Editor’s Note: Neither Virginia Untold nor Virginia Untold Project Manager Lydia Neuroth is going anywhere, but as we transition out of our two-year NHPRC grant phase, it is a good time to look back on what has been accomplished. The Sankofa symbol, used for the Virginia Untold logo, originated in West Africa among the Akan people of present-day Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. It is most often translated as “go back and get it.” The Sankofa symbolizes the Akan people’s critical and patient examination in their quest for knowledge. In the African Diaspora, it has evolved to reflect the importance of learning about the past in order to build a greater future. We acknowledge this project is one step of many required to create a better world. We hope you will join us in contributing to this mission and moving us forward.
April 30, 2023 marked the completion of our two-year National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant supporting the Virginia Untold project. If you’ve been following, you might remember that two years ago this past May, I started as the first project manager for Virginia Untold. As the grant-funded project manager, I was asked to execute two tasks: examine and process records from the City of Richmond Hustings Court from 1782-1860 and oversee the digitization of the Library’s “Free Negro Registers.” I’m happy to report that after two years, we have made large strides in both of those areas.
In the first year of the grant, I examined over 250 boxes of material from the Richmond City Hustings Court. I identified at least ten different record types for possible inclusion into the Virginia Untold database. The second year consisted of processing and indexing these record types in preparation for their digitization. Overwhelmingly, the largest collection of records identified were Commonwealth Causes, or criminal trials involving enslaved and free Black individuals. To date, we have processed ten boxes and indexed over 1500 Commonwealth Causes. To put this in perspective, the second largest collection of Commonwealth Causes digitized for Virginia Untold is from the City of Petersburg, with just over 500 records. We still have at least four boxes from Richmond City left to process!
There were several other record types from Richmond City as well, including Freedom Suits, Petitions to Remain, Apprenticeship Indentures, Free Registrations, Coroner’s Inquisitions, and Tax Records. In celebration of Black History Month this past February, we put together a small exhibition with a selection of these record types to demonstrate the powerful stories resulting from this time and place.
The Hustings Court records paint the City of Richmond as a distinctly urban site of slavery. Criminal records include charges against and arrests of enslaved people “going at large”—those that were hired out to enslavers in the city and then permitted to act as their own free agents. The city sergeant arrested countless free Black and multiracial individuals for traveling without a free registration document and tallied up those individuals who were put in jail. The Hustings Court denied applications for an unusual amount of free Black and multiracial individuals who asked for registration and permission to remain in the state, possibly indicating the City’s concern over the steadily growing community of free people. Many records show evidence of Underground Railroad networks in which free Black and white individuals worked together to help enslaved people escape to freedom.
Staff from the Valentine Museum view records from the Richmond City Hustings Court on display as a part of a Black History Month exhibit featuring Virginia Untold in February 2023.
During the grant, I tried to write monthly blog posts about some of these stories I discovered while processing the records.
The work of processing record types from Richmond City remains ongoing. As the year continues, we will continue to process these records, digitize them, and make them available in Virginia Untold. Be on the lookout for announcements via social media as these records steadily go online.
Chesterfield County “Free Negro Register”, 1830-1853.
We removed the binding from many of our registers so that the images could lay flat on large flatbed scanners.
As the NHPRC grant-funded project manager, I was also responsible for overseeing the digitization of the Library’s collection of “Free Negro Registers.” In the past two years, we have digitized 49 volumes and obtained images for an additional 13 registers. This represents coverage from 30 different Virginia localities. We officially launched these register books as a new record type in March 2023 and there are now 40 “Free Negro Registers” available through Virginia Untold (we made them available on our indexing site a year prior). Many of the registers available through Virginia Untold include fully searchable indexes thanks to the work of many volunteers and LVA staff members who have contributed to their crowd-sourced indexing on From the Page.
The register books presented an opportunity to approach our crowd-sourcing transcription program differently. We worked with the creators of From the Page, Ben and Sara Brumfield, to design a spreadsheet-style transcription page that would allow us to pull data from the register books rather than transcribe them verbatim. This process enhances our ability to share data with other platforms such as the Virginia Open Data Portal and projects like Enslaved: The People of the Historic Slave Trade.
One of our many visions for Virginia Untold includes creating a comprehensive digitized set of “Free Negro Registers” from localities across Virginia. To that end, we will continue to work with clerks from courthouses across the state to obtain digital images of the register books that remain in their records rooms.
In addition to these two primary goals of the grant, we also found time to host several transcribe-a-thons with the free registers and court documents from Richmond City. We presented at and participated in conferences, genealogy workshops, K-12 classrooms, library programs, and Juneteenth events. We even launched a new website! Perhaps most significantly, the NHPRC grant allowed us to demonstrate to Virginia state legislators the importance of a position dedicated to making stories of Black Virginians more accessible. In March 2023, we received confirmation that the project manager position for Virginia Untold will be a permanent state-funded position. We are grateful for this new opportunity to think long-term and set priorities for this important project.
These benchmarks are important to document but the real momentum of Virginia Untold is less quantifiable.
Southampton County clerk Rick Francis reviews facsimiles of the Southampton County “Free Negro Register” which he will serve in his reading room to prevent wear and tear on the original register books.
In the past two years, I have built relationships with dedicated and passionate colleagues who are committed to making Virginia Untold a “library-wide” project. They have helped me make exhibits, edited text on my resource guides, stood in 90 degree heat and chased papers during Juneteenth events, wrote and implemented scripts for the website, handed out my programs as they traveled around the state, collected free registers from courthouses, indexed and scanned records, presented with me at conferences, planned transcribe-a-thons, uploaded thousands of documents to our digital repository, printed bookmarks, ordered buttons, showed me new records for possible inclusion into Virginia Untold, and introduced countless researchers and library patrons to the Virginia Untold website. They have contributed ideas, moral support, and inspiration. There is power in the grassroots efforts of a Library village.
Project Manager Lydia Neuroth, Director of Digital Initiatives and Web Presence Kathy Jordan, and State Archivist Greg Crawford meet with staff at the Fairfax County Courthouse to discuss their Slavery Index project and possible collaboration opportunities with Virginia Untold.
What’s next for Virginia Untold, you ask? We have our eyes on a few new collections that would greatly benefit from going online. We’re also excited about the start of our new Virginia Untold intern, Kiana Price, who will be helping us wrap up Richmond City records as well as contributing to some of our engagement and education initiatives. But our most pressing focus continues to be outreach. We have compiled a database of over 20,000 documents and people need to know about it! We will continue tabling, presenting, hosting transcription workshops, and participating in LVA’s On the Go program, but we will also be thinking about new ways to incorporate feedback from researchers and others using our records. How do we engage differing perspectives to better understand these challenging document types? How should we define our target audience and what resources do they need? How do we balance the work of outreach, education, and engagement with processing, indexing, and digitization? My conversations with Virginia Untold volunteers and researchers remind me that the work of Virginia Untold needs to be consistently intertwined with the needs of our users. I want to use this new state-funded position to explore that more fully.
Remember that you can help us accomplish this goal! Our Making History Transcribe program is a great (and free) way to get involved with examining the records that end up in Virginia Untold and our transcribe-a-thons provide an opportunity to share as a group what we find.