Shelby County Historical Society

Knowing one’s cultural background and family history  can create a sense of belonging as well as a sense of who we really are. The connection to our past and the retelling of our family stories construct a unique narrative about ourselves which contributes to our core identity. But what happens if one is disconnected from their past and unaware of where they came from?

Recently Jennifer Maeir, executive director of the Shelby County Museum and Archives, received a call from a man in Chicago who was trying to trace his ancestry. He had heard about their index of enslaved people – the Datcher Collection, named for Albert Baker Datcher, Jr., a long-time board member of the Shelby County Historical Society, Inc., and well-known historian of Black history in Shelby County, Alabama. While many Black people hit a dead end when they reach a relative who was enslaved, through just a few clicks Maier was able to help him find his relative, a woman named America.

“It’s that darn 1870 brick wall – that time before slaves were ever mentioned in a census,” she says. “They were purely property. They may be mentioned; they may not be mentioned. And you’re lucky to find any great detail about the individual. So available information does end. It’s not going to work for everybody, but this project helps push that wall down.”

The information hasn’t always been this accessible, even to Museum staff. A few years ago, however, Maier and her research assistant were working to digitize the Museum’s extensive collection of court records dating from 1818-1865 when they started noticing some recurring names. “We realized that these are the names of slaves. They’re mentioned in will books, deed books, scary probate estate files,” she recalls. “And we said to ourselves, this is big.” They immediately started recording not only any details about the enslaved persons, who are sometimes not even called by name, but also the enslaver’s name and any circumstances around the mention.

This documentation became the Datcher Collection. “If we were lucky enough to get any detail about the enslaved person at all, we put it in the spreadsheet, and that resource became popular. It has helped people solve some problems as to who they are, what their ancestry is.”

Now, with a $24,000 grant from the Community Foundation, Maier is working to digitize and transcribe the Museum’s entire collection of court records, which contains the names of more than 6,000 enslaved people, from “that horrible cursive writing from the 1800s.”

When this multi-year project is completed, it will be possible for anyone to access the records and trace their roots back to Shelby County, Alabama. “Then someone in Chicago will be able to go to our website, and they will be able to see an actual image of the deed or whatever where their ancestor is mentioned as a slave,” says Maier.  “And then because those documents were hard to read, they will have been transcribed – so, they get to see the actual document and then they get to read it.”

“This is a massive project, and we are a little, bitty historical society,” Maier says. “I’m not trying to toot our horn, but we strive to do things that are being done at the state archive level. And with the money from the Community Foundation grant, we are also looking at hiring someone to oversee the project.”

While Maier was beyond excited about the far-reaching impact, she suspected this project might have, she was also anxious about approaching the Foundation.

“This was my first time ever to submit a grant request with the Community Foundation. And I think any nonprofit director is always nervous in approaching someone to fund something that they’re trying to do. You believe strongly in it, but you wonder, will they?” she recalls. “But from the first moment, my mind was at ease. And I realized that, even talking to them over the phone, they felt a level of excitement about it. They encouraged me to go ahead and submit.”

“They really do want to find programming they can support passionately and get involved with,” she says. “The money that is going toward this project is well-invested in years of people trying to do research, and as it becomes more known that we have this collection, it’s only going to serve more people. Sure, it serves Shelby County. It serves Alabama. But I think the Community Foundation understands this is going around the world. The impact will be felt all the time. It is not a one and done.”

Through its partnership with the Foundation, the Shelby County Museum and Archives is transforming the way genealogists and historians can research enslaved ancestors. “You would think that because of its name, that it would only focus on Birmingham,” says Maier. “But the Foundation is reaching out into Shelby County and making its presence known. And I think when anyone gives money to support the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, they will feel that they are putting their money somewhere where it’s going to be invested wisely in programs that are significant.”