People looked at the Muse Brothers, Georgie and Willie, and saw something different. Some saw objects of pity. Some saw objects of ridicule. Some saw dollar signs.
Author and former Roanoke Times journalist Beth Macy (Factory Man) explores the harrowing story of two albino African American brothers, the children of a sharecropping single mother, from rural Franklin County. Family oral history tells of the boys’ abduction around 1903 by “freak hunters” for one of the many circus outfits touring around the country at the turn of the 20th century.
Between 1840 and 1940, the circus was the most dominant form of entertainment in the United States. Georgie and Willie Muse appeared as “freaks” in the sideshows of several circuses with only the sparsest room and board as their pay. They were dubbed the Sheep-headed Men, White Ecuadorian Cannibals, and Martian Ambassadors. The brothers had no say in their working conditions, employers, or compensation. They later claimed in court documents that they were held against their will “and in other words…made…slaves.”
After accidentally being found by their mother, Harriett, when the circus came to Roanoke in 1927, over two decades after their disappearance, a lawsuit was filed on the brothers’ behalf in City of Richmond Law & Equity Court. The court documents survive in the archives of the Library of Virginia and were … read more »
UPDATE: The Charles City County Order Book is now available online.
If you live in the Richmond area or are connected to the Library of Virginia through social media, you may have seen the recent announcement of the return of the Charles City County Record Book, 1694-1700. This volume, taken from the Charles City courthouse in 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign of the Civil War, was returned by a Pennsylvania family who had cared for it for over three decades. In anticipation of the record book’s return, I had occasion to review other replevined records from Charles City County—a saga with its own century-long history.
First, a bit about replevin. No, it doesn’t mean to plevin again. Officially, it’s a common law action that allows a person or entity to recover wrongly or unlawfully taken personal property. In the archives and records profession, it refers more specifically to the recovery of public records (with or without legal action) by an agency or organization. The Virginia Public Records Act (§ 42.1-89) vests the power to petition a local circuit court for the return of public records held by an unauthorized custodian in the Librarian of Virginia or designee. Public records never cease being public records; so, unless lawfully and properly destroyed, they should remain with the appropriate custodian.
Thankfully, in the case of … read more »
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I was called to a meeting in the Library’s Special Collections reading room on a busy day in September 2014. A certain amount of skullduggery and mystery surrounded the parlay with staff from a yet-to-be-identified TV show about genealogy. Already other Library of Virginia staff members had unearthed a set of documents that related to a certain Benjamin Sharpe from a remote section of Virginia. I was to provide context with a few of my colleagues. The meeting went smoothly enough—a free-ranging discussion of the election of 1800, life in a remote section of Virginia, and slavery in the Appalachian region. Did I know a historian who could speak on camera with the show’s star for filming? Certainly. I recommended a few names and returned to my work.
A few days later the e-mail arrived. Would I be the foil for the unnamed actor? I was surprised and flattered, as I recall, but also a bit wary of the assignment. Having some familiarity with shows of this type, I felt hesitant. Such TV episodes, like a movie or any other kind of storytelling, must have a narrative arc. Having been a “talking head” for many documentaries and short media pieces, I realized that my part would be boiled down and edited to serve that narrative. I do the … read more »
“All eastern Virginians are Shintoists under the skin. Genealogy makes history personal to them in terms of family. Kinship to the eighth degree usually is recognized.”
—Douglas Southall Freeman, “The Spirit of Virginia,” in Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion
Those born in Virginia (or those who have lived here for any length of time) will either nod approvingly or roll their eyes at this quip by the famed historian and biographer Douglas Southall Freeman. The mind easily turns to Virginians bowing down at the sacred altars of their ancestors. Being a New Englander with a long lineage in this country, I can appreciate the sentiment. My own father at one time presided over the Kimball Family Association, which, because of Brigham Young’s lieutenant Heber Kimball from Vermont, likely has as many members in Utah as in New England. And we know that genealogy is serious business there!
