William Styron’s “Confessions of Nat Turner” at 50

On October 9, 1967, William Styron’s novel from history, The Confessions of Nat Turner, was published to acclaim and controversy. Styron was raised in Newport News, Virginia, about a hundred miles from the site of the rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, despite controversy over its characterization of Turner and other characters, and the fact that it was written in the voice of a Black man by a white writer. The novel remains in print today, and is still widely read.

The text-heavy cover of the first edition evokes broadsides of the early nineteenth century. (PS 3569 .T9 C6 1967)

Our strong holdings in the history of Virginia include some of the essential source material upon which Styron based the novel. Of particular importance was this text, first published in 1831. It is written in the form of an interview with Turner, who tells his tale in the first person:

Gray’s “The Confession, Trial and Execution fo Nat Turner, the Negro Insurrectionist” (Berlin, VA: R.M. Stephenson,  1881). (F 221 v.163 no. 15)

Also in the collections is another period narrative, shown below. this item is digitized in full and available online:

“Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County (Virginia) on Monday the 22d of August Last: When Fifty-Five of Its Inhabitants (Mostly Women and Children) Were Inhumanly Massacred by the Blacks! : Communicated by Those Who Were Eye Witnesses of the Bloody Scene, and Confirmed by the Confessions of Several of the Blacks While Under Sentence of Death” [New York]: Printed for Warner & West., 1831. (A1831 .W377)

Styron is also known to have depended on the following two volumes for his project, copies of both of which are likewise held in our collections:

Almost half of Frederick Law Olmstead’s” A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States: With Remarks on Their Economy” (New York: Dix & Edwards,1856) is dedicated to Virginia. (A1856 .O55)

At the turn of the century, William Sidney Drewry composed a book-length study, “The Southampton Insurrection” ((Washington: Neale, 1900). (F232 .S7 D7 1900)

Finally, Styron depended upon M. Boyd Coyner’s UVA dissertation based upon our Cocke family papers collection. As James West tells it, “Styron was alerted to the existence of the dissertation by C. Vann Woodward, and Styron secured a copy of it from Coyner, who was then teaching at Hampden-Sydney.”

The table of contents page of M. Boyd Conyer,  “John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo: Agriculture and Slavery in the Ante-bellum South.” (Diss. 992).

Thanks to donor and Styron bibliographer James West for calling our attention to this anniversary and these fantastic source materials!

Patron’s Choice: Letters from Liberia and American Postal Policy

This week we are pleased to feature a guest post by Christy Pottroff, who was in residence at the library last year as a Lillian Gary Taylor Visiting Fellow in American Literature, Mary and David Harrison Institute. Christy is an Andrew W. Mellon Dissertation Fellow in Early Material Texts at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. candidate in English at Fordham University. Her dissertation is entitled “Citizen Technologies: The U.S. Post Office and the Transformation of Early American Literature.” Thanks so much to Christy for sharing with us her experience studying in our marvelous collections of letters from Liberia.

In 1833, Peyton Skipwith and his family set foot on African soil for the first time. After enduring decades of slavery in the United States, the Skipwith family was eager to start a new life in Liberia. But, after a harrowing fifty-six day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, they soon discovered the conditions were much more difficult than they had been led to believe. The Skipwiths endured disease, harsh climate, inadequate supplies, and conflict with local African tribes–experiences chronicled in a small collection of letters held at the University of Virginia Special Collection Library. These letters, addressed to the Skipwiths’ former owner General John H. Cocke, are at times relentlessly hopeful and at other moments filled with despair. This dissonance between hope and despair is in many ways representative of Liberian Colonization.

