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 »
Digital images of Legislative Petitions to the Virginia General Assembly, 1776 to 1865, from Bath County through Essex County are now available on Virginia Memory, the Library of Virginia’s digital collections website. The list of localities added includes present-day West Virginia counties such as Barbour, Berkeley, Boone, Braxton, Brooke, Cabell, Calhoun, and Doddridge Counties. It also includes numerous localities classified as Lost Records Localities such as Bland, Buckingham, Caroline, Charles City, Dinwiddie, and Elizabeth City Counties. With this addition, the number of legislative petitions available for viewing online currently number over 5000.
For researchers of African-American history and genealogy, the legislative petitions are an invaluable primary source on the topics of slavery, free African-Americans, and race relations prior to the Civil War. One will find petitions from slave owners seeking approval to import their slaves into the Commonwealth from another state; free African-Americans seeking permission to remain in the Commonwealth; heirs of slave owners seeking to prevent the emancipation of slaves freed by their parent’s will; free African-Americans seeking divorce from their spouse. The following are specific examples of the research potential on African-American history and genealogy that can be found in the collection.
John S. Harrison of Berkeley County petitioned the General Assembly in 1810 asking for permission to import three slaves, named Paris, Letty, and Daniel, from Maryland to Virginia. Harrison … 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 »
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 »
In court documents from Lunenburg County Chancery Cause 1856-042, the petition of Araminta Frances reveals an interesting and life-changing request. On 10 March 1856 Araminta Frances, a free woman of color, petitioned the court asking to be enslaved.
Araminta was once the slave (along with at least two others) of James G. Richardson. Richardson’s last will and testament, probated 9 December 1850, left the majority of his estate, including finances, property, and slaves, to his daughter, Sarah A. Richardson, two nephews, and friend John L. Coleman. The provisions for the slaves were clearly spelled out. One negro male slave, Cezar, was to go to James G. Richardson’s nephew, James R. Walker, and John L. Coleman “to be taken care of by them and to be paid to him [Cezar] yearly by them the full amount of his yearly value.” Richardson also stipulated that “my negro child Virginia and Minty’s [presumably Araminta] child yet unborn” should be emancipated and receive the sum of $500 each or $1,000 if his daughter Sarah should die without issue. Minty (or Araminta) would be emancipated should his daughter, Sarah, die without having married. A copy of James G. Richardson’s will was included with the petition as supporting documentation for Araminta’s case.
Also included in the case was a bill passed by the General Assembly on 20 December 1855 allowing Araminta … 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.
In November of 1860, executor William F. Smith was in a pickle. Charged with settling the estate of Elizabeth P. Via of Augusta County, he had recently been a defendant in both a chancery and a judgment suit from seven of Via’s heirs that challenged the validity of her will. The heirs objected to the provisions that Via made for her slaves, namely that they all be emancipated. Additionally, she left $4,000 to transport them to a free state and set them up in homes there. The remainder of her estate was to be distributed amongst Via’s heirs who were not pleased by this and thought it in their best interest to have the will invalidated so that they could get everything, including the slaves that were left at Via’s death. The will was upheld, however, and then it was time for executor Smith to get on with the business of carrying out Via’s wishes. But there were some questions that he struggled to answer about his job as executor.
At issue were several points. Did children born since Via’s death have an interest in the money left to the slaves? What should happen to the residue of the $4,000 after the will’s provisions were carried out? How should title to any house or land purchased for the emancipated slaves be done? The slaves had … read more »
During the 1820s and 1830s, northern antislavery groups that demanded the immediate abolition of slavery began to emerge. Led by abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison, Arthur Tappan, and Theodore Weld, they instituted an aggressive print campaign against slavery. Abolitionist societies published newspapers and pamphlets that bitterly condemned slavery and called for its extinction. Needless to say, abolitionist literature was not well-received in slaveholding states, including Virginia.
In 1835, a Frederick County, Virginia, grand jury issued a criminal presentment against the Abolition Society of New York. In a lengthy and strongly worded indictment, the grand jury referred to the antislavery organization as an “evil of great magnitude” and accused it of disturbing the peace of the commonwealth and threatening the lives of its citizens by inciting slaves to rebel. The grand jury encouraged local law enforcement agencies throughout Virginia to adopt “increasing vigilance … in the detection of all fanatical emissaries, and in the suppression of their nefarious schemes and publications.” Furthermore, it called on the General Assembly to enforce present laws and enact stricter legislation against written or printed material that encouraged slave insurrection. The presentment also named Arthur Tappan, whom the grand jury considered to be the “prime mover” in the society. Tappan helped found the Abolition Society of New York in 1831, which two years later evolved into the American Anti-Slavery Society.… read more »
Here in Virginia, there are some pretty strong views on history. It isn’t merely in the past, it is occurring in the present as well. This can easily perpetuate the stereotype that Southerners are still fighting the Civil War, or as it is known to some of my relatives, the War of Northern Aggression. However, this view of history in the present tense can be put to good use to dismantle assumptions, rethink the past, and keep cultural institutions relevant.
The most recent episode of The Abolitionists on PBS focused heavily on Frederick Douglass. Reading his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in school years ago was my first encounter with the realities of slavery, as I imagine it may be for many people. Somehow, seeing the scene in which William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist, and Frederick Douglass first meet brought to mind again how wonderful it is to see these events and documents geographically located on the Abolitionist Map of America. Zoom in on Nantucket, Massachusetts, and you can view the video clip from the series as well as contemporary photographs and documents. Somehow, plotting things on a map makes them more concrete, more believable, not just backstory.
As we continue this project, we are still uncovering relevant abolitionist materials at the Library … read more »
In some cases, failing extravagantly can work in favor of your cause. Go big or go home, as it were. John Brown was an American abolitionist who supported the use of violence to end slavery. A descendant of 17th century Puritans, Brown’s strong Calvinist beliefs would provide the moral inspiration for his battle against slavery. As we saw on The Abolitionists on PBS last Tuesday, Brown made a pledge in 1837 that would steer his actions in the coming decades: “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery!”
Unlike most white, well-educated, religiously-motivated abolitionists, Brown did not believe in solely non-violent means to end slavery. After the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, Brown founded a militant anti-slavery brigade with the Biblically-inspired name “League of Gileadites.” Their mission was to prevent the recapture of escaped slaves by any means necessary. Rising tensions in Kansas compelled Brown to go to the aid of the anti-slavery settlers there, including five of his adult sons. Pro-slavery forces known as “Border Ruffians” interfered with voting, imprisoned abolitionists, harassed free settlers, and eventually seized the town of Lawrence. On 24 May 1856, Brown led a small group of armed men against their pro-slavery neighbors at Pottawatomie Creek, killing five. This catalyzed a civil war … read more »