In Common this week: Interview with Ned Benton of New York Slavery Records Index

Dear fellow Commoners,

I have another behind-the-scenes look for this week!

Below, I interview with Ned Benton, Co-Director of the New York Slavery Records Index and Professor at John Jay College. The New York Slavery Records Index opened to the public on the CUNY Commons in January 2018 offering a searchable database of over 37,000 records related to slavery in New York State. In the interview Benton describes what inspired the project, how CUNY students compiled the data, and why the database belongs on the Commons.

Whatever you do, don’t skip Benton’s answer to the last question where he describes some of the most interesting details already uncovered using the tool.

I’ve played around with the database on my own and even used it in an American Literature course I’m teaching this semester. Using it, I found out my elementary and middle schools were named for former slave-owners. Hopefully you’ll be inspired by the project, or learn something by using the tool. Hopefully this interview will give you some of the interesting history behind the project, too.

The transcript below was lightly edited for style and clarity. 

How did the New York Slavery Records Index project come about and what was the inspiration?

It started with a project that I did in my home community of Mamaroneck. I did it as part of a local history project where we identified the enslaved people of Mamaroneck with a local newspaper. It took a period of years to complete a working list because we kept finding new ways to search and new places to search.

Eventually, I guess this was about in 2016, we were doing a series of workshops for graduate students about faculty research. Some people were interested in what I had been doing in my community and so I agreed to do a workshop on it. I thought it was an example of good research, but I didn’t think it would be of further interest. Professor Peters and several students became very interested in the idea of doing something similar with New York City, of scaling up the project. And so, in 2016, we decided to try that.

In a sense, Mamaroneck was a test of concept. We had a model for what we were trying to accomplish that showed us where we needed to go look for records. We eventually determined that the boundaries of New York City had changed so much throughout history that we decided that as long as we were going to do this, we should design it for the whole state. We wouldn’t necessarily get all the data digitized right away, but we would design the project anticipating data from the whole state.

With help from the graduate students we list on the website, we assembled 35,000 records and then we thought we could open up the data to the public. In January 2018, we launched.

Many graduate and undergraduate students are involved in this project, how did you get them on board?

Our MBA program has assistantships for students who work with faculty on research. Professor Peters and I dedicated our assistantships to the project. The college also has a course called mentored research in which a student can engage in research in collaboration with a facutly member. So we did mentored reseach in Fall 2017 and we are continuing it in 2018.

In 2018, a History professor, Andrew Balif, has joined the project. She has a freshman history class and senior McCauly honors class both working on the project. So that’s the thrid kind of way we’re engaging students in the research.

Why factors were part of the decision to host the New York Slavery Records Index on the CUNY Commons?

I have worked with WordPress for many years, including on private servers. John Jay did not then support WordPress as we would need it. Still, I felt that this project needed to be on a CUNY server because it was going to be a CUNY project using CUNY students.

Several of the faculty members at John Jay were using the CUNY Commons and loved it. I made an inquiry, and of course the people at the CUNY Commons were very supportive and helped me set up the site.

At the same time, I’m the president of the of the John Jay Faculty Senate, and I set up the Faculty Senate Newsletter on the CUNY Commons [note: the newsletter is password protected]. It’s now our method of communicating with the members of the Faculty Senate. It really works wonderfully and I think it’s a real asset to the university.

It did however create a challenge as well.

WordPress is a database. It’s possible to have small data sets that rely on the same WordPress database structure–sort of like posts. But, if I take a 37,000 record database and try to do pivot tables, I’m going to bring down CUNY Commons! (I don’t think I would really bring down the Commons, I just mean that the site would slow down and not work.)

I looked for backend database services that would allow me to put up a large-scale database with, eventually, large-scale analytics that wouldn’t crash WordPress. There were a number of vendors that would do this. I chose one named Caspio. I selected them for three reasons. First of all, they had a WordPress plugin. Second, it seemed to be a secure and stable product. I didn’t think it would be hacked. . . Famous last words since you always think it won’t be hacked until it’s hacked! Third, I knew what to do on my end to make it work. I mean, to me it had good documentation and good support. It’s not the only company that could do this, but it’s the one that I chose.

Caspio’s WordPress plugin relates my WordPress site on the Commons to my database that is managed by Caspio. In other words, the 37,000 records are not on the CUNY Commons, but the CUNY Commons is where they show up. The CUNY Commons is the public face and where people go to make use of the records.

This project is a model for other projects, too. We want to put up the public fire records for New York. It’s a huge data set. I mean, it’s all the fires in the state! We are now going to look at using this same technique. We’ve been working on the fire records project for many years, but now we think we have the tool to make it work.

What do you see in the future for the New York Slavery Records Index? 

We expected that we would get a lot of contacts from people once we put this up. A concern we had was to set up an organized system to deal with the contacts, because it’s just us. You know, we don’t have a staff of twenty-two people who can all handle the calls. So what we did was to set up an online survey tool. When people have something to ask, they do that. We’ve gotten already a real response, too. We think it’s going to double every month for awhile, so we need to gradually scale our technique. We figure we might put some students on responding to some of the requests when the requests are not novel.

