Difference between revisions of "African American Resources for Virginia"

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Revision as of 00:49, 16 June 2012

United States  go to  Virginia  go to  African Americans
Slaves awaiting sale in Richmond, Virginia (1853).


Africa ethnic groups 1996.jpg
African American research in Virginia can be divided into two general time periods - before and after the Civil War.

This Wiki page describes research strategies, and major sources of information about African American families from Virginia. As you read this Wiki page, also study the African American Research Wiki pages, which will help you understand more strategies, and the contents and uses of other African American genealogical records.

Societies dedicated to African American genealogy, such as the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, Inc., include local chapters in Virginia that offer many resources to help people with black ancestry.

Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. examines the Virginia ancestry of several prominent African Americans living today. His television series will provide you with many tips for tracing your own Virginia family tree.

Genetic Testing

Many African Americans alive today are having their DNA tested to learn which tribes in Africa they descend from. To learn more about this procedure, read Hiring a DNA Testing Company.


The first slaves were imported into Virginia in 1619. Slaves were emancipated in 1865. The Official Tourism Website of the Commonwealth of Virginia has prepared a nice history of African-Americans in Virginia.

Number of Slaves in Virginia[1]
Year Virginia (now) West Virginia Total
1790 287,959 4668 292,627
1800 338,624 7172 345,796
1810 381,680 10,836 392,516
1820 410,029 15,119 425,148
1830 452,084 17,673 469,757
1840 430,499 18,488 449,087
1850 452,028 20,500 472,528
1860 472,494 18,371 490,865

1790slaves.pngIn 1790, counties with more than 10,000 slaves were Amelia and Caroline. Counties with more than 7500 slaves were Culpeper and Hanover. Counties with more than 5000 slaves were: Albemarle, Amherst, Brunswick, Chesterfield, Dinwiddie, Essex, Fauquier, Gloucester, Halifax, Henrico, King and Queen, King William, Norfolk, Southampton, Spotsylvania, and Sussex.[1]

By 1860, when there were nearly twice as many slaves in the state as there had been 70 years earlier, counties with more than 10,000 slaves were Albemarle, Bedford, Campbell, Caroline, Dinwiddie, Fauquier, Halifax, Henrico, Louisa, Mecklenburg, and Pittsylvania. Counties with more than 7500 slaves were: Amelia, Brunswick, Buckingham, Charlotte, Chesterfield, Hanover, Norfolk, and Spotsylvania.[1]

Edmund S. Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975) (FHL Book 975.5 H6m) is considered one of the best histories of enslaved blacks in Virginia.

PBS's interactive Reconstruction: The Second Civil War discusses what life was like for freed slaves and their descendants in the nineteenth century.


Slavery Legislation. To learn about the laws that affected Virginia slaves, see:

  • Finkelman, Paul. State Slavery Statutes: Guide to the Microfiche Collection. Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1989. FHL Book 975 F23s. Pages 317-56 pertain to Virginia and cover the years 1789-1865. The advertisements are indexed. The records list the names of many slaves and slave owners.

The Geography of Slavery in Virginia includes a list of Virginia slave laws, references to slaves in the House of Burgesses Journals, and other documents.


1619-1865: Period of slavery

Information about slaves can be found in slavemasters' deeds (see the Virginia Land and Property),slave schedules (see Virginia Census), wills (see Virginia Probate Records), tax lists (see Virginia Taxation), family Bibles and diaries (see Virginia Bible Records), plantation records, interviews with former slaves, and in court order books (see Virginia Court Records). A few parish registers (see Virginia Church Records) list slaves who attended church with their masters. In Virginia the births of slave children should be listed in county birth registers starting in 1853 (see Virginia Vital Records).


Most black slaves were imported into Virginia in the 100 year period between 1676 and 1776, though they were present as early as 1619. Slaves began to outnumber the white indentured servant workforce in the late 1600s. The majority were brought into the colony from Africa and the Caribbean. In particular, the African regions of the Bight of Biafra (modern Nigeria), Senegambia (modern Senegal and Gambia), West Central Africa (modern Angola and Congo), and the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) were hotspots for Virginia slave traders. Smaller numbers came from the Windward Coast (modern Ivory Coast), Sierra Leone, Bight of Benin (modern Togo and Benin), and Southeast Africa (modern Madagascar and Mozambique) according to surviving shipping registers.[2]

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database Internet site contains references to 35,000 slave voyages, including over 67,000 Africans aboard slave ships, using first name, age, gender, origin, and place of embarkation. The database documents the slave trade between Africa, Europe, Brazil, the Caribbean, and what is now the United States.

