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 »
When creating a who’s who list of the early days of film, the list is dominated by men – Cecil B. De Mille, D. W. Griffith, Louis B. Mayer. But there was an obscured hero of cinema’s early years making film alongside those males – Alice Guy-Blachè. In 1896, Guy-Blachè became the first female director, screenwriter, and producer. Regardless of gender, Guy-Blachè left a legacy of innovation in film. Her 1896 release, The Cabbage Fairy, was one of the first narrative films ever made. Guy-Blachè experimented with hand-tint colorization and even directed with one of the first sound machines decades before The Jazz Singer was released in 1927. Among her 22 feature-length films was The Lure—a film that made an impact on the city of Winchester by sparking a censorship debate, a conflict that found its way to the local courts in the fall of 1914.
The Lure, adapted from a play by George Scarborough, follows the lives of two young women lured into prostitution and enslaved in a house of ill repute. One young woman is enticed away from a fashionable dancing school by a dashing stranger. The other young woman, working in a department store to support an invalid mother, is lured by the promise of “easy night work.” The two ladies are shown being mistreated and suffering forced … read more »
Isaac D. Simkins, born on 13 January 1775, left Northampton County at age 21 to go to sea. Like many people leaving home on a sea voyage, he wrote his will before departing in June 1796. He asked that his body be decently buried and lent his mother, Anne Simkins, £300 from his estate for her natural life. After her death, the remaining part of his estate would go to his brother, John Simkins, and his heirs. The will, recorded on 10 July 1797, became a point of contention in the Northampton County Chancery Cause Walter C. Gardiner & wife, etc. vs. John Simkins, 1813-008.
In an otherwise mundane estate dispute, the cause of Isaac Simkins’ death was a fascinating side-note. In a deposition, Isaac’s brother, Arthur Simkins, revealed that Isaac had been “impressed by a British Man of War” and died shortly afterwards.
The war between Great Britain and France began in 1793 and continued until 1815. The British Navy used a brutal form of punishment called “flogging” on their sailors, prompting many British sailors to escape to American vessels. Some joined the United States Merchant Marines and others joined the United States Navy. The British Navy used the excuse of looking for their deserted sailors as a right to board American merchant vessels to look for the deserters and contraband. The British … read more »
Has this ever happened to you? You sit down to watch TV but cannot find the remote control, you need to go somewhere but cannot find the keys, you need to make a call but cannot find your phone. You proceed to dig under couch cushions, examine the pockets of recently worn clothes, or use a different phone to call your cell phone. After a diligent and exasperating search, you find what you lost but it in a place where you least expected. A couple living in Rockbridge County in the 1880’s experienced a similar scenario. In their case, they needed the court’s assistance to find the missing item. Their search can be read in Rockbridge County Chancery Cause 1887-038, Petition of William F. Pierson and wife.
Charles J. Brawley departed this life on 10 June 1886 and was buried in a cemetery in Collierstown, Virginia. After the funeral, it came time to divide up Brawley’s vast estate among his beneficiaries. But there was a problem—no one knew where Brawley’s last will and testament was. Acquaintances and family members of Brawley had little doubt that he had written one. They had conversations with Brawley prior to his death that led them to believe he had written his will. One gentleman said that Brawley had named his son-in-law, William F. Pierson, the executor of … 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 »
The Library of Virginia, in partnership with the Rockingham County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, is pleased to announce that the indexing and digitization of Rockingham County’s historic chancery causes is now complete and available online through the Chancery Records Index on the LVA’s Virginia Memory site.
The RockinghamCounty chancery collection covers the years 1781 to 1913 and are a valuable source of local, state, social, and legal history. They often contain correspondence; property lists: including slaves; lists of heirs; and vital statistics that reveal detailed stories 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. (See this earlier blog post for a description of interesting suits covering the issue of slavery found in the chancery causes for the years 1781-1893.)
In addition, the economic boom of the 1880s, and subsequent bust that followed the Panic of 1893, plays out in the chancery causes. Suits 1903-128 and 1909-088 contain prospectuses laying out the grand plans of two land improvement companies that became casualties of that financial downturn. The schemes for new towns, grand hotels, and railroad lines in RockinghamCounty and other parts of the Valley collapsed along with the railroad and banking industries of the U. S., and the creditors and shareholders of the … read more »
While examining the James City County/Williamsburg court records recently, I came across a civil suit titled Gatewood vs. Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company that contained two oversize exhibits. The first was a plat, which is not unusual since plats are commonly found in court records; however, the second oversize exhibit was unusual. It was an illustration of the engine boiler of a steam locomotive. The sketch included numerous tiny arrows showing the direction of air flow in the boiler. The exhibit piqued my curiosity so I read the suit to determine its purpose.
The plaintiff, R. E. Gatewood, filed a civil suit against the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company in James City County Circuit Court on 3 November 1884. In his statement to the court, Gatewood blamed C&O Railway for a fire that caused extensive damage to his property on 14 October 1884. Greenwood claimed that a C&O steam locomotive passing through his property did not have a spark arrestor or, if it did, the spark arrestor was not working properly. (A spark arrestor was a wire netting designed to prevent sparks or other tiny flaming debris from escaping the locomotive’s “balloon stack.”) As a result of the “careless negligence” of the defendant, the plaintiff’s property was set on fire by sparks emitted from the steam locomotive. Valuable timber including oak, chestnut, walnut, and pine … 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 »