Slavery Inventory Database: In The News

Slavery Inventory Database Exhibits at 2012 LA Mobile Arts Festival

Slavery Inventory Database will be in Los Angeles, CA for the 2012 LAMAF! Photographs including Sand Hill (above) will be on display.

Huffington Post 

African American History in the Oak Hill 


Maddy McCoy & John Browne talk about their findings...

The Rest of the Story
Post-1846 history of Woodlawn gets a closer look.
By Robert Fulton | October 19, 2010

Woodlawn, the 126-acre National Trust for Historic Preservation site located off Richmond Highway near Ft. Belvoir, has a long history. But while the first 40 years of Woodlawn's existence is well-known, details of the estate's history that follow its sale in 1846 have been incomplete.

Until now.

The history of Woodlawn from 1846 on is getting a much-needed closer look.

"In the past, the main focus of the interpretative tour here has been the original owners of the house," said Susan Hellman, Deputy Director of Woodlawn and the Pope-Leighey House. "While people have known some about the later owners, just general information, they haven't known very much about them. I've done more in-depth research on the people who lived here."

The original owners were George Washington's nephew Major Lawrence Lewis and his wife Eleanor "Nelly" Custis Lewis. The property was originally part of Mt. Vernon, which can be seen from Woodlawn. In 1846, the Lewis's son sold the property to two families that were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Opposed to slavery, the families established a free labor colony at Woodlawn.

According to Hellman, during the Civil War, Woodlawn and the surrounding area was raided by both the Union and the Confederacy – the North figuring the estate owners were southerners and part of the rebellion, the South knowing the group was made up of Union sympathizers.

"We're finding that it's really a very fascinating story," Hellman said. "We're going deeper into that, into some of these post-Lewis owners because they're really more interesting than you think they are.

The renewed focus on the history of Woodlawn from 1846 on is due to Woodlawn's Director Laurie Ossman. She secured a grant from the National Trust Interpretation and Education Fund to hire researchers to explore the era in question.

Ossman wanted to learn more about Woodlawn beyond the Washington-related family that first lived there.

"It was a logical next question," the director said, before adding, "The focus with George Washington is hard to get past."

Hellman worked as a historian for Fairfax County for five years before taking over as Deputy Director at Woodlawn in April. In May of 2009, Hellman, along with genealogist Maddy McCoy, started work on tackling Woodlawn's history.

Born and raised in the area and now living in Herndon, Hellman combed through a wealth of information, including land records, tax records, census records, family archives, old photographs and local newspapers.

The plan is to offer a lecture on the findings sometime next year, and dedicate a room to the house to the post-1846 era.

"You can't tell the whole story of a site with just focusing on one part," Hellman said. "That's part of what preservation is all about, is the entire history of the structure or the site, not just this one microcosm in time.

"To us it's more interesting to tell the story of the house through time, not just this one static period."

Woodlawn's Secret
Shedding light on a forgotten past

By Tricia McCarter-Joseph
From Preservation May/June 2010

When Laurie Ossman became director of Woodlawn in August 2008, the complete story of the National Trust Historic Site in Alexandria, Va., seemed to have already been told. George Washington gave the plantation, originally a 2,000-acre tract, to his nephew Maj. Lawrence Lewis as a wedding gift in 1799. And Lewis commissioned William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, to design the grand Federal house where the major and his bride, Martha Washington's granddaughter Eleanor Custis Lewis, would raise a family and entertain in style.

The story seemed to end in 1846, when the Lewis family sold the property. "My natural curiosity led me to wonder, What happened next?" Ossman says. "What happened to all of the people who must have been here?"

The Mason family, shown seated before the east front of Woodlawn c. 1875,
purchased the mansion and helped free blacks to acquire land and establish farms nearby.
Credit: Woodlawn Archives/NTHP

Ossman secured a National Trust Interpretation and Education Fund grant and hired historic preservationist and genealogist Maddy McCoy and architectural historian Susan Hellman to search for answers.

The research team knew that two Quaker families, staunch abolitionists from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, had purchased the estate from Lewis' heirs. The new owners wanted to start a "free-labor colony" to disprove Southern assertions that slave labor was necessary to make plantations profitable. What the research team didn't know was how the radical experiment fared at Woodlawn.

