(Washington Post illustration;  Library of Congress)
(Washington Post illustration; Library of Congress)

Help us identify members of Congress who enslaved people

The Washington Post has published the first comprehensive list of every member of the U.S. Congress who enslaved Black people.

The Post researched more than 5,500 members of Congress — every single member born before 1840 — and found more than 1,700 people who served in Congress and owned human beings at some point in their lives. In the early decades of America’s history as an independent country, more than half of all congressmen voting on the laws forming the country’s framework were enslavers.

To create the database, The Post reviewed 18th- and 19th-century census records and other documents, including wills, journal articles and plantation records. But we couldn’t reach a conclusion on more than 500 additional members of Congress. That’s where you come in.

We’re looking for documents that reveal whether these congressmen were slaveholders. Can you help?

How to help

You may already have records to share. Maybe you’ve done genealogical research on your family’s connection to one of the congressmen or to one of the people they enslaved. Maybe you wrote a thesis on one of these congressmen. Maybe you’re involved in your local historical society, which are often treasure troves of information about these bygone elected officials.

History teachers and professors: This could be the perfect assignment for your class. Encourage your students to go to their local historical society, courthouse, library, museum — wherever records can be found. Give extra credit for anyone who can find documents about any of the more than 500 congressmen in question. If you want to talk more about how this might work in your classroom, or you want the reporter to speak to your students about this project, get in touch.

Where to look for answers

Most of The Post’s database is already based on the U.S. censuses from 1790 through 1860. There are a host of other records to look at: Wills are very useful, as are tax records, state and local residential records and information about plantations. You might also find mention of one of these men enslaving people in an academic journal article or old newspaper article.

Some advice: Geography is very important. Use a resource like the Congressional Biographical Directory to read about where a man lived at certain points in time. If, for example, you find a will of a Joseph Brown who lived in Fairfax County, Va., but you are researching a congressman with the same name who lived his whole life in Rappahannock County, you probably have the wrong Joseph Brown. Town names and borders change over time, but counties, with some exceptions, tend to be remarkably consistent.

How to send us what you find

Please send an email to reporter Julie Weil explaining what you found and how you found it, with any relevant documents attached. Please include your full name and the town where you live. If your research informs our reporting, we’ll update The Post’s database, and we will credit you for your work.

Our checklist of lawmakers still left to research, sorted by state:
North Dakota / South Dakota ChevronUp
Michigan ChevronUp
New York ChevronUp
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Julie Zauzmer Weil covers D.C.'s local government. She has worked at The Post since 2013, including four years covering religion in America.