Virginia Currents: Genealogy Research for African Americans


TIMOTHY WILSON’S GENEALOGICAL RESEARCH HAS BECOME A LABOR OF LOVE. HE SPENT DECADES UNCOVERING INFORMATION FOR 13 FAMILY TREES. AS AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN, HIS STRUGGLE TO FIND RECORDS ON HIS ANCESTORS, ESPECIALLY BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR IS A COMMON ONE. THAT’S WHY IN 2013 THE LIBRARY OF VIRGINIA LAUNCHED ITS EXTENSIVE ONLINE PROGRAM AFRICAN UNTOLD. IT GIVES PEOPLE ACCESS TO RECORDS, JOURNALS, NEWSPAPERS, AND MANY OTHER IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS. THIS INFORMATION IS THE GATEWAY TO FAMILY ROOTS AND STORIES THAT UNTIL NOW HAD BEEN UNTOLD.>>WHEN WE BEGAN “VIRGINIA UNTOLD” IN 2013 WITH A GENEROUS DONATION FROM DOMINION RESOURCES, WE HAD TWO PART-TIME PEOPLE WHO WERE GOING TO INDEX THE SCANNED RECORDS, PRIMARILY THE LOCAL RECORDS TO BEGIN, THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT RECORDS COLLECTION. THE IDEA WAS KIND OF SPARKED BY COMMENT FROM DR. HENRY LEWIS GATES JR., WHO REFERENCED THE ROADBLOCK THAT AFRICAN-AMERICANS OFTEN FACE WHEN DOING FAMILY RESEARCH, ESPECIALLY PRIOR TO THE CIVIL WAR.>>BUT UNLESS YOU HAVE THE RESEARCHER’S SPIRIT TO BE ABLE TO RECONCILE RECORDS — WHEN I LOOK UP AN INDIVIDUAL AND I CAN FIND IT IN THE CENSUS, I TAKE THOSE CENSUS AND LINE THEM UP. EVEN THOUGH IT IS FIVE PEOPLE IN THE HOUSEHOLD, I LOOK AT EACH PERSON. I LOOK FOR ANYTHING THAT’S OFF. THAT’S WHY YOU MUST DO COMPARATIVE DATA ANALYSIS. YOU HAVE TO. AND A LOT OF PEOPLE DON’T DO THAT, SO THEY WONDER WHY I KNOW WHAT I KNOW ABOUT MY FAMILY.>>UP, OVER, ACROSS.>>WE JUST NAMED “VIRGINIA UNTOLD” BECAUSE THESE WERE STORIES THAT WERE NOT BEING TOLD IN THE LONG HISTORY OF VIRGINIA, AND WE SUBTITLED IT THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN NARRATIVE BECAUSE THIS IS REALLY ABOUT THE STORIES, THE STORIES OF PEOPLE, THEIR EXPERIENCE, THE STORIES OF CHALLENGE AND HARDSHIP AND HEARTBREAK THAT THEIR FAMILIES FACED. SO, WHEN WE TALK ABOUT THIS TO FOLKS — AND NOT JUST AFRICAN-AMERICANS BUT PEOPLE OF ALL ETHNICITIES AND RACES — TO REALLY UNDERSTAND THIS HISTORY, TO BETTER UNDERSTAND WHERE WE ARE TODAY, HOW WE GOT HERE — BECAUSE SOME OF THE THINGS WE’VE BEEN TAUGHT IN HISTORY BOOKS OVER THE DECADES HAVE REALLY GLOSSED OVER A WEALTH OF INFORMATION. WE TALK ABOUT THIS WITH FOLKS TO IMPRESS UPON THEM THE VALUE OF THIS MATERIAL. WE FOCUS ON THE STORY THAT CAN BE GLEANED BY MATCHING ONE RECORD WITH ANOTHER RECORD WITH ANOTHER RECORD, AND YOU’RE REALLY PIECING TOGETHER ALMOST THE PIECES OF A JIGSAW PUZZLE.