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'10 Million Names' project aims to recover hidden history of enslaved African Americans

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A new project is aimed at recovering the names of about 10 million women, men and children of African descent who were enslaved in what became the United States.

For centuries, access to the Black American story has been severely limited by the lack of genealogical records of enslaved African Americans and their descendants.

Now, a team of dedicated researchers and genealogists is seeking to change that with "10 Million Names," an ambitious new project aimed at recovering the names of approximately 10 million women, men and children of African descent who were enslaved in what became the United States.

Those 10 million people have approximately 44 million living descendants, according to Kendra Field, Ph.D., the initiative’s chief historian.

PHOTO: Dr. Kendra Field is the chief historian of the "10 Million Names" initiative.
Dr. Kendra Field is the chief historian of the "10 Million Names" initiative.
ABC News

"All of us face greater challenges, significantly greater difficulty, than do most white Americans when it comes to tracing our ancestors," Field told ABC News.

From the early 1600s through 1865, the brutal and inhumane trans-Atlantic slave trade was the primary economy that fueled the exponential growth of the United States. As a direct legacy of slavery, Field says, a “brick wall” exists that blocks access to much of Black American family history and genealogy.

The goal of "10 Million Names" is to identify the real names of individuals lost to this tragic History and restore their dignity, as well as their descendants.

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"Before roughly the mid-20th century, data about enslaved Africans and their descendants was really hard to locate. It was often obscured or erased or difficult to find. During that same period, descendants from, say, Mayflower, had access to a whole different set of tools and documents," Field said.

Richard Cellini, the attorney and scholar behind the project, says the team is undertaking work that has never been done, yet is crucial to gain a full picture of American history.

"It's impossible to tell the story of the founding of this country without telling the story of our Black brothers and sisters, and specifically our enslaved ancestors. These are our American ancestors. They helped build this country. These are my forefathers and everybody else's forefathers," Cellini said.

"This isn’t about Black history. It's not about white history. It's about our history. There's no us and them. This is about all of us," Cellini added.

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The project also includes a call to action that invites people to come forward and share their own family records that may amplify written and oral histories.

The ultimate goal is to construct a searchable database that “corrals” all of the information together, Field said.

PHOTO: The 10 Million Names project includes a "call to action," where anyone is invited to come forward and share family records that could amplify written and oral histories.
The 10 Million Names project includes a "call to action," where anyone is invited to come forward and share family records that could amplify written and oral histories.
ABC News

"This is work everybody can do and everybody should do. All Americans, Black Americans and white Americans, have parts of the puzzle in their pockets or in their homes or in their attics or their closets. Bring those forth, whether they're old letters or diaries or plantation ledgers," Cellini said.

Field believes that something like “10 Million Names” has been desperately needed for a long time.

"It is part of the solution. It is part of the way forward. It is part of not forgetting or erasing or destroying who we are," Field said.

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