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Wash U taps database to find how the Mississippi River shaped the American slave trade

"The Last Sale of Slaves." An oil on canvas painting by Thomas S. Noble, depicts a slave auction in St. Louis in 1861 on St. Louis courthouse steps.
David Schultz/Missouri Historical Society
Missouri Historical Society
"The Last Sale of Slaves." An oil on canvas painting by Thomas S. Noble, depicts a slave auction in St. Louis in 1861 on St. Louis courthouse steps.

William Acree first found records of enslaved people arriving in St. Louis years ago. They were shipped north, up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, around the 1830s, but other details were thin.

Now, Acree, co-director of Washington University’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Equity, will have the tools to learn more. The center is partnering with SlaveVoyages, an online slave trade database to better understand the St. Louis region's history with slavery and how enslaved Africans were moved along the Mississippi.

SlaveVoyages is one of the world’s largest digital collections of records about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It tracks more than 36,000 trips that brought enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean between 1514 and 1866. The collection also includes information on more than 11,000 maritime trips through North and South American rivers and lakes.

The database is a collaboration of 10 educational institutions — including the National Museum of African American History and Culture — that contribute to the research of slavery and its legacy.

Acree said Wash U researchers plan to use the database to find historical records of slaveholders and plantations in the St. Louis region. Researchers will also study how slave traders used the region's major waterways.

“We think the stories of the rivers, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, in particular, are going to be tremendously helpful to our understanding of slavery and the struggle for freedom in St. Louis,” said Geoff Ward, who teaches African American studies at Wash U.

The Mississippi and Missouri river ports connect enslavement in St. Louis to other parts of the nation and will be provide valuable insight to how systems of slavery work, said Ward, who is also the director of the Wash U & Slavery Project, a group that studies the university's own relation to slavery.

He said the Mississippi River is American slavery’s version of the Middle Passage — the point in the Atlantic slave trade where millions of Africans were shipped from Africa to the Americas — and its stories are important to St. Louis and the world.

Ward and Acree said the Wash U & Slavery Project will also use the SlaveVoyages records to extend its research into the university’s history with slavery.

Once the work is underway, Ward and other researchers plan to showcase previously uncovered data through public exhibits and events, along with digital projects like interactive maps that showcase the legacy of slavery in St. Louis.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.