Last month, I took my first road trip as project manager for Virginia Untold. I traveled to Clarke County courthouse, along with local records archivists Vince Brooks and McKenzie Long, to meet with the recently elected circuit court clerk, April Wilkerson. In August 2020, Ms. Wilkerson showed a binder of compiled records concerning free Black people in Clarke County to local records archivist Tracy Harter. The Library of Virginia currently holds little material representing the Black community of Clarke County, but our contact with Ms. Wilkerson was the first step in further illuminating the Black experience in this locality.
The binder primarily contained free Black registers or certificates. In 1793, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law requiring “free Negroes or mulattoes” to be registered, and required each free person to obtain a new certificate every three years. These documents were sometimes colloquially referred to as “free papers” or “papers.” It appears that Clarke County did not have a free Black register, or bound volume recording a comprehensive list of free Black people, making these loose documents all the more valuable in documenting the free Black experience in Clarke County.
Also included in the binder was an indictment against 54 free Black people for remaining in Virginia without free papers in the year 1845. The General Assembly passed a law that required all enslaved people who were emancipated after 1 May 1806 to leave the state. If they did not, they could be tried; if convicted, they would be sold into slavery as punishment. We will have to do more research to determine what happened to these individuals, but interestingly enough, some of these names match the names of individuals found in the free Black registers for years following 1845 who applied to the court to be registered as free people.
In the collection of registrations, there are several individuals who have the same last name or who are related. For example, Ellen Smith, who appears on the list of free Black people from 1845, applied to the court in 1856 for her free papers. She is referred to in the documents as “Ellen & others,” likely indicating her children. Unfortunately, the only documents that survive are the “summons to justices” papers that call court officials to hear the case. It is unclear if the court allowed Ellen and her children to register. In late 1859, Ellen’s daughter, Mary Cornelia Smith, 23 years old, applied to register herself and her daughter Ellen Cornelia, five years old. The documents name her father as Alfred Smith and also describe Ellen or “Nelly” (her mother) as the daughter of Judy Banks, who was emancipated sometime prior to 1806. Mary Cornelia’s register was granted in January 1860. There is also a register for Ellen’s son, Prince Albert Smith, 16 years old.
Additionally, one register included the name of four individuals, three of whom were all named John Williams! They are clearly all separate people as indicated by their ages—24, 34, and 35—as well as descriptions of their heights and identifying marks. In 1834, the General Assembly added a requirement that each person be specified by marks or scars. It is unclear how these three men are related, if at all, but is certainly interesting that they all applied together for their registrations.
Also included in this binder was Richard Fractious’s petition for freedom, referred to on our Virginia Untold website as a “Freedom Suit.” According to the suit, Richard had been detained illegally as an enslaved apprentice to Otoiray McCormick for years before McCormick sold Richard (illegally) to George Knight. Richard argued that he was a free person. He was born to a free Black woman named Nancy in 1831. He had even gone to the Clarke County courthouse looking for documentation proving that the Overseers of the Poor had orders to bind him out as an apprentice. There were none. He was not an orphan. In fact, his mother Nancy was still living and remarried to a man named Abraham Washington who testified on Richard’s behalf in his freedom suit. We don’t yet know if Richard won the suit. These are the only documents we have thus far detailing Richard’s case. It is possible that more documentation could turn up as the Clarke County records are explored further. Hopefully, our newly developed partnership with the Clarke County Circuit Court Clerk’s office will lead to a more holistic understanding of the historic Black lives in the upper Valley of Virginia and surrounding areas.
The processing of these local court records, as well as the scanning, indexing, and transcription for Virginia Untold, is made possible through a grant from the National Archives. The National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) provides advice and recommendations for the National Archives grants program.
Commonwealth vs. John Diggs et al, Free Negro and Slave Records, Enslaved and Free Records, 1840s-1860s, Clarke County Circuit Court Records. Barcode #7804714 [closed]. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
Richard Fractious: Freedom Suit, Free Negro and Slave Records, Enslaved and Free Records, 1840s-1860s, Clarke County Circuit Court Records. Barcode #7804714 [closed]. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.
Free Negro and Slave Records, Enslaved and Free Records, 1840s-1860s, Clarke County Circuit Court Records. Barcode #7804714 [closed]. Local Government Records Collection. The Library of Virginia.