Local Editorial Contemplates Smyth County’s Cohabitation Register

(The following editorial is reprinted here courtesy of the Smyth County News & Messenger. It originally ran 28 July 2010.)

HUMBLING CHAPTER OF OUR STORY

In some ways it is difficult to read. Just the title “Register of Colored Persons of Smyth County, State of Virginia, Cohabitating Together as Husband and Wife on 27 February, 1866″ speaks of discrimination so powerful that the institution of marriage between a man and woman was not recognized. As you read across the columns and come to “Last Owner,” the reality of slavery existing in Seven Mile Ford, Rich Valley, Marion and Rye Valley takes hold.

The names of those registered and their last owners resonate as familiar: Campbell, Carter, Fowler, Heath, James and Tate among many others.

As news of this register’s existence was announced this week, Circuit Court Clerk John Graham reflected, “When you see this document, you’re reminded that slavery was not just an institution somewhere in the South. It was a way of life right here in Smyth County. This remarkable document brings history home.”

Despite the challenges it presents us, this register is a national treasure of incalculable value.

Prior to this document recording and formalizing their marriages, which Virginia law didn’t recognize before the Civil War ended in 1865, the existence of many of these individuals had never been listed in a public record. Yet, here is official acknowledgment of marriages, places of birth, and children born to those couples. The value and interest to genealogists and historians is obvious, but we see connections to people and glimpses of their stories that intersect with our own lives.

The youngest man on the list, 21-year-old Samuel Montgomery, and 23-year-old Amanda had been together for about three years. They were the parents of 18-month-old John and 4-month-old Grant. One can only wonder how they met. Samuel was a native of Smyth County and his last owner lived in Seven Mile Ford. Amanda was a native of Fauquier County, and her last owner resided in Kanawha County.

70-year-old Thomas Hays, a farmer living in Rich Valley whose last owner also lived in Rich Valley, was a widower. His wife, Maria, was dead, but their union had finally been recognized officially.

Antony Fields, 29, was born in Mississippi and owned as a slave in Wythe County, but he and 23-year-old Roda, who had been owned by the same man, were making a home in Smyth County for their family, which included 3-year-old Isaac and 16-month-old Anna.

21-year-old Edmond Reed and 19-year-old Mary were married on Christmas Day in 1865.

The register includes people who were newlyweds and couples married for decades, people who knew the joys and exhaustion of parenthood, the agony of grief, and what it meant to till the soil and pray that weather cooperated and seasons brought good crops.

Yet, they also knew what most of us cannot – what it meant to be a slave.

The register is quite simple, but the names, words and dates it records tell a truth of our community that can open many doors for families, historians, students and anyone who chooses to read and reflect upon it.

It is not easy to read as truth so often is not, but the register is now part of Smyth County’s story, our story.

(A team from the Local Records department of the LVA recently returned copies of the newly restored Smyth County Cohabitation Register to the Circuit Court Clerk John Graham and conducted a records inventory in the courthouse. To see the accompanying front-page story click here. To see the original blog entry for the Smyth County Cohabitation Register click here.)

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