• Pages

  • Categories

  • Editors

Tag Archives: African Americans

- “Irrespective of race or color:” African Americans and the Making of a New Virginia Constitution


The State Convention at Richmond, Va., in Session, with Willis A. Hodges in the center front, published in Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, February 15, 1868.

On 17 April 1868, exactly seven years after a Virginia convention had voted to secede from the United States, another Virginia convention voted to approve a new constitution. For the first time in Virginia’s history, African American men participated in framing the state’s governing principles and laws.

The Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography has recently completed a project to document the lives of these African American members of the convention, and their biographies are published online with our digital partner, Encyclopedia Virginia. These biographies (and many others) can be accessed through the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page or through Encyclopedia Virginia.

In 1867 Congress had required states of the former Confederacy (except Tennessee) to write

First Vote, from the cover of Harper's Weekly, November 16, 1867.

new constitutions before their senators and representatives could take their seats in Congress. On 22 October 1867, African American men voted for the first time in Virginia. In the election conducted by U.S. Army officers, voters answered two questions: whether to hold a convention to write a new constitution, and, if the convention referendum passed, who would represent them. Army officers recorded votes of white and black men separately, and some or all localities required voters to place their ballots in separate ballot boxes. Many white Virginians refused to participate in the election or were ineligible because they were former Confederates who had not taken an … read more »

Posted in Other Departments, Virginia Humanities
Also tagged in: , , ,
Leave a comment
Share |

- The Remarkable Hodges Family of Princess Anne County and Norfolk


Caricature of Willis A. Hodges published in Richmond Southern Opinion, December 21, 1867.

During the night of 23 April 1829, six African American men made a daring escape from the Norfolk County jail. One of them was William Johnson Hodges, a free man suspected of forging free papers and passes for enslaved Virginians. In this case, he had been convicted of changing the amount owed on a bill for another man and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He fled to Canada and later settled in Brooklyn.

 The Hodges family of Princess Anne County and Norfolk played an important role in Virginia’s postbellum political landscape. Four members of the family are included as part of the Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography project in collaboration with Encyclopedia Virginia to document the lives of African American legislators and members of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868.

William Johnson Hodges was the eldest son of Charles Augustus Hodges and his second wife, Julia Nelson Willis Hodges, free African Americans of mixed-race ancestry. Julia’s father was a white man who reportedly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The family was one of the more prosperous of the free black families in Princess Anne County. Charles Hodges purchased three farms and his own father’s freedom, and arranged for his children’s education. At some point, almost every member of the family moved to New York to avoid the discrimination and … read more »

- Library of Virginia and Virginia Museum of History & Culture Merge Databases of Records of Enslaved Virginians



Detail. Emancipation / Th. Nast ; King & Baird, printers, 607 Sansom Street, Philadelphia.

 The Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC) and the Library of Virginia are cooperating to provide greater access to African American history and genealogy in Virginia. In early January of 2019, the VMHC’s Unknown No Longer project (over 500 documents containing nearly 12,000 names) was merged with the Library’s Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative (over 10,000 records with more than 100,000 names), providing researchers with unprecedented access to an expanded collection of resources on the history of enslaved and free African Americans in Virginia. The combined databases are now available through the Virginia Untold web page.

“Providing easier access to these records can help researchers break through the so-called ‘brick wall’ of pre–Civil War African American history,” said Librarian of Virginia Sandra Treadway. “We are excited about this partnership, which can help tell more of these stories.”

VMHC’s president and CEO Jamie O. Bosket touted the partnership by saying, “Joining forces with our friends at the Library of Virginia will make work we’ve done even more accessible and useful. We are proud to contribute to the remembrance of so many people from our past whose names were forgotten for far too long.”