Virginia headright grants identify some slave importations into the colony, see Virginia Immigration for further information about this source.

Slaves were usually renamed once they arrived in English-speaking colonies. They were given English Christian names to replace names from their native languages (a minority of slaves originally had Muslim names).[3]

Records of Slaves

The 1850 and 1860 slave schedules are available on Ancestry.com ($) and FamilySearch.org (free). They identify genders and ages of slaves owned by each master. Earlier census records statistically identify slaves in their masters' households (and free people of color) by approximate age and gender. For a breakdown of the content of the records, see articles on the 1840, 1830, 1820, 1810, 1800, and 1790 censuses.

Tom Blake's Large Slaveholders of 1860 and African American Surname Matches from 1870 can help researchers theorize the identities of the owners of their slave ancestors. The site includes material for Amelia, Essex, Halifax, Henry, King William, Mecklenburg, Nelson, Nottoway, Powhatan, and Prince George counties in Virginia.

Black slaves are often listed as property in their masters' deeds, wills, and probate inventories.

White slave masters who belonged to the Quaker and Methodist faiths often set their slaves free in the 1700s and 1800s.[4] Paul Heinegg prepared a detailed list of Virginia slaves manumitted (freed) between 1782 and the 1820s.

Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names is a free online database created by the Virginia Historical Society. Information on many Virginia slaves is available in this work in progress.[5]

Morales and Valaitis indexed slaves in birth registers across the state for the period 1853 to 1865:

  • Morales, Leslie Anderson and Ada Valaitis. Virginia Slave Births Index, 1853-1865. 5 vols. Westminster, Md.: Heritage Books, 2007. FHL Book 975.5 V22v v. 1-5.

The Library of Virginia has a collection titled Public claims, slaves and free blacks, 1781-1865. The collection contains tax records for free blacks and slaves, records of condemned blacks who were executed or transported out of state, and records of runaway slaves who were caught and whose owners could not be found. The runaway slaves became the property of the state and were sold to new owners. Copies are available on microfilm at the Family History Library: FHL Films 2027937-2027942.

African American Families Database online The Central Virginia History Researchers (CVHR) has now released the African-American Families Database online. The first stage of this website provides a template for researchers trying to locate specific African- Americans who lived between circa 1850 and 1880. This period is particularly challenging for African-American family research because of the difficulty in relating ante-bellum and post-bellum records. The two plantations on which the website currently focuses are Hydraulic Plantation (5 miles north of Charlottesville, Va.), and the Bleak House Plantation (9 miles northwest of Charlottesville Va.).The site contains information on the plantations and information on the enslaved people living on these two plantations. The site also contains a blog focusing on the activities of the CVHR group, and details about the Database project.

Runaway Slaves

Names of hundreds of runaway slaves, their descriptions, owners, and ages appeared in newspapers. British officers promised runaway slaves their freedom if they fought against America in the Revolutionary War. They have been published and can be found in:

  • Windley, Lathan A., comp. Runaway Slave Advertisements. 4 vols. (Virginia and North Carolina) Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. FHL Book 975 F2wL. For Virginia, see volume one.

Many eighteenth-century runaway slave advertisements were published in the Virginia Gazette. Indexed images of the Virginia Gazette (1736-1780) are available online through the Colonial Williamsburg website. (Browse for terms such as "slaves.") Professor Tom Costa and The Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia have indexed all the runaway advertisements for slaves mentioned in this publication and other Virginia newspapers (1736-1803), see: The Geography of Slavery in Virginia. These newspapers are valuable resources for all Virginia regions.

Plantation Records

Virginia Plantation Records Occasionally, slaves are mentioned in plantation records. The Family History Library has several series of plantation records from the periods before and after the Civil War. These are listed in the Author/Title Search of the Family History Library Catalog under the STAMPP, KENNETH M. or in the Subject Search under PLANTATION LIFE - VIRGINIA or PLANTATION LIFE - SOUTHERN STATES. Records are available at:

The Family History Library has microfilms of most of the records described in the guide booklets. Virginia plantation records are scattered throughout.

