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Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies

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The Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies database, directed by Jane Landers at Vanderbilt University, was launched in 2003 with an initial Collaborative Research Grant (RZ-50095) of $150,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to Landers and her co-directors, Mariza de Carvalho Soares of the Universidade Federal Fluminense (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), and Paul E. Lovejoy  of York University (Toronto, Canada). After almost three years of intensive work in Cuba and Brazil, ESSSS teams had digitally captured ecclesiastical records of more than 750,000 individuals. The focus was on Africans and Afro-descended individuals, but the Catholic Church also recorded Europeans, indigenous, and Chinese individuals in the same books. The diverse types of documents preserved include, among others, 16th century black baptisms, marriages, and burials from the Cathedral of Havana, 18th century black wills and testaments from the Diocese of Nova Iguaçu, Brazil, 18th and 19th century black brotherhood records from Brazil and Cuba, and 19th century burials of unbaptized "Asiaticos" in Matanzas, Cuba. 

Team members working in Brazil and Cuba created original indexes of the ecclesiastical records in each of the churches in which they worked and provided copies of the indexes and CD-ROMs of all the digitalized records to host churches. Project collaborators also trained undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students in paleography and basic preservation techniques. These student assistants inventoried parish holdings, cleaned and preserved precious parish registers, digitized images, transcribed selected documents, and produced original research from the records they helped save. The Brazil team also produced a CD-ROM on the history and holdings of the churches of the Diocese of Nova Iguaçu. 

Beginning in 2007, grants from the British Library Endangered Archives Program allowed the ESSSS project to expand to new areas and preserve additional records. ESSSS team member Oscar Grandío Moráguez directed a project to digitize municipal and provincial archives in Matanzas, Cuba (EAP 060). 

A series of British Library EAP projects in Colombia followed. In 2009, Pablo F. Gómez directed a project to digitize notarial records in the Chocó (EAP 255) , and in 2011 Jane Landers and co-directors Pablo Gómez and José Polo Acuña directed projects to digitize notarial records in La Guajira (EAP 503), and in 2013 another in Córdoba (EAP 640). 

In 2013 The Endangered Archives Programme funded ESSS team member Courtney J. Campbell to direct a project to digitize secular and ecclesiastical records in São João de Carirí and João Pessoa, Paraíba, Brazil (EAP 627) and in 2015 she co-directed with Marshall Eakin, a project to digitize the criminal and notarial records of Mamanguape, São João do Carirí and João Pessoa in Paraíba, Brazil (EAP 853). 

In 2013, a grant from the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida allowed ESSSS team members to train graduate students from the University of South Florida to digitize the ecclesiastical records of Spanish Florida. These records date from the 16th century and are the oldest known documents about African, African-descended, and indigenous people in what is today the United States.

In 2014, The Historic St. Augustine Research Institute funded an ESSSS team to return to Cuba to track the exodus of the former fugitive slaves who founded the first free black town in what is today the United States, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, in Spanish Florida. In 1763 all were re-settled in San Agustín de la Nueva Florida, known today as Ceiba Mocha, in Matanzas province.

In 2015, ESSSS team member David LaFevor won a British Library Endangered Archives grant to survey ecclesiastical records in Trinidad, Bayamo, Santiago and Baracoa, Cuba (EAP 843). 

Each of the countries whose African history we are tracking still struggles with the legacy of slavery and its political, economic, and social consequences. In each there is great scholarly and popular interest in African history and heritage and each of the modern nations in which ESSSS teams work must respond to this interest in defining national identities in multi-cultural societies. The modern nations of Africa whose ancestors were once swept away into the Atlantic slave trade can also benefit from the past preserved in the ESSSS database.

Vanderbilt University's Jane and Alexander Heard Library insures the preservation of the project's digital files by storing them on network servers with multiple layers of protection against hardware failure or human error. All files are also copied onto backup tapes and stored off-site at the library's remote storage facility to guard against catastrophic events on campus. It is committed to migrating the ESSSS project content forward through changes in technologies and file formats. IT experts and graduate students at Vanderbilt University developed and update the ESSSS interface and create metadata and volume descriptions according to ISAD(G) standards.

ESSSS team members have translated and constructed preliminary databases for portions of the preserved documents, but the daily loss of these endangered materials requires that our primary directive remains their digital preservation.  All materials are made available online for scholars to continue translation and databasing efforts. Meanwhile, ESSSS team members share preliminary findings and reports on the project at domestic and international conferences in Brazil, Cuba, Morocco, Portugal, England and Canada, to name only a few of the diverse venues.

The ESSSS project is producing and disseminating important new research in the humanities while establishing international facilities and collaborations designed to continue the research beyond the life of the project. We invite all scholarly collaborations and assistance in this effort.