Ben W. Brumfield and Anna S. Agbe-Davies: Encoding Account Books Relating to Slavery in the U.S. South. Abstract # 1 (random order)

“This paper discusses our collaboration as we develop a conceptual framework and crowdsourcing application for working with account books from plantations in the US South.  Each of us is using account books to explore both the financial and social aspects of accounting in the plantation context.

Brumfield is editing the papers of Jeremiah White Graves (1801-1884). These include formal accounts, journal entries covering activities on the plantation, and hundreds of pages of informal accounts.   These accounts track the details of production and consumption on the plantation, including agricultural records (hills of tobacco planted in each field, shipments of logs to sawmills, livestock raised and slaughtered), transactions with neighbors and merchants, and household accounts. Records relating to slavery are extensive, including tables recording medical treatment, rations, and details of the rental of enslaved labor.

The Graves papers comprise a 323-page account book and 1362 pages in thirty chronologically composed notebooks.  These notebooks are particularly complex documents, as Graves’s practice was to begin diary entries on the front pages a notebook, while recording tables of accounts on the back pages.  As a result, an account between Graves and “my Henry” starts on the last page of an eighteen-page notebook, continues at the top of page 14, then is further continued in the middle of page 11.  Graves’s practice of using the blank spaces below earlier accounts to add memoranda, recipes, or even financial contracts years later present the edition with topological and genetic challenges.

Agbe-Davies is using daybooks and ledgers from the Stagville plantation store (ca. 1785-1895) to examine the consumer experiences of African Americans before, and after, Emancipation.  Her interest was sparked by a ledger recording the accounts of enslaved purchasers along with the purchases they made. The store records include both daybooks and ledgers (encompassing over 40 volumes in the Cameron Family Papers #133, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and compliment archaeological record at Stagville, which is the subject of her ongoing research. The aim is less to test the validity of either the written or the archaeological datasets, than to use both in concert to create a fuller picture of the consumer experiences of plantation-dwellers.

The account books from the Stagville store have both quantitative and qualitative aspects, each of which will contribute to the analysis. The quantitative qualities of the texts could be handled by creating a database to capture the tabular financial data and reveal purchasing patterns.  The qualitative content, on the other hand, would be better-served by the many tools and strategies geared towards reproducing documents written in continuous prose. A transcription could be analyzed using off-the-shelf text analysis software to, for example, reveal collaborative relationships among enslaved purchasers or reconstruct family provisioning strategies.

We are collaborating to expand the capabilities of the open-source tool FromThePage, which was originally designed for the transcription of documents like diaries and letters. Our challenge is to develop a way of thinking about and transforming the documents that respects and exploits both the standardization enforced by the genre and the idiosyncrasies of human behavior.  FromThePage furthermore enables us to open up the transformational process to the public, aware of the impact that crowdsourcing projects have on public engagement with scholarship and scholarly communities.

At this point we have draft designs for

  • A user interface for encoding informal accounts in a wiki notation suitable for comparatively untrained transcribers such as students and crowdsourcing volunteers and displaying those accounts online.
  • An export format of the accounts within their surrounding text in P5-compliant TEI-XML for interoperability.
  • An export format of the tabular account data in CSV files suitable for quantitative analysis, including canonical names of people, places, and goods exchanged as well as the verbatim terminology within the text.

Account books capture how the many people who lived on southern plantations managed the labor of others and fashioned lives with the things that they bought. From another perspective, the project has the potential to engage members of the general public in an exciting exploration of our history, and make important archives accessible to a broader, more diverse audience.”

Ben Brumfield and Anna S. Agbe-Davies (University of North Carolina; Chapel Hill, NC)

Presentation: Oct 22, 3.30-3.50 p.m., Haus der Begegnung [PROGRAMME]


Picture credits: By McWilliams, John, creator [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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