Tag Archives: African Americans

- African American Land Ownership and Loss


African American man plowing with a pair of horses in Hampton, Virginia, circa 1899. (Image used courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.)

Prior to the abolishment of slavery, the idea of landownership was an impossible dream for most African Americans, but in the years following the Civil War, African American landowners began to appear in Virginia’s chancery records. Unfortunately, these new landowners most often came to court because they were in danger of losing ownership of their property, or they felt they had been cheated out of the true value of their lands. With little support to aid in their pursuit of landownership, many minorities lost their property in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Two such examples were found in the Patrick County chancery causes.

In 1872, Enoch Wilson, an African American, sold a parcel of land to Gabriel Hylton, a white man, at a price that was much lower than it was worth.  Hylton, regarded as a shrewd man and apparently not averse to taking advantage of others, vowed to pay Wilson $1.25 per acre for 217 acres of land.  The transaction even included an offer to allow Wilson to continue to reside on the property until his death.  Unfortunately for Wilson, the agreement was simply verbal and no money or documentation was ever exchanged.

Wilson’s grandson lived with him and was unaware of the verbal agreement with Hylton.  As the assumed heir to the property, he decided to grow and sell … read more »

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- King William Co. Chancery Now Online!


Letterhead for the Terminal Hotel, West Point, Virginia. King William County (Va.) Chancery Cause Anderson Bourgeoise, etc. vs. Daniel L. Risley, 1904-026, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for the King William County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1868-1913, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site. Because they rely so heavily on the testimony of witnesses, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information and are especially useful when researching local, state, social, or legal history. Chancery causes often contain correspondence, property lists (including slaves), lists of heirs, and vital statistics that are especially helpful in documenting the African American experience, family history, women’s history, and Southern business and labor history. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.

The King William chancery causes contain several suits which illustrate the experiences of Native Americans in the Tidewater region. The Mattaponi Tribe is represented in Chancery Cause 1895-002, George F. Custalow vs. James S. Robinson, Trustee. In the case, two members of the Mattaponi Tribe, Custalow and Austin Key, dispute ownership over a piece of land.  In Chancery Cause Walter Miles vs. Alice Miles, 1907-006, two members of the Pamunkey Tribe, living in Indian Town, head to the King William County court to seek a divorce. Walter Miles claimed that on 15 November 1904 he was called before the chiefs of the tribe to face a charge … read more »

- Henry Co. Cohabitation Register and African-American Naming Practices


This visual representation of the names of the mothers found in the Henry Cohabitation Register illustrate the frequency of use by the size of the name.(Word images created using wordle.net)

The Library of Virginia has completed the digitization and transcription of the last of the cohabitation registers in its possession, the Henry County Cohabitation Register, 1866. Others have already been transcribed and are available in the cohabitation register digitization project via Virginia Memory. For African-American genealogical researchers, the names contained herein provide priceless clues to retracing their ancestors. Cohabitation registers imparted legal legitimacy to African-American marriages and children. This was also the first time many of these individuals would appear in public record under their own names.

Naming under the practice of slavery was fraught with power dynamics. The enslavers often gave names to the enslaved. The amount of input the family of the child would have in his or her name varied, but journals of slave-holders indicate they specifically assigned names to slave children on a regular basis.[1] Newly enslaved Africans were often issued a new name by their captors, causing their identities to become yet another site of colonization. Naming was a powerful tool for enforcing cultural assimilation and denigrating African cultural identity.[2]

When viewed simply as data, the set of names used for slaves seems to have been larger and more varied than the set of names used for free people. Slave names tended to fit within five categories: diminutive versions of English names (Jim, Bess), place names … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: Ed Carr, No. 11516


Photograph of Ed Carr, No. 11516, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 171, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Welcome to Mug Shot Monday!  This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.  Ed Carr, the subject of this week’s post, escaped from a convict road camp in 1913.  Jealousy led to his recapture in 1932.

