NEW ORLEANS — In a development that one expert calls a "monumental contribution" to historians, the New Orleans Archdiocese is making available online the sacramental records for slaves and free people of color that date back before Louisiana's 1812 statehood.
"Our sacramental records here in the New Orleans Archdiocese are some of the most detailed you will ever find," Archbishop Gregory Aymond said.
All the records, dating from 1718 to 1812, will be available in the next two years, archdiocesan archivist Emilie Leumas said Tuesday.
"We don't have the resources at the archdiocese to operate a research center," Leumas said. "Through our website we are able to make a PDF image of the original documents containing the records available."
The first five books, written in Spanish by priests in Louisiana's earliest colonial days, are now available at no cost through the archdiocese's web site. They contain the baptismal records of slaves and free people of color, mostly listing only one name for those documented.
During colonial time, the Catholic Church was the recorder of births, deaths, marriages and other stages of life for not only the city's white population, but also for the slaves and free people of color.
Colonial law during both the Spanish and French eras required every baby to be baptized. Because of that, there are far more extensive records for slaves and free people of color in New Orleans than in most of the rest of the country.
"Scholars from all over the world come and do research here," Leumas said. "There is no place else that has that abundance of records that we have."
The archdiocese had published 17 volumes of sacramental records for white parishioners in the past, but had not made the records of those without surnames available. Opening those records is a "monumental contribution," said Elizabeth Shown Mills, of Samford University Institute of Genealogy & Historical Research.
The records list the name of the mother, sometimes the father, the sponsor of the baptism, the name of the slave owner and those who witnessed the event. Many of the baptismal records had notations added later such as when the person married, listing the husband, and sometimes an added surname.
"Traditionally, genealogists, historians, and archivists alike have assumed that genealogical research was not possible for ancestors without surnames," Mills said.
That has since been disproved.
Simone Barnes, chairman of the Board of Directors of Rhode Island Black Storytellers, recalled a 10-year-old girl named Priscilla, who was taken from Sierra Leone in the 1700s and brought to South Carolina on a slave ship. Seven generations later, her great-granddaughter was honored in Priscilla's native land.
"Sometimes even the smallest detail can be the one that sparks other discoveries," Barnes said.
Research will remain painstaking. With hundreds of "Maries" baptized over the years, for example, each one in the time period in question will have to be inspected.
"It helps if someone has an ancestor with an unusual name," said Megan Smolenyak, who researched the ancestry of President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, and discovered a connection between the Rev. Al Sharpton and the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond. "But every piece of data you can get your hands on helps and this is a massive step forward."