Editor’s Note: The Library of Virginia, in partnership with Virginia Humanities, sponsors residential fellows during the academic year to conduct in-depth research in the Library’s collections. A public humanities scholar whose work has appeared everywhere from The Atlantic and The New York Times to medical journals and academic books, Lois Leveen may be most familiar to the Library of Virginia community as the author of the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. During her autumn 2021 Virginia Humanities Fellowship, Leveen conducted research for a nonfiction book, the first scholarly biography of the real woman behind the “Mary Bowser” myth.
The project that brought me to the Library of Virginia is unusual in two ways. First, I may be the only author to write a novel (that is, a work of fiction) inspired by a real person – and then take on the task of researching and writing a nonfiction book that rigorously documents that real person’s life. Second, while most biographers focus on the exceptionalism of their subjects, my goal for this book is to help audiences appreciate nineteenth-century African American activism more broadly.
As I work on this unusual project, I’m grappling with questions that concern all scholars of nineteenth-century African American history, and as Tiya Miles summed up in her 2021 National Book Award winning title, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake:
“While at times imposing and formal enough as to seem all-encompassing in their brick, glass, and steel structures, archives . . . are nevertheless limited and misleading storehouses of information.”
My project, like All That She Carried, requires a tremendous amount of archival research, not just to learn details about particular individuals but to understand the contexts in which those individuals lived. Yet most archives in the U.S., and the Library of Virginia is no exception, have historically centered whiteness. Most of what has been preserved in the archive was created by white people, for white people. More than that, these materials were created with a presumption that whiteness was normative, and that preserving white perspectives was the goal.
Given the limits of the archives, what must we do to understand the lives of the countless Black people who not only endured and worked to end slavery, but who were activists for racial justice more broadly, endeavoring before, during, and after the Civil War to achieve full citizenship for African Americans? This blog entry demonstrates how historians read and interpret historical materials to excavate the experiences of African Americans (as well as other groups whose perspectives are ignored, erased, or misrepresented in archival sources), and to invite you to visit the Library of Virginia and other archives, where you can use these strategies to explore nineteenth-century sources yourself.
On June 29, 1865, John H. Keatley, a white Federal officer serving in Norfolk, sent a telegram to Colonel Orlando Brown, another white Federal officer serving in Richmond. In this brief missive, Keatley described the actions of white boys and of Norfolk’s mayor, who was also white. But what can this preserved document tell us about the beliefs and motivations of Black Virginians?
If you aren’t used to reading nineteenth-century penmanship, just deciphering the words can be the first challenge, it reads:
White boys beat and cruelly injured female scholars of colored schools. Mayor Tabb refused to hear the testimony of teachers because they are colored. They applied to him for redress before consulting me. What actions shall I take? I could not wait to transmit through regular channel
Records of the Assistant Commissioner for State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1869, Series 4: Letters and Telegrams Received4.2: Unregistered Letters and Telegrams Received 4.2.7: District Headquarters in Virginia, National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Courtesy of the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, FamilySearch International, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
This telegram underscores how important education was to African Americans. Black families believed their children should attend school, and Black girls wanted to continue their education, even after suffering horrific physical violence. Black teachers were determined to ensure the safety of their students and the success of their schools. These professional educators brought their concerns to the mayor – and when he refused to take action, they appealed to yet another authority, that of the U.S. military. Their adamancy produced a sense of urgency for Keatley, the white officer to whom they appealed, galvanizing him to go beyond the “regular channel” to provide redress.
How does this document fit within our understanding of American history? At the moment this telegram was created, the Civil War was over, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlaws slavery throughout the U.S., was on its way to ratification. Yet the end of war and the abolishing of slavery as an institution were hardly the end of the quest for Black citizenship. In her book They Left Great Marks On Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I, historian Kidada Williams demonstrates that speaking out against racial violence – as the teachers described in the telegram were doing – was itself a political act.
Historians like Williams provide interpretive frameworks that help us understand how to read sources like this telegram. Read through these frameworks, the telegram provides evidence of white boys growing up believing they have the right to abuse black girls, of a white elected official refusing to hear testimony from constituents of color, and of a white military officer believing he has the responsibility to protect black children. Documents like this one provide evidence of those African American girls and their families asserting their right to education, and of their teachers asserting a right to government protection from violence. That is what I (and other historians) mean by Black activism and the quest for full citizenship.
Many of the documents I worked with at the Library of Virginia are very mundane examples of the multitudinous ways full citizenship was denied to free Blacks, as well as to enslaved people. But the same documents that evidence efforts to stymie, circumscribe, and surveil individuals and communities can also provide evidence of the resistance and resilience of those individuals and communities. Consider this government form. What does it tell us? What does it tell us from an African American perspective?
Free Blacks in antebellum Virginia were subject to targeted laws, fees, restrictions, taxes, judicial proceedings, and surveillance (as the form indicates, after 1806, people who gained their freedom and the descendants of those people were subject to even greater restrictions than those who had been emancipated earlier). Registers like this, which free Blacks were required to carry with them, were used to document and monitor African Americans as a subjugated group, one of the many ways white supremacy operated within local and state government.
But each register also tells us important things about an individual. From this document, we learn Richard Abrams’s name and age, where he was born and where he lived as an adult. We get a sense of what he looked like. Perhaps most importantly, we know that Richard Abrams was asserting his right to live here, to be with his kin and his community, despite the myriad restrictions Virginia and Henrico County placed on him.
Each of these registers can be read as an individual’s personal declaration of a right to citizenship. In his book Family Bonds: Free Blacks and Re-enslavement Law in Antebellum Virginia – much of which draws on research undertaken at the Library of Virginia – historian Ted Maris-Wolf notes,
“As repressive and downright insulting as Virginia law could be for free blacks, hundreds of free blacks nonetheless believed it worth their time, energy, and limited resources to actively participate in their local legal system rather than . . . leave the state.”
To understand America’s past, we have to understand both the laws and legal structures intended to disempower and demean people of color, and the way individuals and communities responded to those laws and legal structures, in an ongoing effort to ensure the best possible outcomes for themselves.
Roberts, Peggy (F, 42): Free Negro Register, 1853, Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative Digital Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va.
As I was poring over Free Registers, I was struck in particular by this one, because of the directive written across it, which reads in part, “This register is cancelled by the death of Peggy Roberts.” When I first deciphered those words, I felt heartbroken. I wanted to believe that after Peggy Roberts’s death, this precious slip of paper could have ended up in an enslaved person’s hands, someone who might have slipped into Roberts’s identity just long enough to seize freedom. But we cannot impose dramatic, heroic, and romantic stories onto the past, ignoring the complex realities of how African Americans lived and died in antebellum Virginia. Pondering the cancellation, I realized it is also a valuable piece of documentation. If you’ve done genealogical research, you know that we can’t always ascertain when someone in a previous century died. Births and deaths were not necessarily recorded in official ways, even for whites (whose lives tended to be better documented). So here we have this single slip of paper that reveals so much about Peggy Roberts, a petite woman born in York County around 1810, who chose to make her home in Henrico County, who survived burns and scars and racist discrimination, and whose brief life likely ended in early 1853. That identity was hers alone, and her individual humanity is worth remembering.