Personal Narratives

Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States, From Interviews with Former Slaves, recorded after the Civil War, recounts memories of life as a slave.

Voices from the Days of Slavery, made possible by the Library of Congress, includes free audio files of interviews with former slaves from Albemarle, Essex, Westmoreland counties and the cities of Norfolk and Petersburg.

Volume 16 of The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (1941) includes Virginia narratives: FHL Book 973 F2aa series 2 v. 16.

Revolutionary War, 1776-1783

African Americans from Virginia served on both sides of the Revolutionary War. Many Virginia slaves ran away from their masters and joined British forces after a proclamation issued by Lord Dunmore in 1775. He promised them freedom for this act, and 500 slaves promptly joined him, whom he organized into the Ethiopian Regiment.[6] Free people of color commonly served their companies as drummers, fifers, and pioneers.[7] Black "pioneers" would "Assist in Cleaning the Streets & Removing all Nuisances being thrown into the Streets."[8]

An index of slaves and free men of color appears in the Index to Sons of the American Revolution applications. For a discussion, see the Virginia Periodicals article.

Patriots of Color is a free database at Archives.com. Includes details about 700+ black Virginians in the Revolutionary War.[9]

Black Loyalist, created by The University of Sydney, includes biographical information about approximately 1,000 black loyalists from the Norfolk, Virginia area.[10]

Early Migration Out of Virginia

In the colonial period, slaves were taken by Virginia slave masters into areas where white settlements appeared, such as North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Black Loyalists during the Revolution resettled in British Canada after the War concluded.

In the early 1800s, approximately 500,000 Virginia slaves were forcibly moved to the Deep South.[2] Dorothy Williams Potter in Passports of Southeastern Pioneers 1770-1823 (FHL Book 975 W4p) identifies some white families that took slaves with them from Virginia to the territories that are now Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri.

Free People of Color

Not all blacks were slaves in Virginia before the Civil War. Virginia had the largest free black population of all the states.[11] Many black families in Virginia had been free since the 1600s. For each eight slaves in the state, there was one free person of color.[12] Some of the largest families had the surnames Cumbo, Driggers, and Goins. Many free people of color descended from black slave men who had children by white indentured servant women.[13] Others were manumitted.

Number of Free People of Color in Virginia[1]
Year Virginia (now) West Virginia Total
1790 12,254 612 12,866
1800 19,598 526 20,124
1810 29,292 1278 30,570
1820 35,470 1413 36,883
1830 45,181 2167 47,348
1840 46,809 3033 49,842
1850 51,251 3082 54,333
1860 55,269 2773 58,042

About one-half of the Virginia free black population lived in the Tidewater region during the nineteenth century. In 1860, about one-third lived in towns and cities.[14] Counties with the largest populations of free African Americans in 1790 were Accomack, Dinwiddie, Henrico, Nansemond, Northampton, and Southampton. 70 years later, in 1860, many of these people's descendants appear to have continued to live in the same areas. Counties with more than 1500 free colored people were Accomack, Dinwiddie, Henrico, Nansemond, Norfolk, and Southampton.[1] In Petersburg in 1830 (Dinwiddie County), there were 3440 whites, 2850 slaves, and 2032 free blacks, making the black population the majority.[15]


Free people of color appear in the same Virginia sources as the white population. They had surnames, interacted with whites, Indians, slaves, and free blacks; bought and sold land, took out marriage licenses, left wills, baptized their children in the Church of England, owned slaves, paid taxes, and sued others in court.[16] Sometimes clerks specified their race, other times, they did not.

In the nineteenth century, it was not uncommon for free blacks to purchase their enslaved relatives (husbands, wives, children, parents) and maintain their status as slaves in efforts to keep the family intact (newly freed blacks in Virginia faced a discriminatory law (starting in 1806) requiring them to leave the state).[17] Census takers between 1790 and 1860 distinguished between free blacks and black slaves. Heinegg prepared lists of "Other Free" Heads of Household in the 1810 Virginia Census (arranged by county) (arranged by name).

