THE ENSLAVED

Julia Munro

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Franklin Minor's advert for runaway slave, James. Jeffersonian Republican, 25.1204 (20 January 1859)

NEW: List of African-American Individuals and Fragments: Partially Documented Persons and Events

Here in this section you will find information specific to the subject of slavery/emancipation in relation to the construction and development of the University of Virginia. Given the timeframe that the JUEL project examines, from 1819 to 1870, the part that African-Americans played in the early life of the University of Virginia is one of great importance and great complexity. This section of JUEL seeks to illuminate, individuate, and pay tribute to these members of the university community. 

Challenges and Rationale

The challenge that JUEL faces in uncovering the subject of African Americans is one that is common to such historical inquiries, particularly archival studies of the marginalized: the desire to uncover such peoples is in direct opposition to the ideology of said period and the documents it produced. Whereas JUEL seeks to individuate and render visible: to identify names, lifespans, occupations, familial relations, living places, and so on, the modus operandus of the antebellum era is to efface and render invisible.

However, a careful exploration of historical records does provide information that, if partial, coded, and cursory, nonetheless helps in this illumination. Fortunate to the JUEL project, detailed records were not only created by Jefferson and his cohorts in the founding of the university, but were also faithfully preserved in the University's archives, such that they may be mined in the present day. Meeting minutes, student accounts, and other such official documents can be found, as well as letters, diaries, and other more personal communciation. Perhaps most importantly, seemingly insignificant ephemera (receipts, leases, bills) have survived from which telling details about the enslaved emerge. Several hundreds of items such as this receipt of 1821 taxation, below, were archived as part of the Proctor's records - one of many scraps of paper that reveal the state of the enslaved in these formative years (in this case, noting the number of slaves above twelve and sixteen years under the head of household).

A receipt showing the taxation for slaves in 1821   

June 1821 Tax information, Proctor's Papers 

Terminology: Definitions of the Roles of African Americans

In encompassing both the antebellum and postbellum periods and the resulting profound shift in the status of African Americans, the JUEL project reveals the complex and changing roles, and labels by which African Americans were hailed. Delving into the JUEL records, one can find references to slaves, servants, laborers, "Negros," domestics, hirelings, and free persons. Which terms were used, when, and to what purpose, will be here briefly described. [For related information, please see Ellen Eslinger's article, "Free Black Residency in Two Antebellum Virginia Counties: How the Laws Functioned" (Journal of Southern History 79.2, May 2013, pp. 262-298)].

Freed Persons
The law of 1793 of the Commonwealth of Virginia required all Freed Negroes to be registered. This law covered the period through 1865. Some counties in Virginia kept separate registers, and many, of course, were lost during the Civil War. The registers, in effect, strove to keep track and regulate those who were free, in a manner that reveals that even free persons of color were yet subject to the visual policing as that of slaves. With descriptions that seek to detail the freed person as a physical body, we can see how such records acted much like a passport photograph. Persons were described as "black," "rather dark," "bright mulatto," "dark mulatto," and so on, with descriptions of facial features ("pugnose," "straight nose") and hair ("bushy hair," "hair nearly strait [sic]") that are comparative. Consider the following record: 

NAME: Francis Gillison
AGE: About 33 years
STATURE: 5 feet 4 1/2 inches high
COLOR: Light Brown Skin
DESCRIPTION: Having a slight scar near the corner of the left eye, several small scars on the back of the right hand near the wrist
the little finger of same hand bent and shortened in consequence of a bone felon. A white spot on the wrist of same hand,
several scars on the back of the left hand and wrist and the fingers of the left hand (excepting the fore-finger) now sore from a mask
HOW FREE: Emancipated by the will of Sarah Edmonds

(Source: Fauquier County, Virginia Register of Free Negros 1817-1855, Karen King Ibrahim et al, 1993)

(For further reading, see: "Register of Freed Blacks").

Identifying the Enslaved of the University 

As the Virginia Historical Society explains, while free black persons prior to the Civil War were documented in public records (such as birth, marriage, death, and so on), slave families "seldom appear in public records because they could not own property and had few legal rights." Further, while deeds of ownership are one way in which to trace the transit of the enslaved, such records were not legally required. Other partial sources of information include land deeds or settlements and, from 1810 onward, the accounting of slaves as part of the owner's personal property tax ("Looking for People," pars. 1-3, Virginia Historical Society).

The challenge researchers face with this paucity of documented records is only increased given the instability of a slave's identity. That is, slaves for the most part were stripped of the typical terms by which we identify our personhood: place and date of birth, first name and family surname, even the bonds of the immediate family. Without the right to a stable identifier of first and last name, slaves were often renamed when exchanged among owners and overseers: see, for instance, the number of generic "Sams" that were part of the University in the early 1820s. Oftentimes transactions do not note the name but instead simply mention "a slave," which reveals the extent to which slaves were treated as units of property, rather than individual humans. In essence, our desire to unearth the identities of the enslaved persons, as unique individuals, is anathema to the workings of a system that defined, transferred, and treated such persons as property objects. 

Hence, JUEL seeks to compile a provisional list of African Americans known to have been present in the construction and early years of the University of Virginia. The list of African-American Individuals lists those individuals present between 1819-1870, enslaved or otherwise; please note that this list inevitably contains repetitions and possible errors and omissions; it has been compiled from University records and is continually being refined and updated.

 See also Fragments: Partially Documented Persons and Events for examples of primary record accounts that mention African Americans and slaves associated with the University.