“There should be no individual who is ever classified as ‘unknown'”
April is National Volunteer Month. To mark the occasion, we are sharing posts by some of the Virginia Historical Society’s dedicated Volunteer Guild. This week we hear from Grace Hindman who has been helping our Programs Division with the digitization of documents for Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names.
I spent many of my childhood summers on a family farm in Highland County, Virginia. Although the farm itself hasn’t been in use since about the 1950s, the landscape still shows the history of what took place on the 2,000 acres. Still standing are the farmhouse (built about 1850), a barn, an outhouse, a shed, and the foundations of other buildings. In the cemetery nearby, numerous families are buried, but our family’s plot includes a unique gravestone. Buried among the children and the Civil War soldiers is a simple gravestone with the epithet “Our Black Mammy.” Granny, as she was called by my family up until her death in the 1920s, was a slave who was born on the family farm and who remained with the family after emancipation. She worked for my great-great grandparents and their children her entire life. The dining room holds the one image that exists of her, which shows her on the front porch with my great-great uncle and his nieces.
I’d never given much thought to Granny. The fact that our family owned slaves was always acknowledged and just sort of given as a statement of fact. We never shied away from our past as southern slaveowners, but stories were never told about slavery and what life was like during that period. Even the names of other slaves are unknown.
Working on the Unknown No Longer project at the Virginia Historical Society, I began to question why we had never attempted to learn more about the enslaved men and women who were such an integral part of our family’s life. Clearly, Granny was respected member of the household. After all, she was given a place of honor in the family burial plot. But who else worked with her? Did she have any siblings who worked in the fields where I later ran as a child?
The Unknown No Longer project provides access to more than 1,500 slave names from the state of Virginia. There are countless documents that list names, prices, punishments, and even include some stories. Although most of the authors of these documents were white people who owned human property, they are the sole providers of information about countless individuals. Much like my own family, there isn’t much information about the those of the enslaved or of the slaveowners other than what has been passed down through family stories. By digitizing documents and records, however, the VHS is now providing access to an important period in our past. Names can be searched, stories can be uncovered, and the record of those who have been unknown until now can be made known.
I hope that by searching the Unknown No Longerdatabase many people will be able to discover their ancestors and understand what their lives were like. To me, the most valuable lesson from this project is that there should be no individual who is ever classified as “unknown.” Everyone’s history should be known, and I hope to follow through with that mission throughout my life and that Unknown No Longer also inspires the same desire in your life.
Periodically the Virginia Historical Society will post content created by guest writers. The opinions expressed are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Virginia Historical Society, its members, or its staff. The Virginia Historical Society encourages discussion; however, we reserve the right to remove posts that are offensive, threatening, or insulting.