Starting in 1793, each Virginia county court kept a register of free negroes.[18] Documentation of a black person's freedom status protected them from being forced into slavery. On the other hand, it also restricted their ability to migrate within the state, requiring them to stay in the county where he or she was registered.[19] These registers may give the person's name, age, color, stature, marks and scars, and name the court of emancipation. Several of these registers are found at the Library of Virginia. The Family History Library has copies of some of these registers. They are usually found in the Family History Library Place Search under VIRGINIA, [COUNTY] - COURT RECORDS.

Example of registers that have been published:

  • Boyd-Rush, Dorothy A. Free Negroes Registered in the Clerk's Office, Botetourt County, Virginia, 1802-1836. Athens, Georgia: Iberian Pub. Co., 1993. FHL Book 975.5 A1 no. 305.
  • Ford, Benjamin. Free Black Registers, Albemarle County (1807-1865). Available online.
  • Hudgins, Dennis. Surry County, Virginia Register of Free Negroes. Richmond, Va.: Viginia Genealogical Society, 1995. FHL Book 975.5562 F2h.
  • Kegley, Mary B. Free People of Colour: Free Negroes, Indians, Portuguese and Freed Slaves. Wytheville, Virginia: Kegley Books, 2003. FHL Book 975.5 F2kf; digital version at Family History Archives.

Black families freed prior to 1820 have been reconstructed in:

  • Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware at http://freeafricanamericans.com/ (accessed 25 May 2012). About 2,000 pages of family histories based on colonial court order and minute books 1790-1810 census records, tax lists, wills, deeds, free Negro registers, marriage bonds, parish registers, and Revolutionary War pension files.

A good history to read on the subject is:

  • Russell, John Henderson. The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1913. Digital version at Internet Archive. 1969 reprint: FHL Book 975.5 F2r.

Migration Out of Virginia

Many free African American families migrated from Virginia to Robeson County, North Carolina in the 1700s.[13] Virginia's free people of color are also now believed to have been the ancestors of Appalachia's Melungeon population.[20] An 1806 law required freed slaves to leave the state within twelve months of gaining their freedom. This stiff law was softened by subsequent laws in the 1820s and 30s.[21] Many free blacks from Virginia had resettled in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan between the 1840s and 1860s.[13]

1865 to the Present

After the Civil War, African Americans appears in the same sources as white people, such as censuses (beginning in 1870), marriage registers (though there was often a separate register for "colored marriages"), birth certificates, death certificates, deeds, wills, military records, cemeteries and church records (though they were usually segregated churches and cemeteries), tax records, voter registrations, and newspapers (including ethnic African American newspapers). Unique records relating specifically to black Virginians include cohabitation records, Freedmen's Bank records, and African American biographies.

In 1870, five years after slaves were freed, counties with the largest black populations (more than 10,000) were Albemarle, Bedford, Campbell, Dinwiddie, Halifax, Henrico, Louisa, Mecklenburg, Norfolk, and Pittsylvania. Towns with the largest black populations (more than 5000) were Alexandria, Charlottesville, Danville (Dan River), Lynchburg, Norfolk, Petersburg, Portsmouth, and Richmond.[1]


Cohabitation Records are registers created when the former slaves legalized their marriages which was not allowed until 1866. This valuable genealogical data is being made available online through the Library of Virginia's Virginia Memory Collection (scroll to "Cohabitation Registers"). More about this source is also found on the Cohabitation Records Wiki page, and the Virginia Cohabitation Records Wiki page.

Freedman's Savings and Trust Company signature cards or registers may list the slave's former masters, birth date, birthplace, occupation, residences, death information, parents, children, spouse, or siblings. Virginia had three branches of this bank:

  • Lynchburg 1871
  • Norfolk 1871-1874
  • Richmond 1867-1874

The signature registers for these branches are listed in:

  • Freedman's Savings and Trust Company (Washington, DC) 1865-1874. Registers of Signatures of Depositors in Branches of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874. Washington, DC: National Archives, 1969. Digital version online; also on film: FHL Film 928591. In each city, depositors' names are arranged by account number.

Two valuable sources for the period after the Civil War are:

  1. United States. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870. Washington, DC: National Archives, 1977. FHL Films 1549578-97. Most volumes are indexed.
  2. United States. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869. Washington, DC: National Archives, 1988. FHL Films 1601562-628. There are several indexes.