[Life Membership Certificate for American Colonization Society], ca. 1840. Certificate. American Colonization Society Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, progressive Southern slaveholders founded the American Colonization Society to promote the resettlement of free-born and formerly enslaved African Americans to West Africa. This strategy emerged, largely, because white reformers could not imagine the viability of a racially diverse society post-slavery. Most African Americans, however, did not support the colonization plan. The United States was their home and they wanted to work toward justice rather than emigrate. Despite the controversy, the American Colonization Society began sending African Americans to West Africa in 1822 where they established Liberia. By 1867, over 13,000 free African Americans, including the Skipwiths, had emigrated to Liberia through the American Colonization Society.

Each new Liberian had deep roots in the United States; many left behind friends and family they would never see again. And yet, despite the strong ties between Liberia and the United States, very few letters passed between the two countries. The Skipwith letters housed at the University of Virginia Special Collections Library are special indeed.

Letter from Peyton Skipwith in Monrovia, June 25th 1846. Cocke Family Papers (MSS 640). Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. Topics covered in the portion shown here are his wish for more farming knowledge and  for books other than the Bible, which is widely available.

The dearth of letters between Liberia and the United States is curious. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the United States postal system delivered more letters than ever before, and an increasing number of those letters were from countries across the globe. The U.S. Post Office Department facilitated international mail by entering into bilateral postal treaties that guaranteed easy and inexpensive communication and commerce beyond the nation’s borders. In 1851, the United States maintained postal treaties with every country in Europe. The Postmaster General was proud to report new treaties with Algeria, Hong Kong, St. Kitts and Nevis, Beirut, and many more.

The United States did not enter a postal treaty with Liberia until 1879 (when Liberia was admitted to the newly established Universal Postal Union). Despite the special relationship between the two countries in the first half of the nineteenth century, there was no standardized way to send a letter between them. Liberia did have a rudimentary postal system, though its origins and development are difficult to track. In the 1850s, the Liberian government entered into postal treaties with Great Britain, France, and Germany. It was through these roundabout channels that the existing Liberian letters to the United States traveled. As a contemporary American Colonization Society member writes:

Great Britain…sends a weekly line of steamers to the Western Coast of Africa, which touch at Liberia. In fact, by a postal treaty, the mails between Liberia and America go by these steamers, and then by the British steamships between England and the United States!

This roundabout mail channel between the U.S. and Liberia meant that letters were twice as expensive (as they needed postage in two different postal systems) and were at much greater risk for delay, loss, or misdelivery.

Advertisement for mail transport in The New York Herald, November 12, 1844. (Source: Readex Early American Newspapers Database. Accessed: October 23, 2016)

For Peyton Skipwith and his family, the absence of a postal treaty had great consequences. They left behind their homeland, friends, and family–and had no reliable way to communicate with loved ones left behind. One of the most striking things about the Skipwith family letters is the frequent reference to lapses in communication. In an 1835 letter, Peyton writes “This is the third letter that I have wrote to you and have received no answer.” And a year later, he expresses frustration because “I write by almost every opportunity but cannot tell how it comes to pass that only two of my letters have been received.” Later, in 1839, he writes “Reverend Colin Teague should have brought [your letter] to me but he did not reach his home but died…which was a great disappointment to me…I am always anxious to hear from you all.”

Top:  Letter from Peyton Skipwith to John Hartwell Cocke, June 25, 1846. John Hartwell Cocke Papers 1725-1949 ( MSS 640, etc. Box 117).  Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.
Center: Letter from Switzerland, via France, to U.S. Schaefer Collection. (Source: Frajola Philatelist. Accessed: October 23, 2016. http://www.rfrajola.com/sale/RFSaleP6.htm)
Bottom: Letter from Judy Hardon to Howell Lewis, Dr. James H. Minor, and Frank Nelson, February 27 1858. Letters From Former Slaves of James Hunter Terrell Settled in Liberia. 1857-1866 (MSS 10460, 10460-a). Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

The absence of any American-Liberian postal treaty is perplexing. Both countries had entered into other postal treaties during the period, and the United States was sending mail steamers across much greater distances for postal purposes. This unsettled postal state was most likely the result of an ideological problem.