>>I STARTED THIS WITH THE DEATH OF MY MATERNAL GRANDFATHER IN NOVEMBER OF 1984. UPON GETTING READY, I SAW SOME PEOPLE THAT I KNEW THAT WERE CLOSE TO US AS FRIENDS AND FAMILY, BUT THEY WERE ACTUALLY RELATIVES AND I DIDN’T KNOW THAT. WHAT MY MOTHER COULD NOT EXPLAIN TO ME WAS THE ACTUAL RELATIONSHIPS THAT SHE KNEW WHO WERE THE RELATIVES WERE, BUT SHE JUST COULDN’T TELL ME HOW. IT BECAME MY QUEST TO FIND OUT HOW THESE PEOPLE ARE RELATED TO ME BECAUSE IN MY FAMILY THE MEMBERS WERE VERY SMALL. BY THE TIME I WAS 13, I STARTED TO GO TO THE LIBRARY. MY FATHER WOULD DROP ME OFF FOR FOUR HOURS AT A TIME. I RECONCILED BETWEEN RECORDS VERY OFTEN.>>THIS ONE IS 1908 TO 1916.>>OKAY.>>ALL RIGHT. YOU’RE WELCOME.>>THEN I WAS ABLE TO LOOK THROUGH THE DECADES. I WAS LOOKING AT THE NEXT DECADE OF YOUNG PERSON, A MATURING PERSON, AND THEN AS THEY GOT OLDER TO THEIR DEATH. THEN I WOULD GO BACK AND TRACE EACH ONE OF THEIR CHILDREN AND REPEAT THE CYCLE ALL OVER AGAIN. THIS IS THE HOUSE MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER LIVED IN AFTER ABOUT 1926. HE MOVED HIS SECOND WIFE AND TWO SONS HERE AFTER THE DEMISE OF HIS FIRST WIFE, AND HE LIVED THERE UNTIL 1945 AT HIS DEATH. CONTRACTOR, THAT’S WHAT HE WAS IN THE COMMUNITY.>>WE BEGIN PRIMARILY WITH LOCAL GOVERNMENT RECORDS SO YOU HAVE DEEDS OF EMANCIPATION, DEEDS OF MANUMISSION, FREEDOM SUITS. WE HAVE PETITIONS TO REMAIN IN THE COMMONWEALTH BECAUSE SOME FOLKS AFTER 1806 HAD TO LEAVE THE COMMONWEALTH WITHIN 12 MONTHS, SO SOME PEOPLE HAD TO MAKE THE DIFFICULT DECISION TO REMAIN ENSLAVED EVEN AFTER THEY WERE FREED BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO REMAIN IN VIRGINIA WITH THEIR LOVED ONES. YOU’LL FIND FREE PAPERS AND FREE REGISTRIES. IF A FREE PERSON OF COLOR LIVED IN A LOCALITY, THEY HAD TO REGISTER WITH THE COURT. AND THEY WERE GIVEN A PIECE OF PAPER THAT INDICATED HOW THEY WERE FREE AND HAD A DESCRIPTION, A PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION, OF THEM. AND THEY HAD TO CARRY IT WITH THEM AT ALL TIMES.>>IF YOU’RE GOING TO FIND SOMEONE LIKE MY GRANDFATHER, HE SHOWED UP AS A FREE MAN IN 1850. HE LIVED AS A FREE AFRICAN-AMERICAN, BUT THAT STILL MEANT HE HAD TO WATCH HIS BACK, EVEN THOUGH HE WAS BORN FREE. HE COULDN’T LIVE FREE WITHIN EVERYONE’S EYES IN SOCIETY AT THAT TIME. HE HAD TO WORRY IF SOMEONE WOULD TAKE HIM AND PUT HIM INTO SERVITUDE. IF THE WHITE GENTRY SAID YOU ARE NO LONGER