Freedmen's Bureau Virginia Marriages ca. 1815-1866--Names of thousands of former slaves are included in these records. A free index can be viewed at FamilySearch Record Search. Records may include the name of the bride and groom, date of marriage registration, residence, previous marriages, names and ages of children.

Some additional transcribed records are available at Freedmen's Bureau.com.

Biographies of prominent Virginia African Americans have been published. For example, a list of blacks who held public office during Reconstruction is available in: Negro Office Holders in Virginia, 1865-1895, by Luther Porter Jackson. The Black History Committee of The Friends of the Thomas Balch Library prepared two volumes titled The Essence of a People: Portraits of African Americans Who Made a Difference in Loudoun County, Virginia (2001-2002). FHL Book 975.528 F2f.

Large African American cemeteries in Virginia have included:

The J.F. Bell Funeral Home in Charlottesville, Virginia maintained records of African American funerals, which are available online for the years 1917-1989.

History of African Methodism in Virginia (1908) is available online through the Library of Congress's The Church in the Southern Black Community, 1780-1925 collection.

The Library of Virginia has prepared a list of African-American Newspapers, such as the Afro-American and the Richmond Planet, which they hold.

Migration Out of Virginia

There were several large migrations of Virginia African Americans into other parts of the country in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1900, most Southern born blacks living in the North had been born in Virginia or Kentucky.[22] Around the time of World War I, many rural Virginians moved to urban Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New Jersey, New York City, and Boston. In the World War II era, many moved to Chicago and Detroit.[2]


Archives and Libraries

For a list of Virginia plantation records held at various archives, see the Period of slavery section.



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Includes modern-day West Virginia and part of the District of Columbia. Ninth Census of the United States: Statistics of Population, Tables I to VIII Inclusive (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 70, 72. Digital version at Internet Archive; FHL Book 973 X2pcu; William O. Lynch, "The Westward Flow of Southern Colonists before 1861," The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Aug. 1943):325. Digital version at JSTOR ($).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 James Ison, AG, CG, "Migration Patterns: An Alternative for Locating African Origins." Lecture given at the National Genealogical Society Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah (2010) and the Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference, Knoxville, Tennessee (2010). Free version available online at FamilySearch Wiki.
  3. Allan Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America, A Sourcebook (New York: Garland Press, 1984).
  4. John Henderson Russell, The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1913), 57-58. Digital version at Internet Archive.
  5. Dick Eastman, "Virginia Historical Society Slave Database Online," Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, 24 February 2012, http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2012/02/virginia-historical-society-slave-database-online.html.
  6. Wikipedia contributors, "Ethiopian Regiment," in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopian_Regiment, accessed 14 June 2012.
  7. The Free Negro in Virginia, 109-110.
  8. Wikipedia contributors, "Black Pioneers," in Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Pioneers, accessed 14 June 2012.
  9. Dick Eastman, "Archives.com to Publish the Patriots of Color Database," Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, 24 February 2012, http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2012/02/archivescom-to-publish-the-patriots-of-color-database.html.
  10. Dick Eastman, "Black Loyalist Web Site," Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, 1 May 2011, http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2011/05/black-loyalist-web-site.html.
  11. The Free Negro in Virginia, 9.
  12. The Free Negro in Virginia, 10.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 The previous school of thought had the colors and genders swapped - it was believed that they descended from illegitimate offspring of white slave masters and black slave women. A 1662 law stated that the offspring of such relations would take the legal status of the mother. See Paul Heinegg, Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, http://freeafricanamericans.com/, accessed 25 May 2012; and The Free Negro in Virginia, 19.
  14. The Free Negro in Virginia, 14-15.
  15. The Free Negro in Virginia, 14.
  16. The Free Negro in Virginia, 89-90.
  17. The Free Negro in Virginia, 92-93.
  18. The Free Negro in Virginia, 101.
  19. The Free Negro in Virginia, 106-108.
  20. Travis Loller, "DNA study seeks origin of Appalachia's Melungeons," Yahoo! News, 24 May 2012, http://news.yahoo.com/dna-study-seeks-origin-appalachias-melungeons-201144041.html.
  21. The Free Negro in Virginia, 90.
  22. 1900 U.S. Federal Census. Study by James Ison.