On the day that the newest Smithsonian museum, the National Museumof African American History and Culture, broke ground on the National Mall, Lauranett Lee was looking back at history.
She was at the Staunton library, after working the previous night at the Lyceum in Alexandria at the same task, teaching people how to research their enslaved ancestors and how to understand the history of the commonwealth of Virginia.
Lee is curator of the Virginia Historical Society’s free online database Unknown No Longer, which strives to name and account for all the slaves who lived in Virginia from the 1620s until Emancipation in 1865. It’s a major project, with 4,000 names so far, and hundreds of thousands more to go.
Funded with $125,000 in gifts from Dominion Resources and the Dominion foundation, the database relies on ship manifests, specific plantations’ documents and something else that especially valuable: The database will search through the 8.5 million private and unpublished collections of the historical society — letters, receipts, passes, commonplace books, employment lists and other records.
African American communities have always sought to learn more about their geneaology, but the spotty and missing records of the past hampered many who tried to research their family trees before Emancipation. Historians have been turning their attention to that era and have been rewarded with public interest.
“I really began to see how this touches people personally” since the database went public in September, Lee said. She had specialized in Reconstruction-era history before getting involved in this project, but as an African American woman just three generations removed from enslaved ancestors, she understood the data’s importance.
“It’s important because for so long, people of African descent weren’t able to find their ancestors, because of the institution of slavery,” Lee said in an interview. “Having a database like this is just one tool in an arsenal, but it’s a powerful tool.”
Researchers and historians aren’t the only ones who will find the database useful. The material is a treasure for amateurs, even those who have only partial knowledge of great-great-grandparents, by name, age, occupation and location.
But as all who reflect on that era in the nation’s history know, researching the lives of enslaved people can be a sobering experience. An 1855 record of the Berry Plain plantation in King George County reveals that one of the slaves owned by John Fayette Dickinson was Sam, a 56-year-old drayman. He was sold in 1859 for $200.