Establishing History: The Black Diaspora Archive and the Texas Domestic Slave Trade Project

The vision for the Black Diaspora Archive at The University of Texas at Austin came into focus in 2013 as a collaborative project between Black Studies, LLILAS Benson, and the University of Texas Libraries. After years of continued successful collaboration, Black Studies approached LLILAS Benson with the idea of creating an archive devoted to the Black Diaspora. Since its founding in 1921, the Benson Latin American Collection has actively collected Latin American materials that document communities and people of color, but it had never done so in a planned and dedicated way. Very quickly, leadership in each unit recognized the common objectives and shared vision between them, and the mutual benefit of a dedicated archival holding of material related to the Black Diaspora. With additional support from the Libraries and the Office of the President, the Black Diaspora Archive came into being, and in the fall of 2015 I joined LLILAS Benson as its inaugural Black Diaspora archivist.

As the primary manager of the Black Diaspora Archive, my ultimate charge is to provide a fuller understanding of the Black experience throughout the Americas and Caribbean with primary sources. In the most traditional sense, this necessitates the acquisition, collection, preservation, and accessibility of archival records. However, as our communities become more connected and technologically advanced, information access and information needs continue to evolve in ways that are increasingly less traditional. User needs of today, for example, live largely in the digital realm. In facilitating access to online content, the archivist has more of a responsibility to perform outreach and promote information literacy skills in an effort to preserve the integrity of our collections and meet user needs. To be relevant and effective in responding to changing demands, it is my responsibility to remain flexible in considering how archival records and collections can be of greatest contribution value.

In the spring of 2015, while I was a graduate student at The University of Texas School of Information, Dr. Daina Ramey Berry and I came together to assess the locally available eighteenth- and nineteenth-century archival collections relating to the slave trade in Texas and borderlands with Mexico. Through this work, the Texas Domestic Slave Trade (TXDST) project was born. Our initial research unmasked the lack of scholarship on the domestic slave trade and experiences of the enslaved in the region: it made clear the pressing need to better document and understand this historical period and to bring this content into the public and digital humanities space. Now, as manager of the Black Diaspora Archive, I am able to continue this work through the archive’s collaborative partnership with TXDST.

TXDST research has proven Texas to be a central point in border crossing and slave trading. Texas gained statehood in 1845, almost twenty years before the Civil War, and settlers from across the United States and Mexico flocked to the region to exploit lenient land acquisition policies and a terrain that was prime for cultivating sugar and cotton. These early settlers brought human chattel along with them during the years prior to 1845, when the Spanish and Mexican governments occupied the territory, as well as after Texas achieved statehood. The enslaved laborers brought to the region were often stolen, kidnapped, or purchased from other points around the country. Even though it served as the western edge of the domestic trade in the United States, Texas is often overlooked as a major hub of trade in favor of neighboring Louisiana and New Orleans—a city that notoriously served as the slave trading epicenter of the Deep South. Texas, however, was active in slave trading, which included the illegal trade of enslaved people directly with Mexico, and as far south as Central America.

Read the entire Portal: Web Magazine of LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collection article here.

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