Every situation is different, though. You know, there might be a situation where someone contacts us to correct a record–someone may contact us to say we spelled their great-great-great grandfather’s last name wrong. These records and registrations are all hand-written; it’s hard to tell sometimes If someone’s last name has and “e” or an “a”. Putting records up in the first place requires judgement. I’m not assuming we were right in the first place, and If we can see plausible reason to change our record, we’ll change it. If we think there’s a judgement call, we may stick a comment in the comment field. We’ll try to do something responsible and accountable.

But we also have people who are sending us their family records. You know they’ll send us a PDF of an old will. One person did that! One person said there is a family bible with the names of their slaves inside. At the time, a relative kept a comprehensive history of the family on the back pages and the person said she’ll send a scanned copy. These are records that we’re not going to encounter in government archives, these are personal records. If people send these to us, we’ll put them up.

We’ve also had contacts from faculty members from universities around the country. For example, one person made a suggestion for an addition to the database. The idea was to include the gender of the slave holder. Well, we’re working on it!

These are like “feature requests.” Just like with the CUNY Commons, you have people who come to you and say “It would be great if we could do this.” You evaluate the request and make choices. We’re evaluating the request and we’ll be making choices. We think we can do that; we just don’t know how fast.

What has surprised you while working on this project?

One of the issue that gave rise to this project is that universities are starting to analyze their relationships to slavery.

There are two kinds of relationships: a tangible operational relationship and a memorialization relationship. A tangible operational relationship is like Georgetown or Brown. These universities were engaged in slavery. A memorialization relationship is like Yale. There was Calhoun College, a unit of the college named after a person who was a notorious advocate for slavery.

Students and faculty have periodically uncovered the fact that John Jay, the namesake for John Jay College, was a slave-holder. We thought we should speak to the issue and we thought that the basis for us speaking to this issue should be to have the most information and we have used this database to do this.

One of the projects we did using this database was to identify the John Jay family record of slavery. We discovered many things that have not been previously documented. For example, John Jay’s father and grandfather were slave ship owners. We have records of all the slave-ship investors and owners from 1750-1765 and it’s up on the database. You can go find Augustus Jay and Peter Jay. So now we have an article about the Jay family.

At the same time, we felt we had to place these facts within a context.

We researched what colleges are saying about their relationships with slavery. For example, Brown University has studied the question. Georgetown has studied the question. Columbia, Harvard, Princeton. They have these large projects in which they study their relationships to slavery and then they try to be transparent about them. Yale, dealing with the Calhoun situation, was the most closely analogous to John Jay. It was a memorialization relationship. John Jay hasn’t any record of slavery, but CUNY named the school after a person who was a slave holder.

The Yale project tried to consider what the principles were that would help guide future memorialization choices. An important principle was that you need to weigh the primary legacy of the person–that’s what you’re memorializing–not what happens in a moment. You need to be interested, for example, in the long-term consequences of the person.

Applying that standard, we can very transparently and thoroughly document that John Jay and his family were engaged in slavery. It is significant slavery and his father and grandfather were slave ship investors. In addition, John Jay was the governor who signed the law that gradually, but actually, abolished slavery in New York State. If we think about his primary legacy, it is the abolition of slavery. This was a pivotal period in New York State history, in which we were coming to terms with New York State policy on slavery. Through the first decades of the 1800s, New York gradually became a state that was opposed to silvery. John Jay was a central figure in that process.

For example, in 1780, he was the president of The Manumission Society. The Manumission Society said that when people decided to free their enslaved people, they would keep copies of the papers for those who may not be able to read or have places to keep such important legal documents. The Manumission Society said “Give it to us and we’ll hold it for you. If you ever need proof of your freedom, point to us. We’ll come out and we’ll vouch for you.” This was a wonderful idea.

John Jay also tried to abolish slavery when the New York State constitution was created in 1801. He didn’t succeed.

In fact, one question we investigated was about the composition of the state legislature in 1799 when legislation for gradual emancipation was passed in New York State. We knew the people in the New York State Senate at the time and we ran them through our database. We were able to identify which members of the senate were slave holders. We have an article on this. Two-thirds of the senators were slave-slave holders. So John Jay is elected governor, wants to end slavery and says to the senate “Hey! Let’s abolish slavery!” The senators say “Sure, we’ve got a committee for that. . .” Eventually, the law that he got was gradual emancipation, which doesn’t actually affect the slave-holders in the senate who voted for it at all. But, it did eventually eliminate slavery in New York State. This is a remarkable thing that he accomplished, especially under the circumstances that he faced.

That’s what’s exciting about actually just putting our heads down and trying to assemble the records. It’s like basic research in the physical sciences. You can be trying to figure out the structure of a molecule and have no idea what good it will do. But, basic research in the physical sciences is the foundation in the applied sciences, like the engineering of chemicals. It all starts with the basics. Like the person doing basic research in the physical sciences, we’re engaged in basic historical research. Our job is to keep doing basic research and, every once in awhile, lift our heads up and see if anyone has any use for us. We don’t know where it’s going to lead. That’s the fun of it! It leads in all kinds of places.

People have all kinds of ideas about what to do with this data and we know there are a lot of records we haven’t gotten to yet. There’s a lot of records out there. We have 37,000, but I’d like to be at sixty or eighty-thousand records. Every increment of records is harder to gather. though. Still, the more records we have, the more useful to people we’ll be.