Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks.