Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Telling the Untold

I assumed I had to be one of the few non-genealogists in the crowded room.

We were all at the Library of Virginia for archivist Greg Crawford's talk on "Restructuring the African-American Family," delving into how Emancipation allowed blacks to reconnect if not reunite with family members post-war.

I'm kind of a history geek, but so much of most history lectures is usually male-dominated, so my interest had been piqued at the possibility of hearing women's stories, too.  

And we did, lots of them.

Crawford showed photographs of all kinds of the documents that he and his fellow archivists have been  carefully unfolding and scanning to put online as "Untold Virginia: The African-American Narrative," a treasure trove -  what else would you call indexing over 91,000 enslaved and free people? - of resources for people looking for stories.

Or as he put it, he's interested in the hyphen between the born and died dates of a person. Those stories, the ones you get from court cases ("In these bundles are the voices of people who have a story," he said about a photo of an open drawer of crumbling court cases), business records, freedom suits, petitions of enslavement and coroner inquests. And, of course, correspondence.

Like the letter from a woman to the sheriff in the town she was from, asking him to go visit her former neighbors and ask if they know where her family members were. Other blacks posted ads in newspapers seeking information on family members' whereabouts.

There was a court case disputing the distribution of a dead man's property and wealth, with the man's illegitimate son being denied any rights because of the cohabitation laws governing slave marriage.

Easily one of the most heartbreaking was one of a man petitioning to be enslaved again after having had his freedom. Why? Because his wife was slave in Virginia and our great Commonwealth wouldn't allow freed blacks to stay here. He chose her over his freedom.

Coroners' inquisitions also held dark stories of beatings by overseers, suicides and infanticides, all testament to the life of a slave.

But the best thing about Crawford besides his pronounced southern accent was his genuine enthusiasm - "I want to get these stories out beyond the Library of Virginia" - for the wealth of resources to be read by anyone who's willing to look. 

You could tell he was the sort of historian who could get not only lost in an old box of letters and deeds, but manage to entice an uninterested friend into doing some reading, too (Oh my god, look at this!). Hours later...

As it turned out, I wasn't the sole non-genealogist because the woman next to me said the same about herself when she posed a question about gleaning information about runaway slaves.

She didn't mention it, but perhaps she also came to hear some women's stories. They're the most fascinating history to some of us.

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