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Tuesday, March 28, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 120

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Walther tries to document all slaves in Texas

By Emi Maruyama
News Reporter

Eric Walther has a daunting task ahead in his Texas Slavery Project. Walther, a history professor at UH, plans to document every black slave who ever lived in Texas -- as many as 250,000 of them.

"Every age and, to some extent, every individual asks new questions of the past," Walther said. "As professional historians, our job is not just to get a bunch of facts -- that is dull, boring and almost anybody can do it.


UH history professor Eric Walther is leading the Texas Slavery Project, an effort to document the lives of about 250,000 slaves who lived in Texas before 1865.

Pin Lim/The Daily Cougar

"A professional historian tries to explain what really happened in the past and relate it to the present," he said. "Texas history is inextricably intertwined with slavery."

Walther is working on establishing a research center on or near campus where he can amass information on the slaves who lived in the state until 1865, when slavery was abolished.

He is also seeking help with three main components of his project: manpower, materials and money. Walther hopes to get computers, printers, software and microfilm and transcription equipment -- and the public and private support to offset the cost.

Walther said the project will involve taking old newspapers and records, including slave manifests, marriage licenses, census data and birth records, from every county courthouse.

"There is no specific date and time to complete the entire project. It would most likely go on for years," he said. "The effort has to be coordinated to be completed efficiently."

Walther's idea of documenting Texas slaves began in April 1998, when construction workers were demolishing the old buildings of the Allen Parkway Village housing project near downtown and uncovered a cemetery where former slaves had been buried.

"We really began to look at slavery in Texas," he said. "As a matter of fact, I am convinced that we know only a little of our own past."

Walther said the only scholarly work on slavery in Texas is An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas by Randolph Campbell.

"That is the only specific historical documentation about slavery in Texas, and it is still insufficient," he said. "I thought maybe I could get enough people together and use the latest way historians are getting at the actual voices of slaves, and try to get some real personal description of slaves instead of describing what slavery was like from the white person's point of view."

The Texas Slavery Project is a public organization that is officially a part of the history department and African-American Studies at UH. More than 30 students here are working on the project, as are some students at Texas A&M.

Walther has already met with some of the country's leading authorities on slave data and will continue his initial research with visits to black churches, meetings with community groups and interviews with slaves' families.

In the meantime, Walther has been getting responses from corporations who have read about the project and are interested in helping with it. He is starting to build staff and volunteers and plans to grant credit hours to undergraduate and graduate students who participate in the project.

In the future, the Texas Slavery Project will expand its investigations overseas, to the Caribbean, Africa and Mexico, to help trace the roots of Texas slaves. Its priority is to deepen the understanding of the institution of slavery and to help educate students not only in Texas, but across the nation.

For more information, link to the project's Web site, www.texasslaveryproject.uh.edu. Any graduate student or undergraduate history major who wants to volunteer time with the project should e-mail Walther at ewalther@uh.edu.
 

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