Two CUNY professors launched the first New York State Slavery Records Index at the end of January. Professors Warren “Ned” Benton and Judy-Lynne Peters at John Jay College of Criminal Justice embodied the college’s mission statement, “We educate fierce advocates for justice,” through their work with a team of graduate students in the Master of Public Administration program. This team created the open public index that includes over 35,000 records to date.
The index allows the public to smoothly navigate through compilations of data that cite individual enslaved persons’ names. The dates go back to 1525 and also the early ages of recorded New York settlement and span all the way to the Civil War. The index also has information pertaining to slave owners and slave trade transactions.
Benton, the chair of the department of public management and the director of the MPA Inspector General Program, began his research years ago, when he was designing a website dedicated to the history of his hometown, Mamaroneck, New York.
“I was developing a website that recreated the history of my hometown at different periods. I started with World War II, went back to World War I and I inevitably ended up reaching the Civil War and of course, slavery,” Benton said. He continued to explain that he grew interested in researching Mamaroneck’s history of slavery while browsing census records and other obvious research sources but continued to stumble upon mysteries that fed his intrigue.
After delivering a presentation on his research at John Jay a little more than a year ago, Benton was approached by Peters and a group of MPA students with the idea of expanding the scope of his research project. “There were and still are many important discussions that are taking place about slavery in our country. It was apparent that this project would contribute to that debate in New York,” said Benton.
Benton and Peters, along with their MPA students, put their investigative expertise to work and produced “the records of New York slavery at the most individual level possible.”
In an interview with The Ticker, Benton detailed some of the difficulties of discovering the documents necessary to create such an index.
These documents are hundreds of years old and belonged to jurisdictions that no longer exist in New York. Benton explained, “The records of slavery in New York state are siloed. There are little baskets of records situated in many different places. The benefit of our project rests within compiling all of these records — eventually, and making them publicly accessible.”
Benton noted the difficulty of document retrieval in New York, describing an experience where, “In one jurisdiction, the city said that they gave the records to the library, the library said they gave the records to a local historical society, the local historical society said they gave the records to the county archives and the county archives said that they gave the records to the historical society.”
Benton and Peters encourage any interested CUNY student or faculty member to participate in the project to continue to piece the puzzle of the past together.
While it is only in its early stages, the index successfully clarifies a part of New York’s forgotten history and represents an important accomplishment for the city.