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Tag Archives: Free African Americans

- Martha Ann Hobson: A Mother’s Day Story


Wells, Jacob, Fortress Monroe, Va. and its vicinity, [New York], Virtue & Co., c1862. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

While processing some City of Richmond court records from the Civil War era, I came across the remarkable narrative of a mother named Martha Hobson. A search of Richmond newspapers on Virginia Chronicle and additional city records revealed more about her experience. It is appropriate to share Martha’s story during Mother’s Day week.

Martha Ann Hobson was born enslaved in the early 1820s. We do not know the name of the person who first enslaved her, but sometime in the 1830s her husband, a free African American man named Richard C. Hobson, purchased her. Around 1840, they had a son named Robert C. Hobson. Richard emancipated his wife and son in a deed recorded on 8 July 1850 in the Hustings Court of the City of Richmond. Soon after her emancipation, Martha registered as a “free black,” and the Hustings Court granted her permission to remain in the commonwealth.

Over the course of the 1850s, Martha’s husband used the income he earned as barber to acquire property in Richmond. According to the 1860 census, Richard Hobson held real estate valued at $3,300, which equals nearly $100,000 in today’s dollars. The Hobsons lived in the Second Ward (east of 22nd Street) of Richmond where their neighbors were lawyers, merchants, underwriters, and the city sheriff, all of whom were white.

Around 1860, anticipating the limited educational opportunities … read more »

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- The Remarkable Hodges Family of Princess Anne County and Norfolk


Caricature of Willis A. Hodges published in Richmond Southern Opinion, December 21, 1867.

During the night of 23 April 1829, six African American men made a daring escape from the Norfolk County jail. One of them was William Johnson Hodges, a free man suspected of forging free papers and passes for enslaved Virginians. In this case, he had been convicted of changing the amount owed on a bill for another man and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He fled to Canada and later settled in Brooklyn.

 The Hodges family of Princess Anne County and Norfolk played an important role in Virginia’s postbellum political landscape. Four members of the family are included as part of the Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography project in collaboration with Encyclopedia Virginia to document the lives of African American legislators and members of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868.

William Johnson Hodges was the eldest son of Charles Augustus Hodges and his second wife, Julia Nelson Willis Hodges, free African Americans of mixed-race ancestry. Julia’s father was a white man who reportedly served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The family was one of the more prosperous of the free black families in Princess Anne County. Charles Hodges purchased three farms and his own father’s freedom, and arranged for his children’s education. At some point, almost every member of the family moved to New York to avoid the discrimination and … read more »

- Library of Virginia and Virginia Museum of History & Culture Merge Databases of Records of Enslaved Virginians



Detail. Emancipation / Th. Nast ; King & Baird, printers, 607 Sansom Street, Philadelphia.

 The Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC) and the Library of Virginia are cooperating to provide greater access to African American history and genealogy in Virginia. In early January of 2019, the VMHC’s Unknown No Longer project (over 500 documents containing nearly 12,000 names) was merged with the Library’s Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative (over 10,000 records with more than 100,000 names), providing researchers with unprecedented access to an expanded collection of resources on the history of enslaved and free African Americans in Virginia. The combined databases are now available through the Virginia Untold web page.

“Providing easier access to these records can help researchers break through the so-called ‘brick wall’ of pre–Civil War African American history,” said Librarian of Virginia Sandra Treadway. “We are excited about this partnership, which can help tell more of these stories.”

VMHC’s president and CEO Jamie O. Bosket touted the partnership by saying, “Joining forces with our friends at the Library of Virginia will make work we’ve done even more accessible and useful. We are proud to contribute to the remembrance of so many people from our past whose names were forgotten for far too long.”

This collaboration makes it possible for researchers to access one site to discover stories like those of Peter Spain and Ann Singleton. Peter Spain was enslaved by Robert Spain of … read more »

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- What a Difference a Day Makes: Serendipity in the Reading Room


1834 woodcut depicting the kidnapping of a freeman, Library of Congress.

The Library of Virginia employs both reference archivists and processing archivists. Reference archivists work exclusively with the public—the Library’s front line. Processing archivists work behind-the-scenes to arrange, conserve, and describe the collections—whether private papers, state records, or local government materials. Large-scale gatherings such as conferences afford the Library’s archivists an opportunity to work together, as it is all hands on deck for major events.  In October 2015, the Afro-American Historical Genealogical Society (AAHGS) held its 36th annual national conference in Richmond.  The Library of Virginia hosted AAHGS members for several formal and informal events during the conference.

While volunteering with the reference staff during the conference, I had a chance meeting with one of the Library’s long-time patrons, James Bundick.  Mr. Bundick resides in Philadelphia but is researching his family in Accomack County, Virginia.  He traveled for years to the Accomack County courthouse for his research, but now he and his wife are happily ensconced at the Library. While making copies of chancery related documents for his research, I introduced myself. I then proceeded to tell him about a story that I had discovered a few weeks earlier while processing Accomack County chancery causes. Given the coincidence of the same last name, I felt that there was a relationship between him and the individual in the story.

