Monthly Archives: January 2013

- Commonwealth of Virginia versus Abolitionism


Bill of indictment, September 1849, found in the Commonwealth of Virginia versus Jarvis C. Bacon, 1849. Local government records collection, Grayson County Court Records, The Library of Virginia.

During the 1820s and 1830s, northern antislavery groups that demanded the immediate abolition of slavery began to emerge. Led by abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur Tappan, and Theodore Weld, they instituted an aggressive print campaign against slavery. Abolitionist societies published newspapers and pamphlets that bitterly condemned slavery and called for its extinction. Needless to say, abolitionist literature was not well-received in slaveholding states, including Virginia.

In 1835, a Frederick County, Virginia, grand jury issued a criminal presentment against the Abolition Society of New York. In a lengthy and strongly worded indictment, the grand jury referred to the antislavery organization as an “evil of great magnitude” and accused it of disturbing the peace of the commonwealth and threatening the lives of its citizens by inciting slaves to rebel. The grand jury encouraged local law enforcement agencies throughout Virginia to adopt “increasing vigilance … in the detection of all fanatical emissaries, and in the suppression of their nefarious schemes and publications.” Furthermore, it called on the General Assembly to enforce present laws and enact stricter legislation against written or printed material that encouraged slave insurrection. The presentment also named Arthur Tappan, whom the grand jury considered to be the “prime mover” in the society. Tappan helped found the Abolition Society of New York in 1831, which two years later evolved into the American Anti-Slavery Societyread more »

- Yearbook marks one chapter in a pioneering life


Page from a 1943 yearbook for the Tuskegee Airmen. Ralph H. Davis is seen on the left-hand page, second row, third from right. Ralph Hickman Davis Papers, Accession 50284, Private Papers Collection, Library of Virginia.

With 2011 marking the 70th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War II, the Library of Virginia undertook a concerted effort to collect the papers of the war’s veterans.  Members of the “Greatest Generation” or their families donated a wealth of extraordinary materials consisting of letters, diaries, photographs, reminiscences, military records, and other items.  These collections document the contribution of Virginians to the war effort both at the front and at home.  One of the most interesting items was lent to the library for copying by Clinton Davis of Staunton—a yearbook of one of World War II’s most legendary outfits, the Tuskegee Airmen.  His father, Ralph H. Davis, served at the Tuskegee Airfield throughout World War II as a mechanic. 

The senior Davis, born 5 February 1915 in Providence, Rhode Island, often did odd jobs and ran errands for pilots and airport personnel at the original Providence airport near his uncle’s farm.  Payment or reward for his work would often come in the form of airplane rides, which Davis would turn into lessons.  He soon earned his private pilot’s license, and on a list issued by the Commerce Department in January 1939, Davis was the only African American pilot from Rhode Island.  World War II began in Europe later that year, and in 1940 the United States began preparing for involvement by … read more »

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- Following a Northern Star: Exploring Abolitionist Materials with Mapping Technologies

Here in Virginia, there are some pretty strong views on history.  It isn’t merely in the past, it is occurring in the present as well.  This can easily perpetuate the stereotype that Southerners are still fighting the Civil War, or as it is known to some of my relatives, the War of Northern Aggression.  However, this view of history in the present tense can be put to good use to dismantle assumptions, rethink the past, and keep cultural institutions relevant.


Still from The Abolitionists on PBS, A Powerful Partnership scene depicting the first meeting of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison in Nantucket. Garrison asked Douglass, How did you first realize you were a slave?

The most recent episode of The Abolitionists on PBS focused heavily on Frederick Douglass.  Reading his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in school years ago was my first encounter with the realities of slavery, as I imagine it may be for many people. Somehow, seeing the scene in which William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist, and Frederick Douglass first meet brought to mind again how wonderful it is to see these events and documents geographically located on the Abolitionist Map of America.  Zoom in on Nantucket, Massachusetts, and you can view the video clip from the series as well as contemporary photographs and documents. Somehow, plotting things on a map makes them more concrete, more believable, not just backstory.


The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper by William Lloyd Garrison, published in Boston. Virginia General Assembly, House of Delegates, Speaker, Executive communications, Correspondence and publications submitted by Governor John Floyd, 1831 Dec. 6. Accession 36912, State government records collection, The Library of Virginia.

As we continue this project, we are still uncovering relevant abolitionist materials at the Library … read more »

- This will really flip your Whig!

 

Detail of the cartoon letterhead for the 1844 presidential campaign for Whig Party nominee Henry Clay. (Madison County Chancery Cause 1919-001, Adms. of Thomas Shirley vs. Heirs of Thomas Shirley and Zachariah Shirley vs. Adms. of Thomas Shirley.)

We love our letterhead here in the processing sections of the Library of Virginia. One can come across such interesting, varied, and colorful examples while processing Governor’s papers, personal letters, or court records. We’ve shared a few examples of our finds in previous blog postings and have happily learned that you love them, too! As a result, we continue to save examples for future Out of the Box installments. It was with that thought that I made a Xerox of the following letterhead, assuming that I’d add it to our growing file to share at a later date. I showed it to a colleague, and she said, “Google those lines and see what you find.” Sure enough, there was more to this letterhead than met the eye.

