A professor and students at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina have joined an innovative pro bono project aimed at making legal records about enslaved persons more readily available to scholars, historians, genealogists, and perhaps most importantly, descendants of those individuals.
Founded by Professor Andy Haile, Elon's People Not Property ("PNP") Project started in 2019 and its membership includes several dozen Elon Law students. It is part of a larger, state-wide project to transcribe into electronic, searchable form "slave deeds" -- handwritten bills of sale evidencing the transfer of enslaved persons during the pre-Civil War era. The PNP Project is a recognized student organization with a charter, bylaws and student leadership, and supported by the Elon Law Pro Bono Board.
Working with the Guilford County Register of Deeds Office, students have transcribed and catalogued all 263 slave deeds recorded in Guilford County, North Carolina -- where Elon Law is located. “Slave deeds” are the legal documents that memorialize the transfer of enslaved persons between enslavers. Given that these documents were created in the 18th and 19th centuries, they are handwritten and extremely difficult to decipher, particularly in an online format. The process of obtaining, transcribing, proofing, and cataloging information from the deeds took up to several hours for each document. Consequently, Elon Law students have spent hundreds of hours working to make these documents available in searchable electronic form. The 263 deeds from Guilford County transcribed by Elon Law students have been provided to the Guilford County Register of Deeds office and will be available to the public.
As a result of the PNP Project’s work, Guilford County is the first county in North Carolina to have digital, searchable slave deeds. This access allows academics and genealogists to learn more about the history of the pre-Civil War era. More importantly, however, these documents often represent the only written records pertaining to individuals who suffered in slavery. The institution of slavery disrupted family structures through forcible separation, rendering incomplete both family histories and the historical record about the lives of enslaved persons. Making these documents more accessible helps to reclaim the stories of people who were literally treated as property, recognizes the full humanity of these individuals, and acknowledges the law’s role in perpetuating the shameful institution of slavery. The work of the Elon PNP Project and the Guilford County Register of Deeds Office will allow individuals whose ancestors experienced slavery to research their family members in a way that was previously inaccessible.
After completing the work in Guilford County, the Elon Law PNP Project expanded its work to other counties within the state. Elon Law PNP student leaders have communicated with students at Campbell Law School to work collaboratively on transcribing slave deeds in other counties, and this work has begun.
Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen recently wrote in a letter about the Program that Elon Law’s partnership with his office “has laid the groundwork for practical and personal examples of why the practice of law matters, especially when legal documents show the names and stories of those who were not afforded protections under the law in a local community.” This work allows for a better understanding of our individual and collective pasts. The work of the Elon Law PNP Project helps us to recognize the injustices of the past and to ensure that our legal system will not be used to perpetuate future injustices.