Ed Carr was arrested in April 1913 and charged with grand larceny of a diamond ring.  Hoping to get a shorter sentence, Carr lied about his age.  “At this time,” Carr wrote Governor John Pollard in 1932, “I was 15 years old.  When I was arrested on the charge the people who were in jail with me, told me that if I told my correct age they would send me to a reform school until I was 20 or 21 years old, but that if I ran my age up, and in case of conviction, I would get a year in the Penitentiary.  I listened to this, and gave my age as 25 when I came up for trial.”  It did not work.  Carr was convicted on 3 May 1913 in the Corporation Court of Norfolk City and sentenced to 10 years in the Virginia Penitentiary.  Carr was assigned to State Convict Road Force Camp No. 5 in Russell County.  He didn’t stay long.  Carr escaped on 7 August 1913 having served less than 90 … read more »

- Fancy Skating


Advertisement dated 5 May 1885 found in Rockingham County Chancery Cause Christina J. Ergenbright vs. Administrator of Jacob Ammon, etc., 1888-021, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

While processing collections, archivists often come across items that don’t directly relate to the collection at hand but which often provide a window into a different subject altogether.  One good example of this is from an 1888 Rockingham County chancery case.  Amid the various items in the case is an advertisement that reads: “Mr. John Christian, Champion Colored Fancy Skater of Virginia, will give an exhibition at 9:15.” Having never heard of “fancy skating,” I wanted to know more about the sport and who John Christian was. After a little research some questions were answered and others were not.

Roller skating became very popular in the 1880’s, and most towns had their own rinks where the general public could skate.   Industrial advances made this fad possible, allowing for average citizens to own their own skates. At its height, in 1885, it is estimated that $20 million of roller skates and related equipment were sold. Local newspapers seem to back up this trend. The People, a Harrisonburg newspaper, reported on 1 May 1885: “it is hard times, but the skating rink is furnished nightly with $30.00 houses.”  This new craze appeared to be popular with black as well as white citizens. It was also segregated. In the same issue of The People it was reported that “the colored people have a skating rink over Kavanaugh’s … read more »

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- 12 Years a Slave

The release of the film 12 Years a Slave had us talking here at Out of the Box. Discussions on slavery are a common occurrence at the Library of Virginia, but it is an entirely different experience to see the brutality and violence of slavery on screen. Based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free African American living in Saratoga Springs, New York, kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in Louisiana, the film offers an unflinching portrayal of slavery in the United States.

12 Years a Slave never pulls back from the brutality of its subject matter, and most importantly the film gives a human face to slavery—a system characterized by its dehumanization. So many of the records here at the LVA do the same, putting a name to those who suffered, and telling their stories. In addition to an original 1857 edition of Northup’s narrative, the experiences of slaves can be found in the state, local, and private records held at the LVA. Some of those stories have already been recounted here on Out of the Box. Unfortunately many of these stories end as tragically as they began.

After 12 long years, Northup managed to escape slavery, but for a young woman wrongfully enslaved in Alexandria, Virginia, that would not be the case. The details appear in the … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: Clifton Roberts, No. 18699 and Sam Washington, No. 21202


Photograph of Clifton Roberts, No. 18699, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs, Box 43, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Welcome to Mug Shot Monday!  This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.  Clifton Roberts and Sam Washington, the subjects of this week’s post, are linked by the stabbing death of Roberts by Washington in front of 800 prisoners in the Penitentiary in 1929.

According to Penitentiary Superintendent Rice M. Youell, Clifton Roberts was “the most dangerous Negro criminal serving time there.”  The 27-year-old West Indies native was convicted of robbery in the Henrico County Circuit Court in January 1923 and sentenced to 10 years in the Penitentiary.  Within four months of his arrival, Roberts lost 20% of his good time for falsifying his work ticket.  In 1924 Roberts, now at the State Farm in Goochland County, threatened to kill two prisoners.  Roberts attempted to kill a prisoner with a hammer but was stopped when another prisoner, John Byrd, broke a stool over Roberts’ head.  Roberts later attempted to stab Byrd.  In November 1924, Roberts twice escaped from State Convict Road Force Camp No. 5.  He was recaptured and two additional years were added to his sentence for attempted escape.

