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Personal information on slaves put on CD-ROM


NEW ORLEANS - From the darkness of history they emerge out of a silver spinning disc: two black slaves sold by a sugar plantation owner named Levi Foster on Feb. 11, 1818, to his in-laws.

The first slave, named Kit, was 28, and was sold for $975. The other, Alick, was 9, and was possibly Kit's son. He was sold for $400.

For nearly two centuries, the names of those two slaves were lost in time, along with the names of tens of thousands of others who worked the sugar and cotton fields of Louisiana.

Their identities, scratched with quill pens on transaction records of human property, have moldered in the basements of parish courthouses, virtually untouched by researchers who were usually put off by the difficult French and Spanish script.

Black families often lacked the resources for the extensive detective work required to find their African forebears, and many white families simply did not want to know about slaveholding ancestors.

Levi Foster, in fact, is the great-great-grandfather of Gov. Mike Foster of Louisiana, who said recently on a radio program that it would be "news to me" if anyone in his family had owned slaves.

Now, however, the identities and backgrounds of Louisiana slaves are beginning to emerge from centuries of anonymity.

Thanks to years of painstaking work by a 71-year-old historian, an enormous amount of information is suddenly coming to light about captives who were brought to Louisiana in huge numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a New Orleans native who has devoted much of her life to the study of slavery, spent 15 years in the courthouses of Louisiana, as well as in archives in Spain, France and Texas, seeking all records of slave transactions and entering them into laptop computers.

Aided by several research assistants, she amassed computerized records on more than 100,000 slaves - the largest collection of individual slave information ever assembled - and in March, the Louisiana State University Press published the documents as a searchable database on a CD-ROM.

The disc has amazed historians and genealogists with the breadth of its information about the slaves. Because the French and Spanish proprietors of Louisiana kept far more detailed records than their British counterparts at slave ports on the Atlantic coast, the records show not only the names of the slaves, but also their birthplaces in Africa, their skills, their health, and in many cases descriptions of their personalities and degree of rebelliousness.

For historians who thought such information was lost or could never be collected and analyzed, the database is a once-unimaginable prize.

"This is groundbreaking work," said Ibrahim K. Sundiata, chairman of the history department at Howard University and a scholar of African history.

"Americans have tended to think of the slaves as simply being Africans, but now we can begin to understand where these Africans came from and who they were. For the first time, this takes us beyond the guesstimates, and it's very exciting."

Marsanne Golsby, a spokeswoman for Foster, said he learned about his family's ownership of slaves after the New York Times looked up his ancestors on the disc and found sales involving eight slaves, three of them children.

Unrelated documents on file in the Tulane University library show his great-grandfather, Thomas J. Foster, owned 50 slaves in 1860, three years before emancipation.

The governor was not particularly happy about the disclosure; Golsby said the newspaper should not have singled out his family from the many that owned slaves.

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