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 »
Here at Out of the Box we’re still celebrating Archives Month 2013, and while getting ready for the Library of Virginia’s 30 October event “Homegrown: Celebrating Virginia’s Cultural Heritage in its Archives and Special Collections,” we’ve had many conversations about local food movements and urban farming. Some issues that came up included land use and neighborhood development—especially when it comes to animals. Some people just don’t want a rooster or goat living next door. Livestock in the city limits is certainly not a strictly modern issue. In fact, we uncovered an early 20th-century Portsmouth City chancery cause in which a horse was causing problems in the summer resort town of Virginia Beach.
The Norfolk and Virginia Beach Railroad and Improvement Company purchased land in Princess Anne County in 1883 to create a “high order summer resort” called Virginia Beach. The company hoped to attract refined and cultured people to purchase land to build cottages and residences. The original deeds sold by the company included seven covenants that were to be followed for the construction of buildings and use of the property. One of the covenants forbade the building of public or private stables on the lots. According to B. P. Holland, a real estate agent, the covenants were made “to have a high order of summer resorts and to do away with … 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 »
Two types of immigrants came to America without paying their own passage—indentured servants and redemptioners. Indentured servants would sign a contract, called an indenture, before they sailed agreeing to serve for a period of years in exchange for passage to America. The term of service was typically between four to seven years. Redemptioners were a similar type of immigrant; however they made their agreement with the shipping merchant to be transported without paid passage. Upon landing in America, they were given a short period of time to find family or friends willing to pay all or part of their passage. If funds could not be secured, they then signed on as servants and their indentures could be sold in order to satisfy the debt.
The practice of buying and selling redemptioners and indentured servants can be found in Augusta County Chancery Cause James Kelzo, etc. vs. Samuel McChesney, 1796-008. James Kelzo (spelled frequently as Kelso) and James Wilson of Augusta County and Samuel McChesney of Culpeper County formed a partnership to purchase and sell indentured servants. Wilson and McChesney were to make the arrangements for selling the servants, and the partners agreed to divide the net profits equally among them.
With three men responsible for reporting accounts and divvying up profits, it wasn’t long before accusations of withholding funds landed the business partnership … 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 »
The romantic landscape may seem ambiguous in 2013, but courtship in 19th-century Virginia was no different. Think those text messages are hard to decipher? Try reading an 1850s love letter full of rigid social etiquette. Dating and its inherent potential for rejection have always been hard. A letter found amongst chancery papers from Middlesex County attests to the fact that romantic rejection can happen to anyone, regardless of the time period.
One woman who had no use for ambiguity when it came to rejecting a would-be suitor was L. B. Powers. On 26 September 1849, she responded to Henry Sears’ letter requesting the “privilege of waiting on” her. She was to the point, not bothering to spare feelings, and offered up her reasons for refusing his courtship:
“I have no objection of your waiting on me but as you are in a hurry for a wife I think it is best for you to dispense with your conversation as I think there is no earthly chance of my agreeing with your proposal for it is something I never intend to give my consent to marry a man without I love them therefore I think it is best for us both to dispense with our writings and conversation as I cannot love you.
I do not think that my age will suit yours not
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 »
Cornbread and cabbage turned lethal for one Petersburg woman, but it was another woman’s need for some chicken feed that exposed the death as something more nefarious than a simple case of food poisoning. Parmelia Williamson became “deathly sick” after consuming what proved to be her last meal on 9 June 1909. Junius Williamson, Parmelia’s husband, first used the word “poison” to describe his wife’s condition because he did “not think she washed the ham as it oughter [sic] have been.” Even Parmelia said “her stomach felt like it did when she was poisoned in the country.”
Attended by her husband and neighbor Delia Brooks, Parmelia was examined by a Dr. W. C. Powell who pronounced it a case of “Cholera Morbus,” but Parmelia insisted, “I have no Cholera Morbus, I am poisoned.” He gave her a hypodermic injection, put hot water bottles to her feet, and left. As she continued vomiting, her condition worsened, and she threw her arms up and said, “Delia, save me, do not let me die…save me for the sake of my poor little infant baby.” Another doctor, James E. Smith, was called and pronounced that Mrs. Williamson would not live two hours and that she had been poisoned by arsenic or “Paris Green,” a compound used as an insecticide for produce in the 1900s. After she gasped … 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 »