Buncombe County Puts Slave Records Online

Apr 17, 2013

The original deed book of slave records from Buncombe County.
Credit Max Cooper, via mountainx.com

During the Great Depression, the New Deal funded a project to collect the narratives of former slaves.  Sarah Gudger came forward to give an account of her life as a slave in Buncombe County.  Her testimony was the same brutal story that is familiar to many of us.  She described a “hard life” of nothing but “work, work, work,” under the threat of abuse. 

Now, the deed to Sarah Gudger’s ownership has been found.  The Buncombe County Register of Deeds discovered records of the transactions of many slaves within the old record books in their own basement.  They are now starting an ambitious project to digitize their original slave records.

The deeds were found 13 years ago, when real estate attorney Marc Rudow stumbled up on the slave deeds while researching a parcel of land.  He notified his wife, Deborah Miles, the director of the Center for Diversity Education at UNC-Asheville. 

Miles applied for a grant, which allowed her to hire 20 high school students to sift through the deeds, separating the slave records from other sales. 

"Human beings used to be considered property.  And the transactions dealing with them were recorded at local register of deeds offices here and in other counties all over the South, right alongside things like heads of cattle and wagons," Jake Frankel said in a State of Things interview. 

Frankle first reported on the story for the Mountain Xpress, an alt-weekly based in Asheville, NC.   

Now the Bumcombe County Register of Deeds Drew Reisinger is pioneering a project to scan the deeds and place them online. 

"[Reisinger] has apparently become the first Register of Deeds in the South to make these kinds of records readily available online.   And he says he's doing it, one, as a government official to try to own up and take some responsibility for what the government did, which was to allow human beings to be bought and sold like property.  And he also wants this to be a research tool, particularly for folks out there who are the descendants of slaves, who want to find out more about their family history," said Frankel.