In the summer of 2005, as a volunteer researcher in the Virginia Room at the City of Fairfax Regional Library, I was trying to determine the identities of individuals buried in a slave cemetery (the Guinea Road Cemetery) in Fairfax County, Virginia. At the cemetery there was only one headstone that had a name carved into it, the other grave markers were just rough-cut field stones with no inscriptions. The research process was so challenging because of the lack of written records documenting the identities and existence of these enslaved individuals.
I came to realize that there was literally next to nothing to document the tens of thousands of people, enslaved people, who had lived and died all around us. Our houses, our schools, our backyards (our Starbucks!) were all part of a previous and very different landscape. A landscape on which human beings were property, bought and sold, often separated from their families, never to reunite again.
I think lots of people (I am referring to those of European descent,) take it for granted that they have this stability of “known kin” standing behind them. They may not know all the names and details of the previous generations, but with a respectable level of genealogical research, those prior ancestors can be traced back hundreds of years. I know, because I have done my own family’s history and the family histories for so many others. When researching African American genealogy, you get to a point where you can go no further in your quest; this is often referred to by genealogists as “the wall of slavery.”
Documentation of enslaved individuals prior to 1865 is scarce, scattered and extremely user unfriendly. But, as I found out, jumping over that wall is hard, but it can be done. I use all sorts of historic records and documents; wills, deeds, chancery causes, and even diaries to gather and record the names of enslaved individuals who resided in Fairfax County, Virginia. Sometimes it is just the first name of one enslaved individual mentioned in passing in a local woman’s diary, and sometimes it is the first and last names of hundreds of people identified by family group in a deceased slave owner’s estate inventory.
The main goal of the Fairfax County, Virginia Slavery Inventory Database is to find the surname of each enslaved individual who lived in this county. This lack of a documented surname is the main barrier to the researcher. (Also, what we have “assumed” about the identities of slaves may need to be re-examined. What I am finding in Fairfax County, Virginia is that so far, the percentage of enslaved individuals listed on the Fairfax County, Virginia Slavery Inventory Database that share the same last name as their owner’s is about 1%. Hence, if your last name is Williams and you trace you family tree back to Fairfax County, Virginia, the chances of finding your enslaved ancestor owned by a “white Williams” are about 1 %.)
Once I have documented an enslaved individual in the database I start to look around that person for clues. Who was that person listed next to in an estate inventory? Was that person part of a family group? What plantation or farm was this enslaved person residing on and for what years? Was it possible that the slave owner sold or bequeathed this individual to another family member? And if so, did they stay in Fairfax County, Virginia? I have hundreds of questions like that that I constantly ask, and after a while I start to see some patterns and to get some answers.
And hopefully, when I acquire an enslaved person’s surname, I can then find out more about the person and his or her possible family connections through post-bellum records. It’s really an “information dance” back and forth (between ante-bellum and post-bellum records) that I am able to build on and expand the information on any certain individual.
I then look at all sorts of other possibilities of what may have been taking place on that landscape including: Where on a plantation were these people living? Where did they bury their dead? Where were the adjoining enslaved communities? Was there a free black community nearby? Were there family connections to other plantations, other counties, or other states? Was there any potential involvement in Underground Railroad activity?
Presently, I am working on the database’s website. My aim is for people to be able to search the database by first name, last name, slave owner’s name, time period, plantation, to name but a very few examples. I hope to go “live” soon. It will be free to search the website.
It is very satisfying to be able to bring together all of this data so that people can search and hopefully find their kin. I truly believe that anyone who wants to have access to their heritage should…period.
On the website, I will be encouraging people to fill out the Family History Questionnaire. This is a vital part of the process, as it gives me genealogical information on what is currently known in a family about their descendants. (Oral history playing a large part in African American genealogy.)
In the future, I imagine the database will just keep expanding. By targeting Fairfax County, Virginia, it gives the project (and me) some parameters. But, the more I research, the more evident it becomes to me how connected and inter-related we all are, regardless of skin color. Maybe some day it will be known as just the “Slavery Inventory Database,” as other counties start to undertake and make available this kind of research.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org