Tag Archives: Emancipation

- 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: Deeds of Emancipation and Manumission

This is the fourth 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.




The Petersburg Deeds of Manumission from April 1822 relate the tale of James Dunlop and his slave, John Brown. Dunlop, suffering from an unspecified illness, traveled between Virginia’s resort towns seeking treatment. Many considered the natural springs in Hot Springs and Lexington, among others, sources of healing for numerous maladies. Dunlop decided to free or “manumit” his slave John for “John’s great and unusual attention to me while under a very severe illness.”  While the pair was visiting Lexington, the local doctor was absent for some days in the country. Dunlop experienced a spell “brought on by exposure to the rain while on a trip to the Natural Bridge, after visiting Hot Springs and using freely the hot baths.” He felt that his life “was in imminent danger.” The only person Dunlop knew in Lexington was John Brown. During Dunlop’s illness, Brown took care of him. Recalling this experience years later, Dunlop wrote:

“[without Brown’s] close and extraordinary attention in watching over my disease, administering medicines and nourishment to me, agreeable to the best of his skill night and day, it is more than probable I

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- A Disregard of Freedom: Burwell versus Pilson’s Administrators


Illustrated London News, A Slave Auction in Virginia (February 16, 1861).

What does it mean to be free? Some might define freedom as having no obligations to a particular thing or person. A free person cannot be owned by anyone, or forced to do anything they do not want to do. However, in Patrick County, Virginia, amid the conclusion of the Civil War, freedom had an entirely different meaning.

The dispute in the chancery cause William A. Burwell vs. Adms. of Richard Pilson, 1871-011, concerns two slaves in Patrick County who were sold as part of the estate of the late Richard Pilson. The purchaser, William A. Burwell, used an estimated $2,800 secure bond to purchase the slaves at a public auction in June 1865. The bond signified a promise to pay before the end of a 12-month period. Burwell’s transaction was not uncommon. Slaves were often bought and sold as part of estates, even throughout the Civil War. However, the interesting part of this transaction was that the war was quickly coming to an end.

Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union forces in April 1865—two months before Burwell’s purchase. This surrender afforded enslaved men and women the right to freedom under President Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation and the document known as the “Alexandria Constitution,” which governed Virginia during the early years of military occupation. These actions had … read more »

- Sometimes You DO Find a Needle in a Haystack: The Augusta Co. Cohabitation Register


Augusta County courthouse, ca. 1910.

Cohabitation registers are among the most important genealogical resources for African-Americans attempting to connect their family lines back through the murky past to their enslaved ancestors.  The registers date from 1866 and provide a snapshot in time for the individuals recorded therein and provide a wealth of information that may otherwise be impossible, or at least very difficult, to uncover.  Historians are also interested in the registers because of what the registers might say about a particular community of people at a time when great changes had come about as a result of the Civil War and the end of slavery.  Locating the complete Augusta County Cohabitation Register took persistence, determination and luck.  The concerted effort of the circuit court clerk’s office and the Library of Virginia’s Local Records staff working together solved this nearly 150 year old mystery.

In 2007 Augusta County Circuit Court Clerk John Davis informed LVA staff that four cohabitation sheets had been discovered in his office . Officially titled the Register of Colored Persons of Augusta County, Virginia, Cohabiting Together as Husband and Wife on February 27th, 1866, a cohabitation register was the legal vehicle by which former slaves legitimized both their marriages and their children. The information about an individual person contained in the cohabitation register is literally priceless as it is often the first time … read more »

- “There is yet enough left of the old barbarism of slavery”: Violence in Post-Emancipation Virginia

This is the first in a series of four blog posts concerning post-Civil War Virginia and the lives of freedpeople after Emancipation. The posts precede the Library of Virginia exhibition Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation opening 6 July 2015.


“Burning of Churches in Petersburg. “ Harper’s Weekly, May 19, 1866.

Black assertions of personal, political, and economic autonomy and freedom after the Civil War ran headlong into white resistance. Southern whites, embittered by the war and desperately clinging to an antebellum model of race relations, violently attempted to enforce labor contracts, social mores, and claims to political supremacy. Local and state records, newspapers, broadsides, engravings, and federal records on microfilm in the Library of Virginia’s vast collection reinforce the frequency and brutality of violence in this turbulent period.

Before the Civil War, Virginia whites of all classes exerted repressive control over enslaved people through legal codes, harsh punishments, slave patrols, pass systems, and the threat of sale. Whites were especially fearful of slave rebellions. Emancipation and the occupying Federal army took away that control, and white fears of retribution became palpable. Whites openly talked of an impending “Race War,” and attempted to disarm African Americans and re-arm whites. In Louisa and Culpeper Counties, the confiscation of arms from African Americans prompted officials of the Freedmen’s Bureau to order the weapons returned.  Adjutant General William H. Richardson wrote to Governor Frances Pierpont in support of an Elizabeth … read more »

- The Long Wait for Freedom: A Montgomery County Freedom Suit

This is part two of a two part post on a fascinating freedom suit discovered during the Montgomery County Circuit Court Records Project. Part one of the story was published last week.


Wanted ad, 6 August 1842, Connecticut Courant, p. 6.

Flora continued to live with the Charltons, eventually moving to the Seven Mile Tree home built by James Charlton. While there is no further evidence that Flora was able to pursue a freedom suit prior to her death, her narrative served as the basis for suits filed by her daughters and their children. James Charlton’s death in 1825 probably served as the trigger for this series of chancery suits, as Cena and Unis contemplated the possibility that their own families might be broken up and sold away. An 1825 appraisement of James Charlton’s estate indicates that he claimed twenty-one slaves, at least twelve of whom petitioned for freedom. The size and value of Flora’s family had increased since her 1784 arrival in Virginia; by 1825 they were worth over $3,000 dollars.

The series of freedom suits initiated in 1826 would not be resolved until 1853. Cena and Unis sued for their own freedom and by extension that of their children and grandchildren: Andrew, Reuben, Julius, William, Helen, Mary, Tarlton, Matilda, James, and Flora. All of these individuals were designated paupers and represented by counsel. In addition to claiming that their Flora had … read more »

- Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom


Nast, Thomas, Emancipation, LC-DIG-pga-03898, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

With its roots in 19th-century Texas, Juneteenth has grown into a popular event across the country to commemorate emancipation from slavery and celebrate African American culture. Juneteenth refers to June 19, the date in 1865 when the Union Army arrived in Galveston and announced that the Civil War was over and that slaves were free under the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the proclamation had become official more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, freedmen in Texas adopted June 19th, later known colloquially as Juneteenth, as the date they celebrated emancipation. Juneteenth celebrations continued into the 20th century, and survived a period of declining participation because of the Great Depression and World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s Juneteenth celebrations witnessed a revival as they became catalysts for publicizing civil rights issues of the day. In 1980 the Texas state legislature established June 19 as a state holiday.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that Juneteenth spread to other parts of the country, including Virginia. Inspired by a Juneteenth event at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum in 1992, Juneteenth celebrations were being held each year in cities and towns throughout Virginia by the end of that decade. In a 2007 resolution, the Virginia House of Delegates recognized June 19 as “Juneteenth Freedom Day” in the state. Across the country, Juneteenth events now can … read more »