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Digital Access Project to make property history available to all

LEXINGTON, Ky. — More than 60,000 pages of Fayette County’s historical property records containing information about enslaved people from the late 1700s through 1865 will soon be available to the public online thanks to a partnership between the Fayette County Clerk, University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies, the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative, Blue Grass Community Foundation and its Knight Foundation Donor Advised Charitable Fund.

The Fayette County Clerk began digitizing documents during the 1990s, but the books of historical property records remained solely on paper, including transactions detailing names of individuals sold and purchased as slaves, mortgages naming enslaved people as collateral, and probate documents with names of enslaved people listed as part of the deceased’s estate. Generations of their descendants have been searching for biographical information to piece together their family histories, but these clues have only been accessible by viewing the paper records in person at the County Clerk’s Office.

Bringing these documents online and into a searchable database will take human power, specialized equipment, historical expertise, and funding. Thanks to the Digital Access Project partnership, Fayette County will be the first county in Kentucky to digitize its historical property records dating back to the late 1700s.

Downtown Lexington was the site of one of the biggest slave markets in the Southeastern United States. Thousands of transactions recorded in Fayette County contained names of large segments of the enslaved population prior to emancipation and the official end of slavery on December 6, 1865. In the late 1890s, newspapers across the country contained ‘information wanted’ ads placed by formerly enslaved people looking for family members who had been sold and separated from them in Lexington, Ky. Publishing Fayette County’s historical property records online will help answer these questions that still linger for many Black families today.

A University of Kentucky team of scholars, including UK Libraries, the History Department, the Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies, and the J. David Rosenberg College of Law, will expand on the Digital Access Project by providing a transcription of these complex handwritten property records from the early days of Kentucky statehood through the Era of Emancipation in the 1860s. Following that stage of the project, community programming and a digital humanities project will be designed to expand accessibility and increase context and understanding for the community.

To kick off the Digital Access Project, Knight Foundation Donor Advised Charitable Fund at BGCF provided $50,000, Blue Grass Community Foundation provided $25,000 and the Lexington Black Prosperity Initiative provided $10,000. This work is extensive and ongoing and volunteers and additional funding will be critical. Donate to support the Digital Access Project at: bgcf.givingfuel.com/DAP. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, contact Shea Brown at [email protected].

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