This collaboration makes it possible for researchers to access one site to discover stories like those of Peter Spain and Ann Singleton. Peter Spain was enslaved by Robert Spain of … read more »

Posted in Virginia Untold
Also tagged in: , , , , , ,
1 Comment
Share |

- From Lancaster to Lunenburg: Betty Chapman’s Story in Virginia Untold


Free Women of Color with their Children and Servants, oil painting by Agostino Brunias, Dominica, c. 1764–1796. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1788, the Virginia General Assembly reformed the state judicial courts in order alleviate congestion in the General Court, which had caused unreasonable delays in the adjudication of common law cases such as repayment of debts, slander, land disputes, and fraud. They divided the Commonwealth into eighteen district courts, each composed of several counties, plus the district of Kentucky. The Brunswick County District Court heard cases originating in the counties of Brunswick, Greensville, Lunenburg, and Mecklenburg until 1809 when the Superior Court of Law replaced the district courts. The Library of Virginia has scanned district court suits involving enslaved and free African Americans heard in the Brunswick County courthouse and made them available through Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative.

Two suits, William McTyiere [McTyre] William v. John Ussory, Jr, 1798 and Betty Chapman, etc. vs. William McTyre, 1800 found in the Brunswick County District Court records tell the story of Betty Chapman. Both suits papers describe her as a “mulatto” living with her family in Lunenburg County. However, her story really begins in the mid-1750s in Lancaster County. Her mother, Winny Chapman, was a free white woman who lived in the home of Robert McTyre. While living there, Winny gave birth to Betty and a sister named Milly, who was also of mixed-race parentage. Betty and Milly grew up in a community where their neighbors regarded … read more »

Posted in Local Records Blog Posts, Virginia Untold
Also tagged in: , , ,
1 Comment
Share |

- “The Body of an Infant There and Then Laying Dead”: Infanticide in Coroner’s Inquisitions At The Library of Virginia





Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with
Virginia Humanities, sponsors residential fellows during the academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. Kristen Green, an independent author whose previous work was Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County, spent the year researching and writing The Devil’s Half-Acre.

A newborn girl smothered just after birth. A baby girl killed after being struck on the forehead and above the mouth with a brick. An infant boy strangled to death.

All three cases of infanticide were the subject of coroner’s inquisitions in Henrico County in the 1830s and 1840s– and in all three cases, the victims were born to enslaved women and therefore were also enslaved. Virginia law stipulated that the slave status of the babies followed that of their mothers.

When juries were assembled to investigate the three suspicious deaths, each one pointed the finger at the enslaved mother of the baby.

Perusing the Library’s digital collection of inquisitions from around the Commonwealth, I was drawn to these stories of dead babies and the enslaved women investigated for murdering them. Coroner’s inquisitions are county investigations into deaths that are violent, unnatural, or suspicious, and juries are assembled to determine how the person was killed and by whom. The inquisitions, which exist from 1789 to 1942 for Henrico … read more »

- The Legacy of John Henry James


A flag announcing a lynching is flown from the window of the NAACP headquarters on 69 Fifth Ave., New York City in 1938. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On 12 July 1898, an Albemarle County grand jury met to hear evidence against an African American man named John Henry James accused of assaulting a young white woman named Julia Hotopp the previous day.  In an all-too-common response, the local white citizenry became enraged, gathering to exact vigilante justice.  The fact that the young woman was the daughter of a prominent county citizen likely fueled their anger further. Hotopp’s father, William Hotopp, was founder and owner of Monticello Wine Company, the largest wine making company in the county.

Fearing a lynching, local authorities placed James on a train for Staunton the night before the convening of the grand jury. When the train reached Wood’s Crossing near Charlottesville, it was met by an angry mob. The size of the mob varied from 20 to 200 people depending on which newspaper account one reads. Armed men stormed James’s car, placed a rope around his neck, and dragged him to a nearby tree. They demanded that James confess to the crime, gave him a few minutes to pray, and hanged him. James’s death did not quench the mob’s thirst for revenge. They fired dozens of bullets into James’s hanging body. As the mob dispersed, people began taking pieces of the tree and James’s clothing as souvenirs. With his bullet-riddled body still hanging from a tree, the grand … read more »

