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 »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images for the Middlesex County Chancery Causes, 1754-1912, 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 witness, chancery causes contain a wealth of historical and genealogical information and are especially useful when researching local, state, social, or legal history. They 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, and Southern business and labor history. Following are a few suits of interest found in the collection.
The Middlesex County chancery causes contain many suits illustrating the experiences of African Americans in the tidewater region. In Simon Laughlin vs. Jacob Valentine, 1773-005, Laughlin sues for the recovery of funds he spent on boat and horse hire while traveling to a prison in Snow Hill, Maryland, looking for a runaway slave. In 1858, Elizabeth Thornton initiated two suits in attempt to get rid of unwanted slaves. In Elizabeth Thornton vs. Margaret Thornton, 1858-012, Thornton claimed that Jane had a “very bad disposition” and had become “almost worthless.” Jane supposedly was a “very bad girl, a notorious rouge,” and “very idle.” After successfully selling Jane, Thornton then sought to get rid … read more »
In court documents from Lunenburg County Chancery Cause 1856-042, the petition of Araminta Frances reveals an interesting and life-changing request. On 10 March 1856 Araminta Frances, a free woman of color, petitioned the court asking to be enslaved.
Araminta was once the slave (along with at least two others) of James G. Richardson. Richardson’s last will and testament, probated 9 December 1850, left the majority of his estate, including finances, property, and slaves, to his daughter, Sarah A. Richardson, two nephews, and friend John L. Coleman. The provisions for the slaves were clearly spelled out. One negro male slave, Cezar, was to go to James G. Richardson’s nephew, James R. Walker, and John L. Coleman “to be taken care of by them and to be paid to him [Cezar] yearly by them the full amount of his yearly value.” Richardson also stipulated that “my negro child Virginia and Minty’s [presumably Araminta] child yet unborn” should be emancipated and receive the sum of $500 each or $1,000 if his daughter Sarah should die without issue. Minty (or Araminta) would be emancipated should his daughter, Sarah, die without having married. A copy of James G. Richardson’s will was included with the petition as supporting documentation for Araminta’s case.
Also included in the case was a bill passed by the General Assembly on 20 December 1855 allowing Araminta … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce the addition of Scott County and Washington County to the cohabitation register digitization project. This project, via the Virginia Memory website, aims to index, digitize, transcribe, and provide access to all known Virginia cohabitation registers and the related registers of children whose parents had ceased to cohabit. The Scott and Washington registers are cohabitation registers only. To date, their registers of children have not come to light.
Cohabitation registers are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the oftentimes murky past to their enslaved ancestors. The registers date from 1866 and provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover. Cohabitation registers were the legal vehicles by which former slaves legitimized both their marriages and their children. The information about an individual person contained in a cohabitation register is literally priceless as it is often the first time that a former slave appeared officially in the public record and because of the extensive kinds of information that the register recorded.
The registers, transcriptions, and searchable index are available online along with the other registers from Virginia localities in the Cohabitation Register Digital Collection in Virginia Memory. To find it … read more »
While watching the February 2012 episode of NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? featuring actor and Petersburg native Blair Underwood investigating his family history, Library of Virginia staff could not help but notice that one of the original volumes displayed on the show was not in great shape. The Amherst County Register of Free Negroes, 1822-1864, was used on the show to prove that one of Underwood’s ancestors had been a free person prior to the Civil War. The front and back covers of the volume had become detached from the spine, pages were loose, and overall it did not look like the book could withstand much handling without sustaining further damage to its fragile pages. This led to a reevaluation of the existing conservation priority for the 30 free Negro registers in the Library’s holdings. Previously it was thought that since all of the free Negro registers were microfilmed, the original volumes would not be handled by the public any longer, thus conservation money would be better spent on other items. However, the resurgence of interest in African American genealogy, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and related issues, and interest in the registers for display in exhibits clearly indicated that a change was necessary. A conservation inventory was done for all of the volumes and the ones that require treatment will … read more »
In November of 1860, executor William F. Smith was in a pickle. Charged with settling the estate of Elizabeth P. Via of Augusta County, he had recently been a defendant in both a chancery and a judgment suit from seven of Via’s heirs that challenged the validity of her will. The heirs objected to the provisions that Via made for her slaves, namely that they all be emancipated. Additionally, she left $4,000 to transport them to a free state and set them up in homes there. The remainder of her estate was to be distributed amongst Via’s heirs who were not pleased by this and thought it in their best interest to have the will invalidated so that they could get everything, including the slaves that were left at Via’s death. The will was upheld, however, and then it was time for executor Smith to get on with the business of carrying out Via’s wishes. But there were some questions that he struggled to answer about his job as executor.
At issue were several points. Did children born since Via’s death have an interest in the money left to the slaves? What should happen to the residue of the $4,000 after the will’s provisions were carried out? How should title to any house or land purchased for the emancipated slaves be done? The slaves had … read more »
The Library of Virginia is pleased to announce that digital images from the Prince George County chancery causes digitization project are now available on the Chancery Records Index. Both the images and the index cover the years 1809-1917 and are available to researchers on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site.
The following are a few suits of interest found in the newly available Prince George County chancery digital images. Richard W. Backus vs. Admr. of John B. Williams, etc., 1837-003, references the postponement of the sale of a slave named Ursa because she was ill. Divorce suit 1875-001, David Harrison vs. Eliza A. Harrison, includes a letter from the court clerk referencing the destruction of a marriage license by the “Raiders” during the Civil War. Another divorce suit, Bettie Hays vs. William Hays, 1908-003 provides detailed testimony given by the plaintiff of spousal abuse by her husband. (These divorce cases join one already mentioned here on Out of the Box – a divorce in which the husband claimed that the child his wife gave birth to could not possibly be his.) In chancery cause 1916-023, Cubit Stith vs. Lucy Jackson, etc., Cubit Stith describes himself as an uneducated colored man who was born a slave. He and his daughter, Lucy Jackson, were in a bitter dispute for control … read more »
Editor’s Note: On Sunday 4 February 2013, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a front page article on the 1963 Danville civil rights demonstrations. The Library of Virginia has case files for more than 250 individuals who were charged with various offenses during these protests. This blog post originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of The Delimiter, an in-house Library newsletter. This entry has been slightly edited.
The fortieth anniversary of the 1963 Danville civil rights demonstrations passed earlier this year  with merely a brief mention in the press. In the summer of 1963, violence erupted in Danville, Virginia, as the Danville establishment led by Police Chief Eugene G. McCain struggled to keep Jim Crow order during a series of civil rights demonstrations led by local and national black leaders. Of the 45 demonstrators arrested in front of the city jail on 10 June, nearly all required medical attention at the hospital for injuries that some defendants testified were the result of being pistol-whipped or struck with nightsticks. As evidenced in the Civil Rights Demonstrations Cases legal files on microfilm and audio compact discs at the Library of Virginia, sporadic demonstrations continued until late August 1963 despite the violence.
In the late summer of 1999, the Danville Circuit Clerk of Court transferred the legal files of the Civil Rights Demonstration Cases to … read more »