Skip to content. Skip to main navigation.

UTA researcher to digitize history of slaves, other endangered documents in Cuba

A University of Texas at Arlington historian will scour the oldest seven cities in Cuba to digitize parish registers that detail the lives of millions of African and Afro-Cuban slaves. The research is funded, in part, by a $50,000 grant from the British Library Endangered Archives Programme.

A detail of the Archive in Trinidad shows the division of church records from the 18th and 19th centuries into books of "colored" and "white" people.

David LaFevor, an assistant professor of Latin American history and digital humanities in the College of Liberal Arts, is leading the two-year project. The grant strengthens UTA’s collaboration with British, U.S., Canadian, Brazilian, Colombian, and Cuban institutions and also will benefit UTA doctoral students by exposing them to an emergent field.

“Many of the earliest records of Africans and Afro-descended people in the Americas have already been lost and thousands of pages deteriorated because of climatic conditions and neglect,” LaFevor said. “Digitization, given the portability of the medium and its relatively low cost, offers the only practical way to save the information on millions of individuals brought to this hemisphere as slaves.”

Because slave owners in Latin America were often impelled to bring their slaves into the church, unlike most British colonies, “we have this rich, complex, and immense documentary source,” LaFevor said. Volumes were segregated by race, with Spaniards (whites) in one register and everyone else in the others – including mulattos, Africans, Chinese, and Indigenous.

“I have access to these documents due to negotiations with the Catholic Church that are ongoing,” he added.

Elisabeth Cawthon, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said LaFevor’s work is representative of UTA’s commitment to data-driven discovery, one of four principles of the University’s Strategic Plan 2020: Bold Solutions | Global Impact.

A private guest house in Trinidad de Cuba that was built during the heigh of Cuba's sugar export, which was driven by slave labor economy, in 1830.

“Dr. LaFevor’s project is emblematic of the use of new digital technologies in the humanities to create, aggregate and publish new knowledge,” Cawthon said. “UTA has been an early investor in this new field and we are starting to see the fruits of that investment in terms of new scholarship, national and international collaborations, and a growing international reputation.”

W. Marvin Dulaney, associate professor and chair of the Department of History, commended LaFevor on his research and growing reputation in the field of Latin American studies.

“The work that Dr. LaFevor is doing is the work of historians and paleographers and will take many years,” Dulaney said. “The information that he uncovers will both strengthen and complicate our knowledge of the Caribbean, the greater Atlantic World, and even global paths of trade, ideas, and peoples of the early modern and late Colonial periods.”

David LaFevor, in 2015, held a one-on-one workshop on how to create the British Library lists in the sacristy of the Espiritu Santo church.

Three Ph.D. students selected by LaFevor to work on the project this summer are: Michael Deliz, Charles Grand and John Harris. In summer 2017, the second phase will include Stephanie Sulik, Brandon Blakeslee and Jacob Jones.

This summer, LaFevor’s team will travel to Havana, Trinidad, Camagüey, and Sancti Spiritus. Next summer, the team will work in Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba, and Baracoa. The grant will also enable LaFevor to convene workshops and train local students and volunteers to carry out the work of digitization.  

“In all the cities, we will hold workshops to train local volunteers in the creation, storage, and cataloguing of the images for their metadata,” said LaFevor, noting that initial fieldwork identified between 750,000 and one-million images that the team hopes to capture. The longer and more involved portion of the project will be the examination of the sources and their transcription. 

LaFevor said the documents that he will assess, have, in their majority, never been viewed by historians and no similar documents exist for the English colonies in the New World. The documents detail a broad range of topics, from the slave trade, to economic production, Afro-Cuban religious practices and institutions, piracy, imperial rivalry, and more. Access to the documents is due to consent and support from the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Cuba.

Many towns in Cuba have been destroyed over centuries by natural disasters, wars and pirate attachks. LaFevor said, "often the only remnants of entire towns are their documents which have been transferred to nearby cities." He has spent hours pouring over old maps trying to locate some of these disappeared towns.

“In addition to parish registers and other ecclesiastical documents, we have previously found unexpected data in almost every site,” LaFevor said. “Since churches were often the most substantial buildings, they became repositories for any documents of value, including secular, legal, trade, correspondence and other manuscripts.”

In addition to a grant from the British Library Endangered Archives Programme, the UTA College of Liberal Arts Digital Arts and Humanities Initiative will help fund the work. Early work for this project was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

LaFevor joined the UTA faculty in 2014 and is an active researcher of Latin American cultural and social history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In recent years his work on Afro-Cubans has appeared on national and international news sites, including NBC News. LaFevor received his Ph.D. and Master’s degrees in Latin American history from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

About the College of Liberal Arts

The College of Liberal Arts includes 12 departments that house disciplines in the arts (with national accreditation through the National Association of Schools of Art & Design and The National Association of Schools of Music), the humanities, the social sciences, and the areas of communication, languages, and linguistics. More than 4,700 students are enrolled in its 27 undergraduate and 19 graduate degrees, which include the M.F.A. and Ph.D. programs in English, Transatlantic History, and Linguistics. Students and faculty have been recognized nationally and internationally for their research scholarship and creative activity. Visit to learn more.

 About The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a Carnegie “highest research activity” institution of more than 54,000 students in campus-based and online degree programs and is the second-largest institution in The University of Texas System. U.S. News & World Report ranks UTA fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. The University is a Hispanic-Serving Institution and is ranked as the top four-year college in Texas for veterans on Military Times’ 2016 Best for Vets list. Visit to learn more, and find UTA rankings and recognition at