The same rationale for sending free African Americans to Liberia likely permeated into contemporary international postal policy. Free people of color were thought to threaten the stability of slave society, and their proximity to enslaved Americans was considered dangerous. A single letter cannot collapse geographical distance, but it can do a great deal to shrink ideological distances. With a postal treaty, new Liberians would have had the freedom to send letters to free and enslaved friends and family members in the United States. They could have shared ideas, money, or other resources with privacy, dispatch, and ease. The thought of regular correspondence between free and enslaved African Americans is very likely what kept the United States Post Office Department from opening up any reliable public channel of communication to and from Liberia.

The absence of an American-Liberian postal treaty did not solve a real problem; the likelihood of conspiratorial international communication between African Americans was quite slim. Instead, the treaty’s absence created countless problems for the Skipwiths and their fellow Liberian emigrants. Peyton, for example, tried in vain to send a letter to his brother George before his death. Another Americo-Liberian, William Douglass, desperately sought $50 that had been lost in transit between Liberia and the United States (worth over $1,300 in today’s currency). Without a reliable international postal treaty these instances of lost letters and impossible communication were dishearteningly common. In light of these institutional barriers, that these letters from Liberia ever arrived at the University of Virginia Special Collections Library is itself a small miracle.


Patron’s Choice: Exploring the Gannaway/Ganaway Family Roots

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post from researcher Brenda Fredericks. Mrs. Fredericks is an independent scholar researching her family’s genealogy. She spent number of days studying the David Molloy Gannaway Papers.

My trip to the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library on October 22, 2015 was one of great anticipation. Six months prior, I did an internet search and found that this institution had in its holdings original letters of Burrell Gannaway, a former resident of Buckingham Count, VA. This man was the enslaver of my husband’s ancestors.

These ancestors are the family of celebrated African American Photographer, King Daniel Ganaway. My husband Tim is his great-grandson. Note: The spelling of the last name differs between the slave owners and the African Americans. The slave-holding family uses Gannaway, while the African American family members use Ganaway.

I was perplexed as to how or when we would be able to make the trip to the library. Most of my time off from work is used to care for Tim, who has been a bladder cancer patient for the last two years. After visiting the website and learning there were more than 1,000 documents on the Gannaway family held at this library, I knew we had to make the trip. These letters could possibly give us a window into the world of our ancestors.

On September 29th, I was among 300-plus employees who were laid off from my company. There was severance pay attached to the lay-off. While others fretted about their disposition, I smiled. We had just been given our opportunity to come to Virginia!

The Gannaway family settled in Albemarle and Buckingham Counties in the 1700’s. They were prominent in the communities where they lived and owned quite a number of slaves. John Gannaway III and Martha Woodson Gannaway were the parents of Burrell as well as six other children.

As I set at one of the tables in the library, I knew this would be a day I would never forget. Box after box was brought out to me, containing letters, accounting records and deeds, belonging to the Gannaway family. At first my hands shook as I picked up each one. What is the likelihood that an African American in 2015 would one day hold in her hands the original documents of her ancestors’ enslavers?

The first item that caught my attention was a list of slaves.

Slave List, add call number

Slave List, David Molloy Gannaway papers. (MSS 3784). (Photo by Brenda Fredericks)

Here they were! These are our people and possibly other slaves who were related to them. Judy, America, Bob, Amy and Tom would ultimately make their way to Murfreesboro, TN where Burrell Gannaway and his married sister Mary Molloy relocated around 1814. The thought came to my mind that they were more than likely separated from family. This means that their descendants are still separated from our family to this day.

There was a value given to each slave. Although it was a reality during slavery to place a value on African Americans, my mind simply cannot process this information. Nevertheless, the names on this list were some of the same names found in Burrell Gannaway’s estate inventory when he died in 1853.

As I continued to browse through the documents, I came across accounting records that concerned a mill in Buckingham County referenced to as the Curdsville Mill. I knew about this mill from other historians’ research. Enslaved people likely supposedly built this mill, which is located on the Willis River.

