The varied experience of the African American residents of Montgomery County, Virginia, reveals itself in many documentary sources, but perhaps none as unexpected to some researchers as in the chancery causes. As a preview of the upcoming workshop “Researching Your African American Ancestors: Genealogy to 1870” scheduled to be held at the Christiansburg Public Library on 19 July 2014, here follow five examples from the Montgomery County chancery causes highlighting different facets of African American life over the span of 100 years.
Whether as slaves or free persons of color, African Americans arrived in the western parts of Virginia as soon as the area began to be settled by easterners. The earliest chancery suit with an identified free person is suit 1819-016, Lewis Garner vs. Peter Hance. Peter Hance executed a bond to Garner, “a man of color” for $49.75 in 1813. Garner then lost the note and Hance refused to honor the debt. Garner filed suit against Hance to clarify the circumstances of the debt, the loss of the note, and to collect what he was owed. The suit was dismissed at the request of the plaintiff in 1819.
Slaves appear throughout the chancery suits in many different situations, most commonly in an estate settlement suit when the slaves are divided among heirs or sold to pay debts. Chancery cause 1847-015, Ann Trigg, … read more »
Before the Civil War, Virginia did not have a comprehensive public school system. Lawmakers passed various measures to fund public schools, but these measures were directed primarily toward schools for a small segment of the population, the children of indigent white families. These schools were known as “free schools” or “charity schools,” and only the very poor attended. African Americans, free and enslaved, were excluded from these schools because it was illegal to teach them. With the end of the Civil War and ratification of a new state constitution in 1870, lawmakers established Virginia’s first public school system for all children, in order to “prevent children growing up in ignorance, or becoming vagrants.”
As local officials complied with the new state law, they set about drawing school districts segregated by race. This could be a challenge, however. While cataloging Alexandria/Arlington County school records recently, I came upon this hand-drawn map of Jefferson Township (in what was then Alexandria County, part of present-day urban Arlington), which shows white and African American families living closely together. To create two districts segregated by race, the map-maker drew what looks like a badly gerrymandered voting district. The map was attached to an 1870 census of school-aged children in Jefferson Township. Each dwelling is designated W (“white”) or C (“colored”).
Jefferson Township was located near what is now Crystal City … read more »