Sifting through census records, newspapers, deeds, letters, and family Bibles, the researchers discovered that Woodlawn's new owners had indeed succeeded in fostering a diverse and tight-knit community that included free black landowners and workers, as well as recently arrived Irish and German immigrants. Community members started an integrated elementary school in the old mansion and founded three churches on former plantation property, as well as a variety of area businesses that served local farmers.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Woodlawn's diverse residents found themselves trapped between the Confederate line at Manassas and Union-occupied Alexandria, Va. Remarkably, residents—black and white—banded together to form a civilian militia, protecting themselves from both Union foraging campaigns and Confederate raids. "There was no other organization like it," Hellman says of the multiracial militia, which illustrated how the bonds of community at Woodlawn proved stronger than the politics of war.

Today, research into the plantation's past continues. McCoy, who mapped out the genealogy of the enslaved people at Woodlawn before the Quakers arrived, is now focusing on the free blacks, while Hellman is conducting further research into local military activity during the Civil War.
Ossman plans to unveil their findings next year, in time for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. "I want to give the people of Woodlawn their names back," she says. "The important thing is that Woodlawn is no longer the story of just one family, but the story of many families forming a diverse community."

Tuesday February 16, 2010
Filling in the gaps

Library to launch tool for researching African-American history

by Janet Rems
Special to the TimesThe Virginia Room in the City of Fairfax Regional Library is preparing to make available an invaluable tool for researching African-American history and genealogy.

Suzanne Levy, Virginian Room librarian, expects this new and extensive annotated bibliography of the library's regional and general African-American materials will be fully available in the spring. When complete, the bibliography will be accessible at both the Virginia Room and online via the Fairfax County Public Library's Web site.

"We're quickly becoming one of the larger African-American resources [in Virginia] outside of Richmond," said Fairfax City resident Maddy McCoy, 38, a historic preservationist, genealogist, compiler of the Slavery Inventory Database for Fairfax County and a Virginia Room volunteer.

The collection is not solely academic, but more broad-based and surprisingly rich, said Levy, 62, a Fairfax resident. Levy added she keeps finding new things to add to the collection, "often when just shelving books or looking for another title."

The annotations, which give quick summaries for each item, make the bibliography particularly user-friendly, Levy said.

Organized in one place into easy-to-use categories, the bibliography will make existing but dispersed materials once "hidden in plain sight" much more accessible, McCoy said.

"It was a wild goose chase," McCoy explained. "This pulls all the materials together with a guide to point you to those places."

The bibliography starts with a guide to materials for tracing African-American ancestry and segues into materials for studying the history of slavery, both general and regional.

A "big section," these include first-hand slave narratives -- including the slave families of Thomas Jefferson -- as well as materials on slave insurrections, the Underground Railroad and escapes from slavery.

Civil War materials are another major category, followed by important materials from the post-Civil War period, including revealing late 19th century Virginia School Reports and school board records, written when segregation of the races was the law.

The content of these reports are often "horrifying" to read, according to McCoy, but provide insights into a period when a number of important African-American communities and institutions like churches and fraternal groups --which still exist in Fairfax County -- were founded.

Materials for studying Fairfax County's particular African-American history and that of nearby jurisdictions like Loudoun County and Alexandria may be found in another major bibliography category. Though it mostly consists of post-Civil War materials, it runs from the 1600s to today.

In addition to the usual historic materials, "golden nuggets" of information can be found in resources cited in every category, McCoy said.

For example, lists of slaves transported to New Orleans for sale, with identifiable names and from ships' records dated 1808 to 1860, may be found in Ralph Clayton's book, "Cash for Blood."

There also are transcripts of probate records; lists of African-American Civil War-era troops on both sides; materials on the Buffalo Soldiers; information on African-American office holders; and first-hand accounts in various memoirs.

"It's incredible what we have," said McCoy, noting "there's vast amounts of sociology as well as history."
African-American history and genealogy is a fairly new discipline, McCoy said. "It was previously thought that the records were not there. They are there, but we are learning how to decipher them."

Already a "super-size collection," she expects grants from Exxon-Mobil and Friends of the Virginia Room to expand the materials even more. Most recently, for example, Exxon-Mobil grant money was used to augment the collection with the purchase of a major encyclopedia of Africa-American history.

