In view of thirty-nine of our free registers recently going live on the From the Page, we’re dedicating a series of blog posts to highlighting further efforts to build a comprehensive digitized set of these important records. Last month, we shared about our goals to collect images of registers from other counties across the Commonwealth not represented in our current collection here at LVA. Some localities, such as Loudoun County, have already digitized images from their registers and made them available on their website. We are working with the staff at Loudoun County Circuit Court to make images from their register available on Virginia Untold as well.
In other localities, we’ve recently had several fruitful collaborations with circuit court clerks and staff about scanning their registers and obtaining digital images for integration into our Virginia Untold project.
Last month, we had the pleasure of meeting and working with new Circuit Court Archivist Amy Dobrinen at the Fredericksburg County Courthouse. Among other records of enslaved and free people, the Fredericksburg courthouse also holds several loose pages of material documenting free individuals that appear to be removed from a bound register book. Why someone removed the pages is unclear, but on a recent visit, I was able to photograph (with the training of Ben Steck, Digital Collections Specialist with LVA) all fourteen images from the register. Ben recently edited the images and added them to our Rosetta repository in order that they will appear in Virginia Untold. The loose register pages only document 1850-1862 and to date, we have not located another register or pages for any other years for Fredericksburg City.
Ms. Dobrinen is working to process three boxes of loose material documenting enslaved and free people from 1770-1865. Much of this collection consists of free certificates, registrations, and deeds of emancipation. These loose records will inform us further about the Fredericksburg free Black community.
At the beginning of April, Greg Crawford, Local Records Program Manager with LVA, and I traveled to Brunswick County to meet with the Honorable Jacqueline S. Morgan, Circuit Court Clerk. Records Management Analyst Glenn Smith had previously notified us about a joint effort coordinated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and local Brunswick County museum, James Solomon Russell-St. Paul’s College Museum and Archives (JSR-SPC) to photograph and digitally preserve two registers of free Black people in Brunswick County documenting the years 1803-1820 and 1820-1850. Greg and I worked with Ms. Morgan to collect the images scanned by NMAAHC for future integration into Virginia Untold. There are almost 300 images from both registers combined. Additionally, we were able to locate a third and “missing” register hiding in the early pages of Order Book 39. In 1850, the clerk started a third book to begin recording registrations of free Black men and women. Just fifteen years later, the end of the Civil War marked the end of many of these de jure mandates such as recording free Black individuals. The clerk used the remaining pages of the book to record court notes which someone subsequently labeled “Order Book 39.” The first thirty-five pages of entries documenting free Black individuals was overlooked and not included in the title of the record. It’s important that as archivists and researchers we draw attention to how these records remained “missing” or “hidden” for so many years. In addition to providing access to these documents, we research and explain the legacy issues that surround their accessibility. Ben Steck is currently scanning images from Order Book 39 and we will add images from all three volumes to Virginia Untold.
The Free Register from Brunswick County, 1803-1820 in the Brunswick County Courthouse.
Compared with other registers I have examined from various Virginia localities, there appears to be an unusually high number of individuals documented without a surname in the Brunswick County registers. This changed somewhat in later registration years. Sherri Bagley, Local Records Archivist with LVA, is from Brunswick County. She shared last names of many people who still live and work in Brunswick County today such as: Coleman, Easter, Harrison, Jackson, Jones, Pearson, and Thompson. I found all of these names in the pages of all three registers. While certainly rural, the county is quite centrally located. Sherri recalled childhood memories of taking the ferry to Williamsburg or traveling to Emporia, “the big city,” for shopping needs. Local institutions such as the Brunswick County Museum and JSR-SPC (which houses records from St. Paul’s, a historic Black college which closed its doors in 2013) have worked to highlight Brunswick County’s Black history. There is much to be documented and shared about how the county’s historic reliance upon enslaved labor, subsequent changes to local industry, and the closing of St. Paul’s College has affected the socio-economic conditions for the current residents.
We currently have a little over 400 records from Brunswick County in Virginia Untold. Many document the post-emancipation timeframe principally in the form of freedmen’s contracts and poll book records. We also have several loose registration papers and lists of free Black people from the locality. Brunswick County is not far from other localities for which we have registers of free people such as Lunenburg and Southampton counties. We hope that further connections will result from cross-referencing individuals documented in the new Brunswick registers and the existing material in Virginia Untold.
We can only get these registers into Virginia Untold as fast as we (you) can transcribe them! You can help us make these registers more accessible by indexing the data from each volume. Sign up for a free account on From the Page, our crowdsourcing transcription platform, and join our efforts!
The scanning and digitizing of these registers is made possible through a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant. NHPRC provides advice and recommendations for the National Archives grants program. An announcement will be made when these records are added to the publicly-accessible digital Virginia Untold project.