Family Ledgers

I posted a somewhat whimsical article on April 1st about family trees, and today’s news item is a more sombre followup.

My mother is a genealogist, and delights in tracing our family tree (which consists mainly of failed farmers or drowned fisherman – unlike their lucklessness, I have not inherited her enthusiasm). It involves painstaking detective work, investigating Scottish and Irish church records, municipal rolls and clerical receipts, but the links are there for anyone who wishes to find them.

I wonder, if we were black Americans, if genealogy is something she would even attempt to undertake. The records, where they exist, would be so muddied and complicated – involving sales across distance, informal family arrangements and unofficial marriages – as to make this detective work impossible.

While not decreasing the difficulty in such a search, the Virginia Historical Society has provided some intriguing new records to pore over.

So using a $100,000 corporate grant from Dominion, one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy, society researchers began examining some of its 8 million manuscripts that Virginia residents have been giving to the historical society since its founding in 1831.

Those Virginia families found the old, handwritten papers in attics, basements or desk drawers, Levengood said. The society stores the documents in an archive spanning thousands of square feet, he said.

The antique papers turned out to mention slaves.

“Often they appeared in the records of the owners who owned slaves as human property, which to us sounds so obscene and alien,” said Levengood, who’s also a historian. “But these people were writing down their inventory as if you would for insurance purposes. That’s the kind of things that owners did with slaves. This was the most valuable property they owned, and they wanted to make sure it was recorded.
“Often there was a human connection, and they grew up with these people, and they recorded their birth dates and deaths. It’s an incredibly complicated and tragic institution that we’re just beginning to understand the dimensions of,” Levengood said.

The Society is offering workshops on using the databases. Budding genealogists are already exploring the data.

Amateur genealogist Crasty Johnson of Richmond said she hopes the sites will help her trace her roots back to the 1800s.

“I need to know my history,” she said, adding the site may help her prove or disprove many of the things she’s heard about her family’s past. “I wanted to really know. I wanted to be able to see and connect the dots.”

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