McCoy will be available by appointment to help patrons interested in exploring their family histories or learning more about African-American history.

While the bibliography will be online, much of the materials are not yet digitized and need to be used on site.
McCoy noted that she is already working with historian Terry Buckalew, the head of a historical research consultancy in Falls Church, where he lives. He is in the first phase of a project to research Northern Virginia's slave insurrection history.

"I've been working with him on very local stories never told, never before researched," she said.
Buckalew, 60, who moved to the area last summer from Philadelphia after his wife was hired as the top fundraising executive at Gallaudet University, said his project was inspired by his reading of local history.

Looking for something to develop into a film treatment for a documentary, almost immediately, he found an "amazing" local story.

Known as the "Spring Bank confrontation," the 1840 incident involved a confrontation between a county slave patrol and a group of local slaves that has been called "the most renowned patrol attack by slaves in the history of the United States."

The history of Northern Virginia Buckalew discovered, is "rich" with such stories, full of vivid characters and "lots of lessons to be learned."

Buckalew said he is especially excited by the stories of how, hundreds of years before the Civil War, African-Americans were "liberating themselves."

Working with the Virginia Room and Levy and McCoy has been a "wonderful experience," said Buckalew, who has a master's degree in history and previously consulted on a PBS "American Experience" documentary on the civil rights movement in antebellum Philadelphia.

Working with McCoy, he kept bumping into other stories, which he put in a file. "Soon I realized it was a pretty big file," said Buckalew, who hopes to use this material not only in a film but also in two books, one written for adults the other aimed at middle-schoolers.

He also expects to shortly have a Web site to disseminate the stories he collects.

Describing her as "Fairfax County's Sherlock Holmes," McCoy, Buckalew enthused, "is much more than a genealogist or archivist, she's an activist. She's able to pull together all the threads, threads you would not think of. ... She weaves raw information into stories that have been lost to history."

Levy, the Virginia Room's "guru," and her other staff, according to Buckalew, are likewise, "sophisticated and deeply knowledgeable thinkers." Always intellectually honest, they are excellent teachers, too.

They "not only know where the bodies are buried they also know which ones are worth digging up."
"Suzanne Levy embodies all these qualities," he said, "and leads by example and is always available for that consultation that ends with that stare over her glasses that makes you feel you just received the best advice available."

While the Virginia Room offers lots of invaluable written materials, for Buckalew, "it's the people," unfailingly generous with their time, who make it such an invaluable resource. "Suzanne," he said, "has collected quite a team."

Copyright © 2010 Post-Newsweek Media, Inc./

Ancestry Magazine‎
Nov-Dec 2008
... of individuals buried in a slave cemetery in Fairfax County, Virginia," says
Maddy McCoy "There was only one headstone that had a name carved into it...

Returning the Favor
Posted by Jeanie Croasmun on September 19, 2008 in Ancestry Magazine

ShareI grew up in a family that never volunteered for anything that didn’t have a paycheck attached to it. I always attributed this to the fact that my parents were children of the Depression, and any time or money they had to spare was to be saved—just in case. Now that I have a family of my own, I’ve changed my mind about that former no-volunteer credo: it was probably more closely linked to my parents working, running a house, and raising three daughters. They were simply too exhausted to try to give anything else.

This may be why I was so impressed by Maddy McCoy, a parent whose one-woman volunteer project creating a slavery inventory database of Fairfax County, Virginia, itself is impressive. On the surface, the project seems small, just a single county in a single state. Its impact, however, is much larger. A database of enslaved and free black individuals in Fairfax County before and after the Civil War, the identification of significant area landmarks, and the potential the project has to inspire similar projects elsewhere are all coming courtesy of Maddy, who is doing this on her own time, with no impending financial gain.

But family historians, I’m learning, are like that. They volunteer their time for projects like the World Archives Project at so more people can freely access information about their family’s past. They answer questions on message boards to point other researchers in the right direction. They photograph cemeteries, return lost heirlooms, and preserve the history of hometowns their families never even lived in.

Why? Because everyone has the right to learn more about his or her past. The hundreds of ways to get involved in grassroots preservation projects are a testament to that. We’ll be featuring a dozen or so of our favorites in the November/December issue of Ancestry Magazine—ways, big and small, that anyone can help out, often with very little effort. But I’d love to hear more about what you’ve done or what you dream of doing that could make a big difference to even one family’s history. Make your comments here or send them directly to me at And keep up the good work.

