The main entrance to the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center is now open. Van Pelt Library and the Fisher Fine Arts Library are currently open to Penn Card holders, Penn affiliates, and certain visitors. See our Service Alerts for details.

Illustration of slaves working on a sugar cane plantation.

In the seminal Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese writes "The reception accorded by white America to black people brought here in chains and raised in slavery and under racist oppression has, first and foremost, provided a record of one of history's greatest crimes."  Even within this brutal system, however, black people found opportunities for creativity, solidarity, love and resistance.  

Historical documents overwhelmingly represent the words and deeds of oppressors.  However, some types of documents provide insight into the lives of slaves as well.  For instance, the legal system was designed to degrade and dehumanize slaves, but legal cases and slave petitions provide details about the lives and issues confronting them.  Likewise, plantation records document the financial, social and mundane activities of people who ran forced labor facilities, but they also record the manner in which slaves lived and how they behaved, if not what they thought and felt.  

The Penn Libraries has purchased Southern Life, Slavery and the Civil War, consisting largely of collections documenting laws and labor practices underpinning the slave system in the South before and during the Civil War, but including material related to the Civil War.  Along with laws, legal cases, petitions and correspondence with Attorneys General, these collections include records of industrial operations based on slave labor, Confederate and Union records, and manuscripts documenting the families and businesses that participated in the slave trade.   

  • Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Law and Order in the 19th Century (1636-1880) 
  • Slavery in Antebellum Southern Industries (1700-1896)
  • Slavery and the Law (1775-1867)
  • Southern Life and African American History, 1775-1915, Plantations Records
  • Confederate Military Manuscripts and Records of Union Generals and the Union Army (1854-1870)
  • Reconstruction and Military Government after the Civil War (1865-1877)  

Some of these record are hand written manuscripts that can't be searched for specific words but reward careful, deliberative study. 



November 9, 2020