Sam Washington, a 26-year-old from Greensboro, North Carolina, was convicted in Richmond City in 1926 on one count of store breaking and two counts of housebreaking and sentenced to 23 years … read more »

- Frederick Co. Chancery Goes Digital


Buggy advertisements found in Frederick County Chancery Cause Columbia Wagon Co. vs. John G. Crisman & Co., etc., 1903-058.

The Library of Virginia, in partnership with the Frederick County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, is pleased to announce that the digitization of Frederick County’s historic chancery causes, 1860-1912, is now complete. Both the index and images are available to researchers via the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site.

The Frederick County chancery collection covers the years 1745 through 1926 (with digital images posted from 1860 through 1912). The chancery, or equity cases, are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding a locality’s history. They often contain correspondence, property lists (including slaves), lists of heirs, and vital statistics that reveal details that help tell the story of Virginia. Cases contain useful biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free.

Frederick County Chancery Cause 1867-007, Administrator of Hiram A. Jordan vs. Margaret Swann, etc., tells the story of how prior to the Civil War, Catherine Jordan, a free African-American, purchased her husband, Sylvester, but never technically freed him, and their son who attempted to buy his wife. Chancery cause 1899-058, Board of Supervisors of Frederick County, etc. vs. City of Winchester, etc. chronicles a dispute over whether the city or the county controlled the court house property they read more »

- Latest Digital Images of Legislative Petitions Now Available


Account of the services of slave Cuffy during the Revolutionary War, Petition of Eleanor Bowery, 1788, Elizabeth City County, Legislative Petitions to the Virginia General Assembly, State Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Digital images of Legislative Petitions to the Virginia General Assembly, 1776 to 1865, from Bath County through Essex County are now available on Virginia Memory, the Library of Virginia’s digital collections website. The list of localities added includes present-day West Virginia counties such as Barbour, Berkeley, Boone, Braxton, Brooke, Cabell, Calhoun, and Doddridge Counties. It also includes numerous localities classified as Lost Records Localities such as Bland, Buckingham, Caroline, Charles City, Dinwiddie, and Elizabeth City Counties. With this addition, the number of legislative petitions available for viewing online currently number over 5000.

For researchers of African-American history and genealogy, the legislative petitions are an invaluable primary source on the topics of slavery, free African-Americans, and race relations prior to the Civil War. One will find petitions from slave owners seeking approval to import their slaves into the Commonwealth from another state; free African-Americans seeking permission to remain in the Commonwealth; heirs of slave owners seeking to prevent the emancipation of slaves freed by their parent’s will; free African-Americans seeking divorce from their spouse. The following are specific examples of the research potential on African-American history and genealogy that can be found in the collection.

John S. Harrison of Berkeley County petitioned the General Assembly in 1810 asking for permission to import three slaves, named Paris, Letty, and Daniel, from Maryland to Virginia. Harrison … read more »

- Mug Shot Monday: Frank Perry, No. 5610


Photograph of Frank Perry, No. 5610, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 20, Accession 41558, State Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

Welcome to Mug Shot Monday!  This is the latest entry in a series of posts highlighting inmate photographs in the records of the Virginia Penitentiary.  Frank Perry, the subject of this week’s post, was a twice convicted felon who killed himself in front of a courtyard filled with guards.

In December 1899 Frank Perry, a North Carolina native using the name Frank Swann, was sentenced to three years in the Penitentiary for stealing and housebreaking.  He was discharged on 15 July 1902.  Perry didn’t stay out of trouble for long.  The Newport News Corporation Court in September 1904 sentenced Perry to two years in the Penitentiary for felonious cutting.  An additional five years were added to Perry’s sentence since this was his second conviction.

Monday, 6 July 1908, began as any other day at the Penitentiary.  At 6 a.m. the guards issued the call for the prisoners to form the breakfast line.  As the cell doors opened, Frank Perry began to fight with this cellmate, Upshur Lewis.  One of the guards separated the men and ordered Perry to the courtyard.  According to the Richmond Time-Dispatch, Perry appeared to comply with the guard’s order when he suddenly “placed his hand on the railing and dived over twenty-five feet to the stone floor.”  His head hit the floor violently, knocking Perry unconscious; he also … read more »