Breaking Down 'Wall Of Slavery'
by Janet Rems @ Fairfax County Times

February 28, 2008 - 11:37am

In a forlorn Fairfax cemetery, historian Maddy McCoy observes the headstone of Sarah Ellen Runner (1854-1892), a descendant of the Gibsons, a prominent black family in Fairfax. (Times Photo/Tin Nguyen)

Maddy McCoy’s passion for genealogical connections has some extremely personal roots. The Fairfax City resident, who is compiling a Slavery Inventory Database for Fairfax County, was influenced, in part, by a search for her own family history.

An adopted child, McCoy, 36, began searching for her own birth family in her late 20s, after the birth of son Ronan Taylor, now almost 10 – which, statistically, is fairly typical, she says.

“Having the right to know one’s identity … one’s kin … resonated with me. It naturally fit,” says McCoy about her affinity for the now 2-year-old project.

The experience of discovering her own mostly Welsh roots was seriously grounding and powerful, says McCoy, a trained researcher and certified historic preservationist.

For African Americans, this kind of identity-confirming research is especially difficult because of “the wall of slavery.” Written records pertaining to African Americans and their families prior to the Civil War are rare and incomplete, according to McCoy.

McCoy has found great interest in the results of her work and a demand for a network of information that is “a coherent, organized reference.”

Although documentation is critical for authenticating oral histories, the “backbone” of the project, McCoy says, is the input of African-American families who live or have lived in Fairfax County.

An important tool in gathering this information is a “Family History Questionnaire,” which “often provides vital clues that cannot be found anywhere else,” she says.

Matching a family’s personal stories with written documentation is like solving a “massive puzzle.” But when she is able to make those connections, it is extremely satisfying, McCoy says, and makes for “a lot of WOW moments.”

Members of the Fairfax County History Commission were sufficiently wowed by the project to award McCoy – who is doing the database as a volunteer – a $3,000 grant this past summer to continue her work.

Before the database was started, there was no centralized way for people of African-American descent in Fairfax to trace their ancestry, says Sallie Lyons, a commissioner representing the Mount Vernon District. She describes the database as “the Holy Grail” for connecting living people with their slave ancestors.

Lyons, a Mason Neck resident, expects that the gaps filled by the database will not only be meaningful to regional history but eventually will also become part of an important national network.

“As painful as some of this history is, it needs to be told. It’s part of Americana,” says fellow history commissioner Anne Barnes.

The project got its start when Virginia Room librarian Brian Conley turned McCoy on to the controversy surrounding Fairfax’s Guinea Road cemetery, a hub of African-American life in Fairfax County in the late 1700s.

“One day Brian gave me the Guinea Road cemetery file; I was up to 3 a.m. reading it,” McCoy says.

When the Virginia Department of Transportation wanted to widen the road in the area of Little River Turnpike and Guinea Road in the City of Fairfax, VDOT disputed the existence of a cemetery for slaves from the Fitzhugh Plantation. It took a long time for archaeologists to get involved, according to McCoy.

But in spring 2006, VDOT workers and archaeologists exhumed the remains of more than 30 people, including children. In August of the same year, the remains – which were first studied at Radford University – were reburied under a historic plaque in Pleasant Valley Memorial Park, a cemetery in Annandale.

The Slavery Inventory Database project began with McCoy’s research into the identities of the individuals buried in the cemetery on Guinea Road.

Two years later, McCoy’s zealous pursuit of the histories of Fairfax County’s African-American families, the sites of their communities and the “hundreds of graveyards in this area that were obliterated by development” has earned her a bit of a reputation.

“VDOT hates me,” she says with a laugh.

But she is still a favorite in the Virginia Room, where she and her project are based. The Virginia Room, which houses the county library system’s collection of regional history and genealogy, has always been a place where people meet and share information, says Suzanne Levy, the Virginia Room librarian and McCoy’s project supervisor. The Slavery Inventory Database will fill a significant gap in that information.

“Maddy basically took the ball and ran with it. She’s devoted hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours to this project … and this is just a starting point,” Levy says.

Copyright 2008 Fairfax County Times. All rights reserved.