Student Researchers Contribute To The Genealogy Of Slavery

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Officially, the Genealogy of Slavery project at Roanoke College’s Center for Studying Structures of Race this summer involved research to develop a database of information about enslaved people in Southwest Virginia before and during the Civil War. Unofficially, the student researchers were working to restore the names and stories of people who have been virtually erased from history.

Six students conducted research on the project this summer, each tackling a different aspect. Their aim was to gather names and information about enslaved individuals who worked to build and maintain Roanoke College in its earliest days, and to investigate the centrality of enslaved people to the development of Roanoke County. So far, the project has identified the names of approximately 2,500 individuals who were enslaved in Roanoke County.

The student research team included Casey McGirt, a junior psychology major from Boones Mill; Michele Eaves, a junior sociology major from Roanoke; Sydney Pennix, a junior psychology major from Rockville; and Ashtyn Porter, a senior creative writing and international relations double major from Midlothiam, Jesse Bucher, college historian and director for the Center for Studying Structures of Race (CSSR), and Whitney Leeson, professor of history and anthropology, both worked with the research team. The research is funded by The CIC’s NetVUE Grant for Reframing the Institutional Saga.

Researchers spent most of their time in the Roanoke County archives, located in the Records Room at the nearby Roanoke County Courthouse. Each student focused on a specific type of source, such as will books, birth register, death register, and inventory and appraisal books (estate property records).

The research itself involved pouring over large, bound books with old, handwritten records in search of references to enslaved people. Because computers are not allowed in the Records Room, students had to make notes by hand. The record books detail the final wills and testaments of Roanoke County residents, every birth or death in the county, and inventory lists and financial details of the estates of county residents. Researchers noted dates, years and details recorded in various books. They also made notes about individuals or property they wanted to follow up on in another record book.

For the research team, absorbing and documenting facts about people who were enslaved was emotionally difficult work. Enslaved individuals were viewed as property, often not even named in the records, but assessed for their “value” in the same way as other kinds of property.

Students were also disturbed by the inaccessibility of Black history, which makes it difficult for Black families to do genealogy. Most slavery records, including local archives, are not online, and physical sites are typically open limited hours on weekdays.

Because of the nature of the research, the students are engrossed in the emails of life around the time of the Civil War, and they see how the culture evolved over time – or sometimes didn’t evolve. The students are passionate about connecting the dots between history and the cultural challenges of the modern era.

Four of the students will continue to work with CSSR during the academic year, following up on the research conducted and entering the information they gathered into a database.

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