Last September we launched Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names with 1,500 names. My colleagues and I are happy to announce that we have now entered 10,006 names into our database. Of that number, 8,861 are the names of enslaved people and 1,145 belong to slaveowners. There are also 526 documents and 148 locations in the database. This past week we have been highlighting our one-year anniversary and commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln issued on September 22, 1862. At all the various events, we have shared documents that illuminate the personal side of politics.
One of those documents that touched me personally was a list from Westover Plantation of a slave community legally owned by John Armistead Selden. What must it have been like for Phillis—the mother of Margaret (14), Lucy (11), Patsy (1) and Edwin (also 1)—to leave Westover Plantation in Charles City County and follow the Union army? How close did forty-two-year-old Austin come to freedom before he “died from neglect while at work at James Town on the fortifications” for the Confederacy? Were Carter, James, and Anderson, all field hands, able to contribute to the Union army when they left the plantation? And then there is Lotty, possibly too sick to leave the plantation, who “died a day after the Yankees left.”
The names of forty-two people were included in a “List of Negroes that left Westover with the Yankees in August last” only weeks before the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Legally owned by Selden, those men, women, and children were considered property. Military officials considered them “contraband of war.” Phillis and her offspring and so many others emancipated themselves even before the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, it is in the listing of Selden’s “property” that we in the twenty-first century are able to make unknown no longer the enslaved people who sought freedom and pursued liberty despite the horrors and uncertainty of war.
Dr. Lauranett Lee is the curator of African American History at the Virginia Historical Society.