- Forsaken: The Digital Bibliography


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In his debut novel, Forsaken, Ross Howell Jr. tells the story of an uneducated African American servant, Virginia Christian, who was tried for killing her white employer in 1912. She died in the electric chair one day after her 17th birthday, the only female juvenile executed in Virginia since 1908. Howell researched the case using a variety of documents and images related to Christian’s execution found in the Library of Virginia’s collections.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce a new digital exhibition, Forsaken: The Digital Bibliography, which spotlights the court records and newspaper stories used and referenced in the novel. Included are:  the coroner’s inquest for Ida V. Belote; Virginia Christian’s trial, appeal, and clemency records; and newspaper coverage of these events from the Newport News Times-Herald and Daily Press.

As noted at the beginning of the novel, Forsaken is a work of fiction, but many of the characters were real people. Forsaken: The Digital Bibliography includes brief biographical sketches and documents related to these individuals. Also included is additional background material on other historic events referenced in the text, such as Nat Turner’s Rebellion and the “Allen Gang.” The epilogue focuses on what happened to the real-life main characters: Charles Mears, Harriet and Sadie Belote, Charles Pace, and others.

While by no means comprehensive (and very much … read more »

- A Few of Our Favorite Things: More Letterhead in the Archive

As promised in a previous post, here’s another look at some of the plethora of letterheads and stationery found in our archives.  The original text by Vince Brooks is included here for context.

Commercial stationery can offer a fascinating snapshot of a place or time. Scholars of this subject point out that the rich illustrations and elaborate printing of commercial letterheads, billheads, and envelopes correspond with the dramatic rise in industrialization in America. According to one expert, the period 1860 to 1920 represents the heyday of commercial stationery, when Americans could see their growing nation reflected in the artwork on their bills and correspondence. As commercial artists influenced the job printing profession, the illustrations became more detailed and creative.

Robert Biggert, an authority on commercial stationery, wrote an extensive study of letterhead design for the Ephemera Society of America entitled “Architectural Vignettes on Commercial Stationery” and donated his personal collection of stationery, now known as the Biggert Collection, to the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia University.

The primary role of these illustrations at the time of their use was publicity. The images showed bustling factories, busy street corners, and sturdy bank buildings–all portraying ideas of solidity, activity, and progress. Other types of symbolism can be found in commercial stationery, the most ubiquitous being “man’s best friend.” Dogs … read more »

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- Studies of Economy and Efficiency in Government Are Not New

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in The Library of Virginia Official Newsletter, May/June 2001.  It has been edited slightly.

Efficiency in government. Responsible spending. Eliminate waste in government. These phrases are often tossed about, especially during political campaigns. Calls for responsible government spending and efficiency are not new, and probably will remain a constant theme in our political process.

One early attempt at governmental reform was the State Commission on Economy and Efficiency, which functioned from 1916 until 1918. The papers of this Commission were part of an accession of miscellaneous papers from the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office. The General Assembly created the Commission in 1916 to make a “careful and detailed study of the organization and methods of the State and local governments” within Virginia. The five members of the Commission—P. H. Drewry, George L. Browning, J. Calvin Moss, Richard Evelyn Byrd, and LeRoy Hodges—made a detailed study of state government, presented their findings, and made recommendations to the General Assembly in 1918. Many of these recommendations were implemented and still influence the way state government operates today.

The creation of Virginia’s Commission on Economy and Efficiency was in part due to a national trend in budget reform. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, concerns about the integrity and accountability of political leaders was read more »

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- Over $900,000 in Grant Funds Awarded to Circuit Court Clerks

The Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP) Grant Review Board met on 14 December 2015 at the Library of Virginia to consider records preservation grant requests from circuit courts across the commonwealth. The board is comprised of six members: four circuit court clerks, appointed annually by the president of the Virginia Court Clerks’ Association; and two staff members from the Library of Virginia, the State Archivist and the Deputy of Collections and Programs. The board meets twice a year to evaluate proposals. This cycle’s grant applications requested funds for processing, conserving, securing, and increasing access to circuit court records. A total of sixty-nine applications were submitted from sixty-one localities with requests reaching nearly one and a half million dollars. After careful evaluation and discussion of all applications, the board approved sixty-one grant projects totaling over $900 thousand. Sixty of the approved applications were for funding to perform professional conservation treatment, deemed a priority by the board members, on volumes housed in circuit court clerks’ offices that had been damaged by use, age, or previous non-professional repairs. The remaining grants were for security systems, storage cabinets, and reformatting projects.

The CCRP is a part of the Library of Virginia’s Government Records Division. Funded through $1.50 from the circuit court clerk’s recordation fee, the CCRP provides resources to help preserve and make accessible permanent circuit court … read more »

- Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative Digital Collection

In 1820, Rachel Findley won freedom for herself and more than 35 of her descendants in a Powhatan County court in a law suit dating back to 1773. Hester Jane Carr, a free African American, was tricked into leaving her home in New York City in 1836 and sold as a slave in Petersburg. In 1860, Dennis Holt, a free African American living in Campbell County, petitioned to be re-enslaved so that he could remain with his enslaved wife. The stories of these lives and many more can be found within historic Virginia documents.

