Tamika Y. Nunley’s new book The Demands of Justice: Enslaved Women, Capital Crime, and Clemency in Early Virginia explores the impact of Virginia’s judicial system on enslaved women. Focusing on capital crimes (i.e. crimes that can incur the death penalty), Nunley looked extensively at different record types at the Library of Virginia, including commonwealth causes and public claims. Commonwealth causes are criminal court cases filed by the state government. Cases found in this collection might include crimes enslaved women were charged with such as poisoning, murder, attempted murder, or arson. Public claims are applications to obtain payment from the state either for services rendered or for reimbursement for property. In the context of Nunley’s research, this includes public claims made by enslavers looking for reimbursement for enslaved people convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to be executed or transported from the United States. If the court found an enslaved person guilty of a capital crime, their enslaver was reimbursed for the loss of what the court defined as their “property.”
In the past, combing through such records to find larger historical trends could easily require years of hands-on research. In order to access the physical records a researcher needs the ability to travel to Richmond and the time to spend hours reading the records in-house. While thorough scholarship is still a time-intensive process, the digitization and transcription of these records are part of an active initiative to make these records more accessible.
Virginia Untold, LVA’s database of records that document some of the lived experiences of enslaved and free Black and multiracial people in our collections, houses over 19,000 digital surrogates of paper records including commonwealth causes and public claims that reference enslaved individuals. The indexing and/or full-text transcription included with the digital version of many of these records allow researchers to easily search a large swath of records across localities and/or dates for a particular individual, topic, or even a phrase.
Readers of Nunley’s book can easily view many of the documents referenced in her book by searching Virginia Untold for the names of those involved or by the crime being charged. Searching for “Fanny” in Virginia Untold and filtering the results to only include “commonwealth causes” and “public claims” in 1864, we can view the documents Nunley mentions in regard to an 1864 arson case against an enslaved woman named Fanny in Richmond. We can even share these exact search results by clicking the QR code icon on the top right.
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When we “index” digital records we take note of identifying information such as names and dates so we can help researchers find who or what they are looking for more easily. These lists of names and other important information can also be useful on their own; for this reason we have placed them on the Virginia Open Data Portal (VODP). Looking at the index of public claims available on the VODP is an effective way to start research into the collection. Researchers can use the index as a tool to see how many relevant public claims that took place in a certain locality or in a certain timeframe have been digitized. The index can also be used as a summary of each digital document and lead researchers to a specific one for a more thorough investigation. The data can also be viewed in visual ways such as pie graphs and scatterplots that allow for the discovery of connections that might not be noticed otherwise.
Virginia Chronicle also allows us to explore topics throughout different times and localities more efficiently. For instance, although we are celebrating Juneteenth today, Virginia locals did not always celebrate emancipation on June 19th, since that date references when the news reached the enslaved community in Galveston, Texas. Formerly enslaved Virginians celebrated on various days, making it more difficult to look for news articles, but with optical character recognition (OCR) and full-text searching of newspaper databases such as Virginia Chronicle, we can search for “Emancipation Day,” “Emancipation Celebration,” and other keywords and phrases that allow us to see how and when early celebrations took place. Without searchable newspaper databases this would be a doable, but much more labor-intensive task. While it is important to remember that not everything is online it is interesting to see the new connections people can make with technology’s assistance.
Join us on virtually on Tuesday, July 18th at 6pm to discuss what connections Tamika Y. Nunley made via her research as part of Common Ground History Book Group. Registration is free but required.
If you are interested in learning more about our volunteer opportunities to help transcribe and index documents in order to make them more accessible online, please either sign up for one of our virtual or in-person Making History: Transcribe events.
Digital Collections and Websites
Bell, Karen Cook. Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Berry, Daina Ramey, and Kali N. Gross. A Black Women’s History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2020.
Bouton, Christopher H. Setting Slavery’s Limits: Physical Confrontations in Antebellum Virginia, 1801-1860. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020.
Campbell, James M. Slavery on Trial: Race, Class, and Criminal Justice in Antebellum Richmond, Virginia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007.
Dusinberre, William. Strategies for Survival: Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Holden, Vanessa M. Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2021.
Kulikoff, Allan. Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680–1800. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
Morgan, Jennifer L. Reckoning with Slavery : Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021.
Schwarz, Philip J. Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.