Elon Law to assist with 'People Not Property' project

Students can now complete pro bono hours by transcribing pre-Civil War bills of sale for people once enslaved in Guilford County, part of a broader effort to create a searchable database of digitized records tied to North Carolina's history of slavery.

Elon Law students learned more about the "People Not Property" project on May 23 from Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen, who has teamed with Associate Professor Andy Haile to offer a pro bono opportunity for students to transcribe and digitize bills of sale of enslaved people in Guilford County from the early 19th century.
Elon Law students with an interest in history, genealogy, and social justice have a new way to use their legal education to help the community better understand its past.

Under the direction of Elon Law Associate Professor Andy Haile, students have been invited to transcribe handwritten bills of sale for enslaved people archived by the Guilford County Register of Deeds as part of the statewide “People Not Property” Project.

“People Not Property” is a collaborative endeavor between the UNCG University Libraries, the North Carolina Division of Archives and Records, and North Carolina Registers of Deeds, among others. UNCG received last year a grant of nearly $300,000 from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to digitize the thousands of slave deeds and bills of sale with help from 26 counties taking part in the program.

The documents are often the only written records relating to enslaved persons before the end of the Civil War. Time spent transcribing Guilford County’s records will count toward a student’s pro bono hours recorded by the Elon Law Pro Bono Board.  

Haile said the “People Not Property” project, by assisting academics and genealogists alike, reclaims a small part of the stories of people that might otherwise be lost.

Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen (left) with Elon Law Associate Professor Andy Haile
“This project connects students with a dark period in our country's history,” he said. “It allows for increased scholarship into and genealogical research about the people who suffered the tragedy of slavery. My hope is that Elon Law students will play a part in helping us better understand how the history of slavery is one that affected real people. 

“Ultimately, this work causes us to recognize that all people deserve the respect inherent in our shared humanity.”

Guilford County Register of Deeds Jeff Thigpen shared details of the project with dozens of Elon Law students who attended a late May presentation organized by Haile.

“We need to understand our history within the context of who we are now, and who we want to become as a community, as a state, as a nation going forward,” he told students. “This isn’t just about history books. This is about people. This is about family. This is about communities. It’s about understanding a very important part of our legacy.”

About Elon Law:

Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina, is the preeminent school for engaged and experiential learning in law. With a focus on learning by doing, it integrates traditional classroom instruction with course-connected, full-time residencies-in-practice in a logically sequenced program of transformational professional preparation. Elon Law’s groundbreaking approach is accomplished in 2.5 years, which provides distinctive value by lowering tuition and permitting graduates early entry into their legal careers.