The first part of our June "Crossroads of Freedom" feature package, which explores both slavery and liberty, relays the personal narratives of three African-Americans who traced their family trees from servitude into emancipation. Viola Baskerville, Haskell Bingham and Don Browne all spent years searching for their family histories — often relying on the stories of elderly relatives and then matching the clues with any archived records they could get their hands on.
Here are some of the resources they used, as well as several others:
The Freedmen's Bureau Project
The Freedmen's Bureau records are effectively the "genesis records" of African-American identity in the post-Civil War years. The documents within the 1865-1872 period record names, legalized marriages, educational pursuits, work contracts and receipt of rations, health care, legal aid and other support. They provide a major link for researchers tracing an enslaved then emancipated ancestor.
In 2006, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) completed the microfilming of the Bureau's records, creating more than 1,000 rolls of microfilm. The Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) began scanning these records and provided overall direction to the extraction effort. Its FamilySearch program provides online access to the genealogy — related data and images extracted.
The GSU scanned 203 rolls containing the Virginia records and assessed 300,000 digitally scanned images for inclusion in the Virginia Freedmen Project.
The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia organized community volunteers to extract and index information contained on the scanned records. The Virginia volunteers used FamilySearch indexing software and implementation procedures to make accessible the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm in its collection.
Unknown No Longer
In September 2011, the Virginia Historical Society made material from its holdings pertaining to enslaved African-Americans available online. The Unknown No Longer project includes more than 1,500 names extracted from letters, bonds, wills, deeds, court records, inventory lists and other materials. Each name is connected to a digital copy of the original document. More will accumulate; there are some 8 million documents at the VHS, and as names are processed, they'll be added.
To access the documents, visit unknownnolonger.vahistorical.org.
The Library of Virginia
Located in downtown Richmond, its archival resources extend from the census records to county freedmen's records. The "Out of the Box" blog and the "Virginia Memory" website provide a way to stay informed of recent finds and relevant information.
Here is an excerpt that shows Petersburg native and actor Blair Underwood searching through slave rolls for his ancestors: virginiamemory.com/blogs/out_of_the_box/tag/blair-underwood.
Slave and Freedmen Records
The compilation of slave and free records are in some cases available in regional archives or at the Library of Virginia. Several Virginia counties have Freedmen Bureau's marriage records available online. Formerly enslaved and free African-Americans were legally recognized by an act of the Virginia General Assembly in February 1866. In most cases, it's necessary to visit the physical archives to delve into the records.
Learn more about these archives and indexes by visiting the following:
Chesterfield County: Free Negro and Slave Records, 1760-1862 (Library of Virginia)
Henrico County: Free Negro and Slave Records, 1789-1865 (Library of Virginia).
Visualizing Emancipation: An Interactive Map
In April, the University of Richmond's Digital Scholarship Lab launched "Visualizing Emancipation," an online map showing where and when slavery fell apart during the American Civil War, including more than 3,000 events that occurred across the South during the war. It displays them alongside the movement of Union troops and the shifting legal boundaries of slavery, providing new understanding of where and when emancipation occurred.
"Visualizing Emancipation" takes advantage of sources that had already been digitized, linking back to military correspondence, newspapers, and wartime letters and diaries. It invites users to help fill in the gaps in evidence using documents found online and in archives across the country.
To access it, visit: dsl.richmond.edu/emancipation.
On Slavery and Emancipation: Further Reading
Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery , University of North Carolina Press (1993), by John Michael Vlach. The plantation landscape from the slaves' point of view.
From Calabar to Carter's Grove: The History of a Virginia Slave Community, University of Virginia Press (2001)
Race, Class and Power in the Building of Richmond, 1870-1920, McFarland & Co. Inc. (2004), by Steven J. Hoffman. How Richmond's division of race and control of the labor class hamstrung the city's development.
Rearing the Wolves of Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond Virginia, 1782-1865 (Carter G. Woodson Institute Series), University of Virginia Press (1999), by Midori Takagi.
Seeing the Scars of Slavery in the Natural Environment, publication of the James River Parks System (2009). Includes maps, illustrations, and a list of Richmond slave traders of 1852-1863.
The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion, History Press (2012), by Jack Trammell. An accessible recounting of the business of slavery in Richmond, including its cultural impact and lingering legacy.
The Unboxing of Henry Brown, Library of Virginia (2003), by Jeffrey Ruggles. The remarkable story of Henry Brown, a slave who crated himself to be shipped to freedom from Richmond, this book also covers his subsequent career as a lecturer and traveling performer.
Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, University of Virginia Press (2012), by Lucia Stanton. Collected works of a pioneer in studying Monticello as a working plantation maintained by slavers that assays Jefferson's role.