But it was not always so. America’s complicated relationship with family history stems from our founding, when the new country’s leaders consciously threw off the chains of hereditary rights and aristocracy. George Mason asserted this sentiment in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776: “That no Man, or Set of Men are entitled to exclusive or separate Emoluments or Privileges from the Community, but in Consideration of public Services; which not being descendible, neither ought the … read more »
Editor’s Note: On Sunday 4 February 2013, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page article on the 1963 Danville civil rights demonstrations. The Library of Virginia has case files for more than 250 individuals who were charged with various offenses during these protests. This blog post originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of The Delimiter, an in-house Library newsletter. This entry has been slightly edited.
The fortieth anniversary of the 1963 Danville civil rights demonstrations passed earlier this year  with merely a brief mention in the press. In the summer of 1963, violence erupted in Danville, Virginia, as the Danville establishment led by Police Chief Eugene G. McCain struggled to keep Jim Crow order during a series of civil rights demonstrations led by local and national black leaders. Of the 45 demonstrators arrested in front of the city jail on 10 June, nearly all required medical attention at the hospital for injuries that some defendants testified were the result of being pistol-whipped or struck with nightsticks. As evidenced in the Civil Rights Demonstrations Cases legal files on microfilm and audio compact discs at the Library of Virginia, sporadic demonstrations continued until late August 1963 despite the violence.
In the late summer of 1999, the Danville Circuit Clerk of Court transferred the legal files of the Civil Rights Demonstration Cases to … read more »
Editor’s Note: On Sunday 4 February 2013, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page article on the 1963 Danville civil rights demonstrations. The Library of Virginia has case files for more than 250 individuals who were charged with various offenses during these protests. This blog post originally appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of The Delimiter, an in-house Library newsletter. This entry has been slightly edited.
In August 1999, the city of Danville’s Circuit Court Clerk approached Glenn Smith, Grants Administrator of the Virginia Circuit Court Records Preservation Program, with a dilemma. The city possessed a box of heavily used materials relating to the 1963 Danville civil rights demonstrations. Concerned about both the preservation and security of the collection due to high volume usage, the clerk agreed to have the material transferred to LVA for processing and organization so that it could be microfilmed. Though a local records collection, I was assigned the task of processing the material because of my past research on John W. Carter, a former Danville city councilman who aided the Commonwealth’s Attorney in prosecuting the civil rights demonstrators. I interviewed Carter for my thesis on the Virginia Conservative Party on several occasions. This was a segregationist third political party formed in 1965 to oppose Mills Godwin’s campaign for governor. Godwin had angered many by supporting Lyndon … read more »
If you’ve been an Out of the Box reader for a while, you may remember this September 2011 article about a Norfolk, Virginia, girl and her World War II-era Norfolk, England, penpals, and the story of a 21st-century correspondence that came out of it (see Broadside’s spring 2012 issue, page 6). Jan Godfrey of Norfolk, England, is one of the people I’ve been privileged to “meet” online through this correspondence. She contacted me after reading about the Leona Robbins Fitchett Collection (Acc. 50068) on the blog. I took another look at the collection and was excited to discover letters from Jan’s sister, her sister-in-law, and even her 5-year-old self (even though she was not a member of the class that was corresponding with Leona Robbins, young Jan had stuffed a short note in with a letter sent by her elder sister).
Jan, who is very active in the study and promotion of the history of the Wayland area of Norfolk, England, recently gave a talk to the Wayland Heritage Group. She shared the story of the original letters, the memories they brought up, and the new trans-Atlantic friendships forged thanks to archives and the Internet. You can see her talk by clicking the link in this Wayland News article.
-Jessica Tyree, Senior Accessioning Archivist… read more »
In case you missed it, the Library of Virginia’s conservation of the gubernatorial papers of Thomas Jefferson was featured in Style Weekly. The letters and manuscripts documenting Jefferson’s service as the second governor of Virginia are being conserved thanks to a $110,000 grant from Save America’s Treasures. For more information on the collection and the grant see an earlier blog post about it here.… read more »