The image and line refer to a song written during the 1844 presidential campaign for Whig Party nominee Henry Clay. The illustration shows a raccoon holding a document (or stick) labeled “Constitution,” and rolling a large ball after a scurrying fox. Considered to be the first modern national campaign, the 1844 contest pitted the Whig, Clay, against Democrat James K. Polk. This being Clay’s third presidential race, the Democrats pejoratively dubbed him “the same old coon” in reference to his perennial candidacy. In response, the Whigs decided to embrace the moniker, even using the raccoon image on their … read more »

- Mapping John Brown: How one man’s failed rebellion expanded the abolitionist cause


This photograph shows a rather more dapper John Brown than the later images and drawings, in which he appears disheveled and heavily bearded. He moved his large family ten times between 1825 and 1855, during which he was a devoted abolitionist and member of the Underground Railroad. As a failed businessman, Brown worked odd jobs while advocating for the end of slavery. Photograph of John Brown, circa 1850. Portraits Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Virginia.

In some cases, failing extravagantly can work in favor of your cause.  Go big or go home, as it were.  John Brown was an American abolitionist who supported the use of violence to end slavery.  A descendant of 17th century Puritans, Brown’s strong Calvinist beliefs would provide the moral inspiration for his battle against slavery.  As we saw on The Abolitionists on PBS last Tuesday, Brown made a pledge in 1837 that would steer his actions in the coming decades: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”

Unlike most white, well-educated, religiously-motivated abolitionists, Brown did not believe in solely non-violent means to end slavery.  After the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, Brown founded a militant anti-slavery brigade with the Biblically-inspired name “League of Gileadites.”  Their mission was to prevent the recapture of escaped slaves by any means necessary.  Rising tensions in Kansas compelled Brown to go to the aid of the anti-slavery settlers there, including five of his adult sons.  Pro-slavery forces known as “Border Ruffians” interfered with voting, imprisoned abolitionists, harassed free settlers, and eventually seized the town of Lawrence.  On 24 May 1856, Brown led a small group of armed men against their pro-slavery neighbors at Pottawatomie Creek, killing five.  This catalyzed a civil war … read more »

- Apocalypse Not


Title page of the pamphlet written by Nimrod Hughes warning of the end of times in 1812, Library of Virginia Special Collections Call Number BT875.H8 1811. (Image used courtesy of Library of Virginia Special Collections.)

Since the apocalypse of 2012 was a no-show, I decided to bring a little doomsday out from the archives to celebrate the start of the New Year. Fretting over the Mayan calendar was the apocalypse du jour of 2012, but back in 1812, the doomsday prophecies of Nimrod Hughes created quite the stir in Southwest Virginia.

Nimrod Hughes came to our attention here in Local Records Services during the processing of the Roanoke County chancery causes. In an estate dispute, Fanny R. Johnston, etc. vs. Executor of Nathaniel Burwell, etc., 1880-044, Nathaniel Burwell stands accused of selling and hiring out slaves inherited by his wife Lucy from her father, Charles Carter. According to their marriage contract, any profits from a sale were to remain with Lucy Burwell’s dower, but Nathaniel Burwell allegedly sold the slaves for his own benefit to purchase some land. The outcome of the case hinged on the date the land was purchased, and here is where Nimrod Hughes comes into the story. Many of those deposed in the chancery cause remembered the date of purchase because it occurred on 4 June 1812—the day Hughes declared would see the destruction of mankind.

Confined to Abingdon prison on 4 June 1808 for a crime he “detested” and claimed to be completely innocent of, Nimrod Hughes spent the ten months and nine days … read more »

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- LVA Partners with American Experience to Populate the Abolitionist Map of America: Interactive Map Explores the Legacy of the Anti-Slavery Movement

How did views on slavery evolve in the decades leading up to the Civil War?  What different concerns did Quakers, soldiers, and revolutionaries express about the freedom of enslaved people?  Most importantly, what evidence can we find in the Library of Virginia’s collections about the anti-slavery movement in the early and mid-1800s?


The American Experience Abolitionist Map of America: dozens of cultural institutions have contributed historical images and documents

This unique challenge arose through the LVA’s early involvement in HistoryPin, an interactive website to which we upload geotagged photographs and other archival materials.  Each image is accompanied by descriptive metadata, but users can also add their own “stories,” allowing for multiple and personal interpretations of history.  Audio and video clips can also be pinned. Click here to see the Library’s  HistoryPin collections.

PBS’s trademark documentary series, American Experience, has partnered with HistoryPin to use this digital platform to tell the story of abolitionists.  The Library of Virginia was selected to contribute to this exploration of the anti-slavery movement in America—the Abolitionist Map of America.  Dozens of museums, libraries, and archives have contributed to populating the map.  PBS will also upload several video clips from their upcoming documentary series The Abolitionists, which will air on Tuesdays, January 8-22, 2013.  A mobile app and walking tours of Boston, Charleston, Cincinnati and Philadelphia allow users to explore the Abolitionist Map in multiple ways.


Above, one of the LVA’s most viewed pins, an anti-slavery broadside from 1859 in Lawrence, KS.

The abolitionist materials assembled by the … read more »