There is a debt suit, Jacob Warner read more »

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- Our History as Told by the Pittsylvania County Court Records


Photographic view of the Pittsylvania County courthouse, State Route 57 & U. S. Route 29, Chatham, Pittsylvania County, Virginia. Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

In the past few months, I have examined dozens of boxes of unprocessed Pittsylvania County court records dating back to the 1760s, searching for chancery causes for a future project. Most of the bundles appeared to have remained unopened since the day they were filed away over two centuries ago. Along the way, I discovered various documents that told the individual stories of people from different backgrounds that when brought together produced a integrated historical narrative of Pittsylvania County.

One box contained a bundle of declarations for Revolutionary War pensions filed in the Pittsylvania County Court. Declarations are narratives recorded by Revolutionary War veterans recounting their tours of duty fifty years earlier. One veteran named Lewis Ralph was 100-years-old at the time he filed his declaration in 1820. A native North Carolinian, Ralph enlisted in 1775 for a three-year term. He noted that he served “two years and a half a sargent [sic] under General Washington” and fought at the battles of Monmouth, Germantown, and Brandywine. He was discharged at West Point in 1778 and after the war moved to Pittsylvania County.

In a bundle of court papers dated 1811, I found the naturalization record of Alexander Brown. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Brown immigrated to the United States at the age of 18 in 1799. He initially resided in Petersburg where he worked as a … read more »

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- “Nat’s War”: The Southampton Slave Rebellion of 1831


Discovery of Nat Turner: wood engraving illustrating Benjamin Phipps's capture of Nat Turner. p. 154 of 1894's

On 23 August 1831, Governor John Floyd received a hastily written note from the Southampton County postmaster stating “that an insurrection of the slaves in that county had taken place, that several families had been massacred and that it would take a considerable military force to put them down.” Fifty-seven whites died, many of them women and children, before a massive force of militiamen and armed volunteers could converge on the region and crush the rebellion. Angry white vigilantes killed hundreds of slaves and drove free persons of color into exile in the terror that followed.

Early newspaper reports identified the Southampton insurgents as a leaderless mob of runaway slaves that rose out of the Dismal Swamp to wreak havoc on unsuspecting white families. Military leaders and others on the scene soon identified the participants as enslaved people from local plantations. Reports of as many as 450 insurgents gave way to revised estimates of perhaps 60 armed men and boys, many of them coerced into joining. The confessions of prisoners and the interrogation of eyewitnesses pointed to a small group of ringleaders: a free man of color named Billy Artis, a celebrated slave known as “Gen. Nelson,” and a slave preacher by the name of Nat Turner. Attention focused on Turner; it was his “imagined spirit of prophecy” and his extraordinary powers of persuasion that … read more »

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- Old Plats of Pocahontas


Taber Andrew Bain from Richmond, VA, USA - Pocahontas Island (Source: WikiCommons)

Pocahontas Island is a peninsula in the Appomattox River incorporated as part of the City of Petersburg in 1784. The small town became home to a large free African American population following the Revolutionary War. The Petersburg chancery causes contain plats showing lots of land in the Town of Pocahontas. The plats show changes to the town during the early 1800s, as the early African American community developed.

A 1993 tornado had a significant impact on the historic fabric of Pocahontas. However, archeology, historical research, and oral history projects continue to uncover information about this unique community. Plats and documents from the Petersburg chancery causes contribute to that documentation.

Other plats and maps can be found in the Chancery Records Index for Petersburg showing other parts of city, as well as plats for land in Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Greensville, and Prince George Counties.

–Louise Jones, Local Records Archivist… read more »

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- 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 »

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


Illustrated London News, A Slave Auction in Virginia (February 16, 1861). Courtesy of Emory University.

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 »

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- Henry Co. Cohabitation Register and African-American Naming Practices


This visual representation of the names of the mothers found in the Henry Cohabitation Register illustrate the frequency of use by the size of the name.(Word images created using wordle.net)

The Library of Virginia has completed the digitization and transcription of the last of the cohabitation registers in its possession, the Henry County Cohabitation Register, 1866. Others have already been transcribed and are available in the cohabitation register digitization project via Virginia Memory. For African-American genealogical researchers, the names contained herein provide priceless clues to retracing their ancestors. Cohabitation registers imparted legal legitimacy to African-American marriages and children. This was also the first time many of these individuals would appear in public record under their own names.

Naming under the practice of slavery was fraught with power dynamics. The enslavers often gave names to the enslaved. The amount of input the family of the child would have in his or her name varied, but journals of slave-holders indicate they specifically assigned names to slave children on a regular basis.[1] Newly enslaved Africans were often issued a new name by their captors, causing their identities to become yet another site of colonization. Naming was a powerful tool for enforcing cultural assimilation and denigrating African cultural identity.[2]

When viewed simply as data, the set of names used for slaves seems to have been larger and more varied than the set of names used for free people. Slave names tended to fit within five categories: diminutive versions of English names (Jim, Bess), place names (London, Kingston), … read more »