Afro-American Sources in Virginia.
A Guide to Manuscripts

Michael Plunkett, Editor
University Press of Virginia
© 1995 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia
Conditions of Use


The scholar's research strategy is influenced by the basic constraints of time and money. Choices must be made as to which archives are to be visited and how much time is to be allowed at each. Once there, the more effectively the time can be used in finding and examining relevant materials, the more productive will be the research endeavor. It is for these reasons that publications such as Michael Plunkett's Afro-American Sources in Virginia: A Guide to Manuscripts are so valuable to scholars. Plunkett, Curator of Manuscripts at the University of Virginia Library, here presents the information derived from a survey of the resources in Virginia repositories, describing the principal collections of interest to scholars concerned with the Afro-American experience. In these Virginia repositories there are extensive collections of primary documents, only some of which deal with Afro-Americans. This compilation will greatly aid the researcher, who will be able to use the Guide's annotations to focus upon those specific collections with materials of interest.

Although Virginia repositories include collections with materials related to the Afro-American experience in other parts of the South and in the North, the most important of the collections are for the colony and state of Virginia. These run in time from the seventeenth century to the current period. Collections include the papers, letters, and records of individuals and families; documents of towns, cities, and counties; official state records; church records; material from the Works Projects Administration Folklore Collection; college and university archives; and a variety of other types of documents of importance for understanding the Afro-American experience.

While it can hardly be claimed that the story of Afro-Americans in Virginia has been neglected by historians or that these collections have been ignored by those writing on Afro-Americans, an examination of the Guide and of the collections themselves points to several areas in which important new research using these archives is possible. Reflecting my interests and use of archival sources, there are some particular areas related to the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century which I wish to note.

Virginia's importance, as measured by its percentage of the overall Afro-American population, declined dramatically over the course of the nineteenth century: about two-fifths of the Afro-Americans in the United States resided in Virginia at the time of the first census (about 95 percent of them enslaved), the share falling to about one-eighth on the eve of the Civil War, and about one-tenth by 1880. Yet as late as 1860 Virginia still had more Afro-Americans (and more slaves) than did any other state. For all the writings on antebellum slavery, we still have much to learn about the distinct economics and culture of slavery in Virginia. While most writings focus on the cotton South with its large plantations, Virginia slavery was characterized by relatively small slave farms, growing mainly tobacco and wheat. Thus in many important dimensions slavery in Virginia was different, for slaves and for masters, than slavery elsewhere in the South.

Many of these Virginia repositories have been used by scholars writing on the history of slavery in Virginia from the colonial era to the Civil War. Several of the archives were recently used by Allan Kulikoff when writing his important study of slavery in the early Chesapeake, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake 1680-1800. Robert McColley's Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia remains the major work on its period, but there is no similar work on Virginia slavery covering the important years of 1820-60. As a survey of their bibliographies and references sources will indicate, many of the writings of the past decades on American slavery consulted Virginia collections. Of particular note are the important writings of two major black historians, Luther Porter Jackson (Free Negro Labor and Property Holding in Virginia 1830-1860) and James Hugo Johnston (Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South 1776-1860), both of whose papers are now available to scholars at Virginia State University. More recently, for their heavy reliance on these sources one can, in particular, point to Todd L. Savitt's Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia and, for the use of one part of the extensive John Hartwell Cocke collection at the University of Virginia Library, the letters of slaves and ex-slaves to their former master in Randall M. Miller's edited collection "Dear Master": Letters of a Slave Family.

In addition, for different aspects of the slave experience, there are Richard Dunn's use of the plantation records in the Tayloe Papers at the Virginia Historical Society; Charles B. Dew's study of the Tredegar Iron Works, Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works, based primarily on the company's records now at the Virginia State Library; and Mechal Sobel's Trabelin' On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith and her The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia. Suzanne Lebsock's significant study of The Free Women of Petersburg: Status and Culture in a Southern Town, 1784-1860, which includes an examination of free women of color, similarly draws heavily upon materials from several Virginia repositories. More, however, can be done on the host of issues related to Afro-American slaves and free persons of color in Virginia by using many of the cited collections. A fuller examination of, for example, black demography can draw upon various planter listings of slaves, slave birth registers, free black registers, and police daybooks -- even the detailed account book of a slave trader in the late antebellum period.

The atypical pattern of slavery in Virginia also makes the transition from slavery to freedom, and the economic and social adjustments to emancipation, a particularly interesting subject for examination. For this period, as for the slave era, much of the recent work on political and economic changes has concentrated upon those parts of the South in which the plantation had been the dominant institution. Yet to more fully understand the impact of emancipation, particularly in its economic aspects, attention to areas with smaller farms, growing a different set of crops, is important. The focus would contribute, for example, to the analysis of the factors explaining postemancipation declines in agricultural production in the South, which appear to have been smaller in Virginia than elsewhere in the South. There are a number of collections with labor contracts between freedmen and landowners, as well as sources with account books and farmers' letters, that can be used to examine such questions, as was done by Crandall A. Shifflett, drawing mainly upon the Watson Family Papers at the University of Virginia Library, in his Patronage and Poverty in the Tobacco South: Louisa County, Virginia 1860-1900. Not only would we expect the economic effects of the end of slavery in Virginia to differ from those elsewhere, but because of the differences in the relative numbers of blacks and whites (among other reasons) we would also anticipate variations in the social, cultural, and political consequences. Some of these social and cultural issues are examined by Robert Francis Engs in his Freedom's First Generation: Black Hampton. Virginia 1861-1890, which utilizes the Hampton University Archives. Moreover, the differences in the social and economic adaptations made in the migration northward by those Afro-Americans born in Virginia and those born elsewhere in the South means that studies of Virginia slavery and emancipation will have wider implications.

There are obviously other questions and other periods for which archival repositories in Virginia will prove very useful and for which this Guide will be an essential aid. This compilation is most useful in drawing attention to relevant collections and indicating the range of materials they contain. The annotations for each collection and the subject index can be of enormous help to scholars, leading them to those collections with materials of interest and for which the examination of detailed inventories at the repository will yield a high payoff. Use of the Guide will permit a great savings in time and effort, making it a most useful reference aid to be consulted by scholars of Afro-American history, literature, and culture.

Stanley L. Engerman
Departments of Economics and History
University of Rochester

Michael Plunkett
Curator of Manuscripts
University of Virginia Library

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