Tag Archives: African Americans

- 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 »

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- Mug Shot Monday: John Henry Green, No. 44916


Photograph of John Henry Green, No.44916, Records of the Virginia Penitentiary, Series II. Prisoner Records, Subseries B. Photographs and Negatives, Box 238, 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. John Henry Green, known as the “Singing Ice Man,” murdered his wife and sister-in-law after a quarrel in 1941.


Marriage Certificate of John Green and Thelma Pointer, married 30 June 1938, Ancestry.com. Virginia, Marriage Records, 1936-2014 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.

John Henry Green, age 17, married 16-year-old Thelma Pointer on 30 June 1938 in Richmond. Green worked for the Richmond Ice Company. He was well known for singing on local radio programs and while he worked delivering ice and coal. By 1941, the couple was estranged. On 9 February 1941, Thelma and Dorothy McClure, Green’s sister-in-law, went to Green’s home at 1205 West Leigh Street to beat him up. When Green opened the door, the two women attacked him. Green pulled out his .38 caliber pistol and shot each woman once in the head. Thelma died instantly; Dorothy the next morning. Witnesses stated that after the shooting, Green casually left his home and walked to the police station to turn himself in.

Green was found guilty of manslaughter on 1 April 1941 in the Circuit Court of Richmond and sentenced to two five-year consecutive terms in the Virginia Penitentiary. He was paroled on 18 June 1945.

Twelve years later history repeated itself.  On the evening of 7 February 1953, Green got into an argument with John French and his sister, Katherine … read more »

- Willis M. Carter Journal and Research Collection Donated to the Library of Virginia


Title Page, A Sketch of My Life and Our Family Record, Willis M. Carter Collection, ca. 1896-2016. Accession 51546. Personal papers collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Author and researcher Deborah Harding recently donated to the Library of Virginia a rare, firsthand account of slavery and its aftermath written by Willis M. Carter, a once influential but now little known 19th century civil rights pioneer. “A Sketch of My Life and Our Family Record” was acquired by African American historian Cuesta Benberry in the mid-seventies and entrusted to Harding to research and authenticate in 2005. It is the centerpiece of a larger collection of material on Carter compiled over ten years of research on his life and work. The Willis M. Carter Collection, ca. 1894-2016 (accession 51546), also includes the only surviving copy of Carter’s newspaper, the Staunton Tribune dated 1 September 1894 (donated by Jennifer Vickers of Staunton, VA); a handwritten memorial tribute written at Carter’s death by his fellow teachers in Staunton; 18 boxes of supporting research that include depositions from the family that once owned Carter and their views on the Civil War, as well as additional material on slavery, education, and early civil rights in Virginia; a cross referenced manuscript by Harding summarizing Carter’s life and work; and a companion finding aid. The journal, newspaper and memorial tribute have been digitized and are available to researchers online.

Willis McGlascoe Carter was born into slavery in 1852 in Albemarle County, Virginia. He achieved a formal education at … read more »

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- 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 »

- 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: 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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- A Knight Unlike Any Other: John Mitchell & The Knights of Pythias


John Mitchell campaign button, found in Nottoway Co. chancery causes, Library of Virginia.

While processing Nottoway County chancery causes several years ago, Local Records Archivist Louise Jones came across a most unusual item fastening several papers together:  a campaign button advertising the bid of John Mitchell, Jr., to become Supreme Chancellor of the Virginia branch of the Colored Knights of Pythias.

The Knights of Pythias is a fraternal benevolent association founded in 1864 by Justus H. Rathbone in Washington, D.C. It began as a secret society for government clerks but soon expanded its membership. The order’s founding was in part an effort to shore up the government by healing the discord and enmity between the northern and southern parts of the country. The society took its inspiration from the Greek myth of Damon and Pythias. In the legend, Pythias had been sentenced to death by King Dionysius and Damon offered himself as collateral so that Pythias could return home to say goodbye to his family. If Pythias did not return, Damon would be killed in his place. Pythias was delayed by robbers while returning and Damon was nearly executed, but Pythias arrived just in time to save him. The king was so impressed by the true friendship of the two men that he released both and made them his counselors. The Knights of Pythias thus took “Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence” as their motto and their mission. Philosophically, the … read more »

- Kaine Email Project @LVA: Oliver Hill

This is the ninth in a series of posts spotlighting recently released email from Governor Tim Kaine’s administration.  These posts are not meant to be comprehensive but to encourage further exploration in the Kaine administration records (electronic and paper).


Governor Tim Kaine, Oliver Hill, Governor Linwood Holton, First Lady Anne Holton, Oliver Hill Reception, Executive Mansion, 28 April 2006, Office of the Governor (Kaine : 2006-2010), State Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.

On Tuesday, 23 June, a portrait on loan from the University of Richmond of civil rights activist and attorney Oliver Hill (1907-2007) will be unveiled at the Virginia Executive Mansion. Larissa Smith Ferguson wrote in the Encyclopedia Virginia that as the lead attorney for the Virginia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) “Hill and his colleagues filed more legal challenges to segregation than any other lawyers in the South and successfully undermined segregation and discrimination in all walks of southern life.” The mansion was also the location of a more somber event during Governor Tim Kaine’s administration (2006-2010):  Hill’s viewing was held there on 11 August 2007.  His funeral took place the next day at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.  The Kaine email collection tells the story of these events.

Oliver Hill was a hero and inspiration to Tim Kaine. He first learned about Hill while attending the University of Missouri where he read Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice, a history of desegregation. “The example of Mr. Hill and the other courageous lawyers of the era,” Kaine wrote … read more »

- Spotsylvania County Chancery Causes Online


Spotsylvania County seal

The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for Spotsylvania County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1812-1913, are now available online through the Chancery Records Index on LVA’s Virginia Memory website. Chancery cases are useful when researching local history, genealogical information, and land or estate divisions. They are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history and serve as a primary source for understanding a locality’s history.

Following are a few suits of interest found in the Spotsylvania County chancery collection. Fortune Coleman etc., vs Gdn. of Henry Coleman etc., 1900-016 is a dispute over land and mineral rights of a “colored” family.  In the Petition of Thomas M. Henry, 1906-047, this is a request to access land for development of a multi-county transit system.  Mary Ella Gray vs. James Oliver B. Gray, 1913-006, is a divorce case with an illustrative biblical certificate used as a legal as proof of marriage.

The processing and scanning of the Spotsylvania County chancery causes were made possible through the innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), a cooperative program between the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Court Clerks Association (VCCA), which seeks to preserve the historic records found in Virginia’s circuit courts.

–Joanne Porter, Local Records Archivist… read more »