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- It’s a Tram Shame: A Spotsylvania County Petition


Streetcar traffic jam. Courtesy of BBC News in Pictures.

In 1906, Thomas M. Henry of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, had a grand idea. He would build a road to carry an electric tram from Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville. Henry put this idea in motion by filing a petition with the Circuit Court in Spotsylvania County to get the proper authority to build the “Electric Tram Way,” Petition of Thomas M. Henry 1906-047. Henry assured the court that he could build the road without interfering with existing public transportation and without violating “proprietary” rights of “parties along the proposed tram road.”

Adding strength to his case, citizens along the proposed route petitioned the court in support of a roadway. The proposed tramway was to be “six feet in width along the right of way of said Plank Road from Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville and thence along the right of way of the “Turnpike” from Chancellorsville to the Orange line near the Wilderness Store, where the said turnpike connects with the road leading to Germania Bridge.” To show their support the signers of the petition declared, “the construction of the said tram road will not only prove a convenience to our people but will also increase the value of the land along the route.” They concluded, “We earnestly request that the petition of Mr. Henry be granted.”

The Spotsylvania County Board of Supervisors petitioned the court to be party … read more »

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- A Last Resort: Madison County Reenslavement Petitions


Madison County courthouse.

In 1856, the General Assembly decided that free African Americans could petition their county or city court to be enslaved. These individuals had to be at least twenty-one if male or eighteen if female and they could choose their own master. Once the General Assembly accepted the petition, the only difference between someone who was born a slave and someone who was enslaved as an adult was that the children of a woman born while she was free remained free.

Why would anyone wish to be re-enslaved? An 1806 law made it illegal for a former slave emancipated on or after 1 May 1806 to remain in Virginia for more than a year after emancipation. If the individual stayed past that time, period, the government could sell them as a slave. Individuals could petition the General Assembly to remain in Virginia, or their county or city court beginning after 1837. If the government rejected an individual’s petition, the freed person had to leave the state.

On 13 May 1844, Isham Tatum of Madison County wrote his will. Upon his death, three of his slaves—French, Edmond, and Findley—were to receive their freedom. Another slave, Barber, would receive his freedom after the remarriage or death of Isham Tatum’s wife, Frances. He described four slaves as “boys”—Jeptha, William, Thaddeus, and Timothy—who were also to be manumitted upon the … 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 »