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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
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 »
One day in 1898, A.M. Scales definitely did not have Georgia on his mind.
While processing the Patrick County chancery records, I discovered a divorce case, Georgia L. Scales, by etc. vs. A. M. Scales, in which Georgia, a white woman, caught her husband, A. M. Scales, committing adultery with their African American cook. The chancery case describes Georgia as a loving wife who faithfully served her family—a stark contrast to Mr. Scales.
Throughout their ten years of marriage, according to the suit, A. M. Scales lived a carefree life filled with riotous living and degrading insults for Georgia. He even asked merchants to not provide Georgia with credit for food and supplies leaving Georgia to despairingly provide for herself and her four children. After doling out years of abuse, Mr. Scales was determined that Georgia wouldn’t amount to anything, so he decided to separate from her and their children on 24 September 1897.
Georgia was fine with the separation because, despite a lack of proof, she always suspected that her husband had an affair. One day, Georgia’s suspicions proved true when she returned home from a prayer meeting and found her husband in the kitchen committing adultery with her cook. After being caught in the act, Mr. Scales decided to contain his adulterous affairs to the privacy of a hotel.
Shortly thereafter, an African … read more »
Divorces reveal much about the inner-workings of a family, usually much more than outsiders should ever discover. While processing the Arlington County chancery causes, I came across a divorce case that filled two whole boxes. That’s .90 cubic feet of possible scandal and mayhem! The case Nannie R. Shelley vs. William C. Shelley, 1907-055, was quite the interesting case featuring interracial relationships, mental institutions, and an overly dramatic, possibly unstable daughter.
In 1907, Nannie Shelley sued for divorce, alleging infidelity and physical and mental abuse. She claimed William Shelley treated her not as a wife but as if she were a “despised and hated slave.” He forbade her any social relations and made her religion a “matter of scorn and ridicule.” He choked her and dragged her across the floor and finally threatened to kill her saying he would “try the McCue act on her.” (At the time of this divorce case, former Charlottesville mayor J. Samuel McCue’s alleged murder of his wife and subsequent trial was much in the news.)
Nannie suffered a nervous condition, supposedly as a result of her husband’s cruel treatment, that William used as an excuse to incarcerate her for three months in a “private mad house.” Although not declared legally insane, three doctors examined her and determined she suffered from paranoia. Nannie believed she ought to have been … read more »
The Surry County Chancery Causes, 1785-1922 (bulk 1806-1917), contain valuable biographical, genealogical, and historical information and document a broad spectrum of citizens of Surry County—rich and poor, black and white, slave and free. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.
Chancery Cause 1830-037, Mary Pettway, etc. vs. Admr. of John Pettway Judkins, etc. is an estate settlement suit. John Pettway Judkins died without a will; therefore, the court had to determine who all was related to Judkins in order to ensure they received their fair share of his estate, including slaves. The suit contains a list of Judkins’ relatives showing how they were related to him.
Chancery Cause 1869-002, Enna (or Rosenna) Rowena Messersmith by etc. vs. Joseph M. Messersmith is a divorce suit that had its origins in the Civil War. Joseph served in a local Surry County unit attached to the 13th Virginia Regiment. He and Enna were married on 23 September 1862 in Surry County while Joseph was on a short furlough. Emma rarely saw her husband over the next two years. Enna informed the court that she last saw her husband in January 1864 in Petersburg. She learned from someone who served with Joseph that in the spring of 1864 Joseph went AWOL and was believed to have fled to western Virginia. Enna told … read more »
As public schools across Virginia open this week, Out of the Box would like to spotlight the records of the Virginia Pupil Placement Board, a state agency created in 1956 in reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) United States Supreme Court decision. The Pupil Placement Board, as one arm of Virginia’s policy of Massive Resistance, was charged with assigning, enrolling, or placing students to and in public schools, a task formerly under the control of local school boards and divisions of superintendents. The board operated from 1957 to 1966, but its power diminished with the end of Massive Resistance in 1959. The collection, now available to researchers, contains 746 boxes of paper records. Included are correspondence and subject files, personnel files, board minutes, legal files, maps, publications and newspaper clippings, and applications for student placement.
The board’s authorizing legislation required members to take several factors into consideration when placing a pupil in a school. Factors included but were not limited to the health of the pupil, his or her aptitudes, the availability of transportation, and, “such other relevant matters as may be pertinent to the efficient operation of the schools or indicate a clear and present danger to the public peace and tranquility affecting the safety or welfare of the citizens of such school district.” Students who were already in … read more »
Once a neglected subject, the role that African American slaves played in Southern colleges has become the focus of new research. Virginia being no exception, our oldest and most established institutions of higher learning such as the University of Virginia, William and Mary, and Hampden-Sydney College all relied on slaves for providing the colleges with necessary services. Often, the slaveholders in neighboring areas allowed their own slaves to be hired out to the colleges as servants. The slave’s master was then paid a salary, typically at a yearly rate, for the services that his slave provided to the college. These African Americans worked to construct buildings, provide general upkeep and maintenance of the college grounds, and act as servants to faculty, students, and staff.
Found in the Library of Virginia’s Local Records Collections is a City of Lynchburg judgment, A. D. Dickinson vs. Hampden-Sydney College, which sheds light on this often under-studied type of Southern slavery. In this case, A. D. Dickinson sued Hampden-Sydney College for not paying him the proper amount of money for the services that his slave, David Ross, provided the college. Charles Martin, the college curator, and A. D. Dickinson agreed that Hampden-Sydney would pay Dickinson a yearly sum of $150 for Ross’s work. The tasks that Ross was expected to fulfill were specified in the deposition given by Martin … read more »