RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — My family history journey ended with me at Mt. Airy in Warsaw — now a working farm, formerly a plantation — meeting with a descendant of the family who owned mine.
But my genealogical research began the way it does for many, with family history, myth, lore, the need to separate fact from fiction and the challenge of where to start.
“When you’re doing this sort of research, you can’t just look in one spot,” said Lydia Neuroth, archivist for the Library of Virginia. “You have to look in so many other places.”
While Neuroth acknowledges that’s certainly the case for all genealogical research, it is even more so for African-Americans. A hurdle she’s trying to overcome in her work as the project manager for Virginia Untold, which provides digital access to records that document some of the lived experiences of enslaved and free Black and multiracial people in the library’s collections.
“It’s because they’re treated very much like property,” Neuroth said. “So they don’t show up in the documentary record like people that were treated as human beings were. And that’s certainly one of the huge challenges. Enslaved people were not creating their own record either. The documentary record is created by primarily white people that were in power, and so enslaved people don’t have the opportunity to create any sort of documentary trail of themselves.”
But many enslaved persons were listed in different government records that you can utilize in your search, including:
- State inventories
- Fiduciary accounts
- County tax records
- County will records
In Virginia, along with many other states, state libraries have digitized a lot of these records. If your family has or did live in a certain area for a long time, searching records in those areas can be helpful. However, sometimes, as I found in my search, the state may have tax records for some years, while the county still has them for others. In addition, those records likely won’t include surnames.
But depending on the level of detail included in the records of the enslavers and the uniqueness of family members’ names, you may be able to figure out who’s who.
If you don’t know the enslaving family, you can begin with pre-emancipation church records, plus cohabitation records—which document married formerly enslaved people just after emancipation. They often recorded the name of enslavers, which gives you a starting point for potential family records to consult. Those may be privately held, but many families have turned those records over to museums, historical societies and other institutions that have now searched for them.
In addition, Census records can provide clues as to where your family members are from. Had I looked through the 1870 Census records early on in my search, I would’ve seen that the place of birth for both my great-great-grandfather Albert and his father were both listed as Virginia. That already helps narrow your search.
And sometimes when it comes to finding clues in the Census records, which can be incomplete or even inaccurate, you have to look across multiple years to make conclusions and not rely entirely on keyword searches on websites like Ancestry to complete your research. You may have to spend several hours as I did, looking through a precinct in a single year’s Census record, combing through each page looking for familiar names.
“African-Americans, have been taught that like, oh, once I get to slavery, I’m not going to be able to find my family. And that’s just not the case. There are ways to there are ways and resources that you can reach out to people. You can learn about reading documents a certain way,” Menokin research assistant Kiana Wilkerson said.
To begin your own journey exploring your family history, try starting with the Library of Virginia and Virginia Untold. Or, visit the Menokin Descendant project’s website. To read more about how I retraced my roots, click here.
There are also several genealogy workshops this year:
VIRTUAL GENEALOGY WORKSHOP
Tips & Tricks for Navigating the Library of Virginia’s Website
Friday, March 10, 2023
Free (Registration required)
The Library’s website is a powerful tool for anyone researching their Virginia roots. In this presentation, reference librarian Becky Schneider walks through strategies for effectively searching and browsing the Library’s digital collections and online catalog, as well as options to help those who hit a brick wall.
Finding Your African American Female Ancestors
Friday, Oct. 6, 2023
9:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.
Library of Virginia: 800 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA
$25 ($20 for Library of Virginia Foundation members)
Reference archivist Cara Griggs provides an overview of researching African American women in Virginia from 1619 to 1920. This workshop covers records commonly used for African American genealogical research — free registers, cohabitation registers, local court records, federal census records, petitions to remain in the commonwealth and Freedmen’s Bureau records — as well as the unique challenges of finding information about women in records that often focus on men, such as business, tax and military records.