NOW FREE AND WE’RE GOING TO PUT YOU IN SERVITUDE AND THERE’S NO ONE TO VOUCH FOR YOU, THAT’S IT. I’VE ALWAYS KNOWN ABOUT THE ISSUE OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS PASSING WHITES IN OTHER PLACES. THERE WAS A MECHANIC. HE WAS ACCEPTED INTO THE FORD MOTOR APPRENTICESHIP PROGRAM IN CALIFORNIA. HE WENT ALL THE WAY THROUGH AND RECEIVED HIS CERTIFICATION. WHEN HE GOT ON THE FLOOR WORKING IN THEIR FACTORY, THERE WAS A CAUCASIAN SUPERVISOR THAT LOOKED AT HIM AND SAID, YOU’RE COLORED, AREN’T YOU? YES. THEN HE FIRED HIM. HE CAME BACK HOME AND OPENED UP HIS SHOP. HE RECEIVED HIS CERTIFICATION. THAT’S SOMETHING THEY COULDN’T TAKE AWAY FROM HIM. IN 1878, A WOMAN DIED AROUND 1946. THAT IS ONE BONA FIDE INFORMATION THAT’S HANDWRITTEN. IT IS ACTUALLY THE BONA FIDE INFORMATION OF THE BIRTH OF HER CHILDREN, AND THEY’RE ALL BORN BEFORE THE CIVIL WAR. AT THE DEATH OF MY AUNT JENNY IN 2010, SHE LEFT THAT BIBLE TO ME. IF SHE OFTEN PREFERRED SOMETHING.>>IN ADDITION, “VIRGINIA UNTOLD” USES CROWDSOURING TRANSCRIPTION PROJECT CALLED TRANSCRIBE THAT ALLOWS PEOPLE TO READ THESE ORIGINAL RECORDS AND THEN TYPE IN TRANSCRIPTIONS OF THEM SO THEY’RE KEYWORD SEARCHABLE. RIGHT NOW, WE HAVE 110,000 NAMES IN THE DATABASE FROM APPROXIMATELY 10,000 RECORDS. ALL OF THESE DISPARATE RECORDS COME TOGETHER IN “VIRGINIA UNTOLD,” AND THAT’S WHAT WE FEEL IS THE NATURE OF VALUE, TO BE ABLE TO PUT THESE PIECES TOGETHER.>>THIS IS THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN LABOR UNION FOR AFRICAN-AMERICAN CONTRACTORS WITHIN THE CITY OF RICHMOND. THIS IS MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER. THIS IS MY GRANDFATHER, HIS SON, MELVIN. IT GIVES YOU STRENGTH. IT GIVES YOU THE KNOWLEDGE THAT I HAVE IS THE KNOWLEDGE THAT A LOT OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS DON’T HAVE. THEY DON’T KNOW WHO THEIR FAMILY IS AT ALL OR HAVE THEM. I HAVE A SENSE OF BELONGING NOW TO MORE THAN I EVER THOUGHT I WOULD HAVE HAD YEARS AGO. AND I CAN IDENTIFY WHERE MY RELATIVES ARE COMING FROM. I’M IDENTIFYING WHAT THEY WERE DOING. I’M ALWAYS RESEARCHING TO FIND OUT MORE. I’M GOING BACK OVER WHAT I ALREADY KNOW TO FIND OUT IF I MISSED ANYTHING. WHAT ABOUT THEIR DEATHS? DO THEY HAVE CERTAIN THINGS I NEED TO LOOK FOR IN MY OWN HEALTH?>>THE “VIRGINIA UNTOLD” LOGO INCLUDES THE SANKOFA BIRD SYMBOL. IT REPRESENTS THE NEED TO CONNECT WITH THE PAST FOR A GREATER FUTURE. GO TO VIRGINIAMEMORY.COM/COLLECTIONS /AAN

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