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Digital Access Project Partnership to Make Local Slave Records Visible, Accessible

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 20, 2022) — More than 60,000 pages of Fayette County’s historical property records containing information about enslaved people from the late 1700s through 1865 will soon be available to the public online thanks to a partnership between the 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.

The Fayette County Clerk began digitizing documents during the 1990s, but the books of historical property records remained solely on paper, including transactions detailing names of individuals sold and purchased as slaves, mortgages naming enslaved people as collateral, and probate documents with names of enslaved people listed as part of the deceased’s estate. Generations of their descendants have been searching for biographical information to piece together their family histories, but these clues have only been accessible by viewing the paper records in person at the County Clerk’s office.

Bringing these documents online and into a searchable database will take human power, specialized equipment, historical expertise and funding. Thanks to the Digital Access Project partnership, Fayette County will be the first county in Kentucky to digitize its historical property records dating back to the late 1700s.

“After months of planning, the meticulous work of digitizing began on May 23, and will continue until each of the 137 deed and probate books, along with their indexes, are all digitized,” said Deputy Fayette County Clerk Shea Brown.

Downtown Lexington was the site of one of the biggest slave markets in the Southeastern United States. Thousands of transactions recorded in Fayette County contained names of large segments of the enslaved population prior to emancipation and the official end of slavery on Dec. 6, 1865. In the late 1890s, newspapers across the country contained “information wanted” ads placed by formerly enslaved people looking for family members who had been sold and separated from them in Lexington. Publishing Fayette County’s historical property records online will help answer these questions that still linger for many Black families today.

“A significant part of our legacy as African Americans is memory keeping. And that’s what Juneteenth is: a day of remembrance and celebration, a day to grieve the reality of slavery’s injustice and to fortify hope for a more just future. The Digital Access Project is part of a long tradition of memory keeping, community curation and intentional preservation,” said Vanessa Holden, Ph.D., director of the Central Kentucky Slavery Initiative (based in CIBS) and associate professor of history and African American and African Studies (AAAS) at UK.

“Today’s announcement, on the federal Juneteenth holiday, is a great way to provide access to information about those who were enslaved in Fayette County,” said Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton. “I am proud of the partnership that has built on the work of those who have worked long and hard to unearth this history. By putting these historical documents online it will be possible for anyone to learn about our city’s full history and remember the lives and legacies of enslaved people in Fayette County.”

A UK team of scholars, including UK Libraries, the Department of History, the Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies and the J. David Rosenberg College of Law, will expand on the Digital Access Project by providing transcription of these complex handwritten property records from the early days of Kentucky statehood through the Era of Emancipation in the 1860s. Following that stage of the project, community programming and a digital humanities project will be designed to expand accessibility and increase context and understanding for the community.

“Blue Grass Community Foundation, the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative and our Knight Foundation Donor Advised Charitable Fund are honored to fund this incredibly impactful work, the first of its kind in Kentucky,” said Lisa Adkins, Blue Grass Community Foundation president/CEO. “BGCF is committed to building more generous, vibrant, equitable and engaged communities and this philanthropic investment is central to our mission. This important initiative is an outgrowth of our yearlong collaboration, (Re)Imaging Cheapside, a joint effort of Take Back Cheapside, the City of Lexington and Blue Grass Community Foundation. The Community Foundation is so pleased to agree and fund the partners that made today possible.”

To kick-off the Digital Access Project, Knight Foundation Donor Advised Charitable Fund at BGCF provided $50,000, Blue Grass Community Foundation provided $25,000 and the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative provided $10,000. This work is extensive and ongoing and volunteers and additional funding will be critical. Donate to support the Digital Access Project at: bgcf.givingfuel.com/DAP. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact Shea Brown at fccprojects@fayettecountyclerk.com.

Housed in AAAS, a program in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, CIBS is a multidisciplinary research institute that serves as a think tank for Black studies. The institute hosts more than 50 nationally and internationally recognized researchers with expertise in fields such as Black futures and 21st century race in digital cultures; slavery and inequality in Central Kentucky; race and sports; global Blackness (from Appalachia to Zimbabwe); and gender and sexuality in Black lives. CIBS also collaborates with, and is supported by, the United in True Racial Equity (UNITE) Research Priority Area. UNITE is a five-year, $10 million commitment that was established last year to support UK research on racial disparities and inequity.

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