Researchers have long lamented the scarcity of primary sources for information about the pre–Civil War lives of African Americans. Noted historian and host of the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., referred to the Civil War as “a roadblock for many when researching their African American heritage.” Documents recording the pre–Civil War experiences of African Americans, enslaved or free, either do not exist or have been mostly inaccessible.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the initiative Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative, a new digital collection of records that will help the public break through the “roadblock” that has long impeded African American history research. The project will bring to light the pre–Civil War experiences of African Americans documented in the Library’s … read more »

- Virginia Untold: Deeds of Emancipation and Manumission

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.




The Petersburg Deeds of Manumission from April 1822 relate the tale of James Dunlop and his slave, John Brown. Dunlop, suffering from an unspecified illness, traveled between Virginia’s resort towns seeking treatment. Many considered the natural springs in Hot Springs and Lexington, among others, sources of healing for numerous maladies. Dunlop decided to free or “manumit” his slave John for “John’s great and unusual attention to me while under a very severe illness.”  While the pair was visiting Lexington, the local doctor was absent for some days in the country. Dunlop experienced a spell “brought on by exposure to the rain while on a trip to the Natural Bridge, after visiting Hot Springs and using freely the hot baths.” He felt that his life “was in imminent danger.” The only person Dunlop knew in Lexington was John Brown. During Dunlop’s illness, Brown took care of him. Recalling this experience years later, Dunlop wrote:

“[without Brown’s] close and extraordinary attention in watching over my disease, administering medicines and nourishment to me, agreeable to the best of his skill night and day, it is more than probable I

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- Virginia Untold: Requisitions for Public Use

This is the third in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.


African Americans impressed into Confederate Army service. Library of Congress.

During the Civil War, Virginia enacted legislation to force African Americans, both slave and free, into “public service” supporting the Confederacy. Their primary responsibility would be to erect “batteries, entrenchments or other necessities of the military service,” which could include working in mines and factories, preparing meals and washing clothes for Confederate soldiers, or driving supply wagons.

Legislation to impress free African Americans was passed shortly after Virginia’s secession from the Union. In July 1861, the state convention that had approved secession passed an ordinance “to provide for the enrollment and employment of free Negroes in the public service.” This ordinance was amended and re-enacted by the General Assembly in February 1862. The legislation authorized local courts to enroll for “public use” all able-bodied male free African Americans between the ages of eighteen and fifty. They would not serve more than 180 days and would be fairly compensated for their services.

When a commanding officer of the Confederate Army had need of the services of free African Americans, a local board would select from the list of free African Americans “such number of laborers as in … read more »

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- Virginia Untold: Certificates of Importation

This is the second in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.


American Anti-Slavery Society.

Around 1811, a young girl named Ellsey was born on a plantation in Montgomery County, Tennessee. She had brothers and sisters. Her mother died sometime before Ellsey turned 11 years old. Ellsey was not a healthy child. She was “much troubled from rumitisem (sic),” a disease marked by inflammation and pain in the joints and muscles. In 1822, Ellsey made a seven hundred mile journey from Montgomery County to the Greenwood Mills plantation in Frederick County, Virginia. For a young child suffering from rheumatism, it could not have been an easy trip. Why did she do it? Was it to seek medical attention for her illness? Did her family move to Virginia to start a new life? The answer is that Ellsey had no choice but to move to Virginia. Ellsey was a slave owned by John McAllister, a wealthy landowner and businessman. He brought young Ellsey from his Tennessee plantation to his Virginia plantation “for his own use.”

Soon after bringing Ellsey to Frederick County, McAllister was required by Virginia law to sign an oath in the local court stating that he did not bring … read more »

- Virginia Untold: Freedom Suits

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the record types found in the forthcoming Library of Virginia research database: Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative. The initial database release will be on 1 February 2016.


Detail. Published by the American Anti-Slavery Society,

Enslaved African Americans in antebellum Virginia attempted to secure their freedom in many ways. The violent, armed uprisings led by Nat Turner and Gabriel loom large in historical memory, and the historical record is littered with stories of runaway slaves stealing off in the night to seek freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad. However, the narratives of enslaved individuals who used the law to secure their freedom are frequently missing from this dialogue. The Library of Virginia’s collection of freedom suits helps to illuminate these stories.

Enslaved Virginians could petition the court for their freedom “forma pauperis” based on a few different claims. Since free or enslaved status in antebellum Virginia was based on the status of the mother, petitioners often sued on the basis that they were born of a free woman. In many cases these suits involve individuals claiming descent from a Native American. After 1788, slaveholders who brought slaves to Virginia when resettling from another state were required to register their slaves with the county court and sign an oath stating that they had not brought them for the purpose of … read more »

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- Happy Holidays from Out of the Box!

Season’s Greetings from all of us at Out of the Box. We’re taking a holiday break, but enjoy the photos below from the U.S. Army Signal Corps Photograph Collection, part of the Print, Photograph & Original Art Collections. These and other Digital Collections from the Library of Virginia can be found here. You can also check out this holiday post from Fit to Print, the blog of the Virginia Newspaper Project. We’ll see you in the new year! 

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