- More Than an Entry in a Register: Local Government Convict Registers


Virginia Penitentiary, ca. 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

For access purposes, archivists sort local government records held by the Library of Virginia into twenty-three categories, as well as numerous sub-categories encompassing the alphabet from A to W. Due to its size and scope, the court records category is further divided into seven series—chancery, clerk’s records, court finance, criminal, judgments, jury records, and personal documentation. There are also various court-related dockets, memoranda, and petitions, which do not fit into any particular series. The criminal records series contains a wealth of information for both the historian and the genealogist.

The convict registers found in local government records at the Library shed light on a once taboo avenue of research, factoring into the recent debate over felon disenfranchisement and the restoration of voting rights. The Library houses seventeen local government criminal registers—either in their original form at the main building or State Records Center (sample finding aid) or on microfilm in the reading room and via inter library loan. An additional ten registers are preserved only on security microfilm at the State Records Center and presently are not available to the public.

The title of one such register from the City of Alexandria clearly spells out their purpose as “a descriptive list of persons convicted of felony, or other infamous offences in the Corporation Court of Alexandria, Virginia since November 2nd, 1870.” … read more »

Posted in Local Records Blog Posts
Also tagged in: , , , ,
Leave a comment
Share |

- True Son of Freedom: The World War I Experience of James Preston Spencer

True Sons of Freedom, a photographic exhibition at the Library of Virginia, explores the stories of Virginia’s African American World War I soldiers. More than just mementos for families and sweethearts, these portraits challenge the crude and demoralizing cultural products of an era that often reduced African Americans to stereotypes and denied them full participation as citizens of the United States. Reflecting the pride and determination of African American World War I servicemen, the images were submitted with the soldiers’ responses to military service questionnaires created by the Virginia War History Commission, part of an effort to capture the scope of Virginians’ participation in the Great War. The original photographs, reproduced in the gallery at nearly life-size dimensions, place visitors at eye level in front of the soldiers. The monumental scale allows viewers the opportunity to examine rich details not seen in the original photo postcards.

This blog post will examine the life of one of the soldiers featured in the exhibit in greater detail. James Preston Spencer served in the 370th Infantry. He was born on 15 June 1888 in Charlotte Court House, Virginia. His parents, William Spencer and Bettie Reed Henry Spencer, had eleven children in total. Both were born in Charlotte County and presumably into slavery, William in 1856 and Bettie in 1863, at a plantation called … read more »

- A Last Resort: Madison County Reenslavement Petitions


Madison County courthouse.

In 1856, the General Assembly decided that free African Americans could petition their county or city court to be enslaved. These individuals had to be at least twenty-one if male or eighteen if female and they could choose their own master. Once the General Assembly accepted the petition, the only difference between someone who was born a slave and someone who was enslaved as an adult was that the children of a woman born while she was free remained free.

Why would anyone wish to be re-enslaved? An 1806 law made it illegal for a former slave emancipated on or after 1 May 1806 to remain in Virginia for more than a year after emancipation. If the individual stayed past that time, period, the government could sell them as a slave. Individuals could petition the General Assembly to remain in Virginia, or their county or city court beginning after 1837. If the government rejected an individual’s petition, the freed person had to leave the state.

On 13 May 1844, Isham Tatum of Madison County wrote his will. Upon his death, three of his slaves—French, Edmond, and Findley—were to receive their freedom. Another slave, Barber, would receive his freedom after the remarriage or death of Isham Tatum’s wife, Frances. He described four slaves as “boys”—Jeptha, William, Thaddeus, and Timothy—who were also to be manumitted upon the … read more »

Posted in Local Records Blog Posts
Also tagged in: , , , , ,
Leave a comment
Share |

- The Value of a Man: The Muse Brothers of Franklin County


Truevine book cover

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 »

Posted in Archives in the News!
Also tagged in: , , , ,
Leave a comment
Share |