Slave Hire document

Slave hire document, David Molloy Gannaway papers, ca. 1836-1840s. This document records the names of slaves being hired out to work at Curdsville Mill (MSS 3784). (Photo by Brenda Fredericks)

I also noted from this document that Woodson was also hired out to Gannaway and Parish Co. The name Parish was one I was familiar with. I knew from old newspaper articles that this family had been in business with the Gannaways in Virginia, and here was the proof.

My husband and I later drove to Curdsville and found the ruins of this mill!

Tim need last name

Tim Fredericks holding a remnant of Curdsville Mill, 2015. (Photo by Brenda Fredericks)

Remains of the mill.

Remains of Curdsville Mill, 2015.

Of course any letter that Burrell wrote is of keen interest to me.  In a March 1834 letter, he explains his political views to his brother Theodorick (Gravel Hill):

“I am for measures best for the Republic and for myself on this subject I am pointed and my mind made up. I am in favor of our union and all and every measure calculated to perpetuate the union.”

This letter along with others found at the State Library in Richmond show a transformation from an ambitious southern planter to a man beaten by illness, disease, loss of family members and bad crop seasons. He ultimately turns to his faith in God which gives him peace and hope.

Burrell Gannaway had been dead for 12 years when the Civil War ended in 1865. However, he must have left an indelible mark on his friends and business associates because they gave assistance to his former slaves. Daniel Gannaway, the grandfather of King Ganaway, purchased a merchant bond in 1872 and opened a grocery store on the town square in Murfreesboro. Remember those old Virginia business partners by the name of Parrish? They sold land to our Ganaways near the family store. King Daniel’s father and grandfather built a large family home on this land that stood there until the 1950’s.

After the war, Burrell’s congregation, First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, sold their old church building to the former slaves to start their own church. Some of these slaves were our Ganaways. They had attended services with Burrell where he was a founding members and one of the first deacons. King Daniel’s paternal and maternal grandmothers were Church Mothers of the African American First Baptist congregation.

By no means is Burrell Gannaway the hero of this story. The man I’ve come to know in his letters would not want that credit. It is the God who Burrell wrote about and his relative Annie M. Gannaway who preserved these letters and donated them to this institution who are heroes!

Brenda Fredericks

Independent Researcher Brenda Fredericks

First Floor Exhibitions Explore Slavery and Abolition

The Harrison/Small First Floor Gallery is excited to announce our two summer exhibitions: “My Own Master: Resistance to American Slavery” and the mini-exhibition “‘Read, Weep, and Reflect’: Creating Young Abolitionists through Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Together these two exhibitions extend some of the themes explored in our Harrison Gallery exhibition, “Who Shall Tell the Story: Voices of Civil War Virginia. ”  Come in out of the heat and spend some time with these marvelous exhibitions. Some images to tempt you follow…


The larger exhibition, “My Own Master,” is of particular note because it is the first exhibition in memory that the University of Virginia Library has mounted on the topic of slavery (a fact discovered in discussions with long-time Special Collections staff). Though artifacts relating to slavery have been included and the topic discussed in past exhibitions, slavery has not been the sole subject of an exhibition here.  We are very pleased to end that tradition this summer. Even more exciting, in 2018 we will mount a major exhibition on the topic of slavery at the University of Virginia in the Harrison Gallery, in support of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University.

“My Own Master” showcases thirty remarkable items from the collections demonstrating some of the ways that blacks–slave, free, and freed–fought against slavery. Curator Petrina Jackson describes the exhibition’s project as follows: “When the white abolitionist Sydney Howard Gay published his four-volume A Popular History of the United States in 1876, he covered slavery and abolitionism in the final volume. He wrote, ‘the African in America whether bond or free had learned the habit of submission and had rarely shown any spirit of revolt.’ Gay wrote this even though he labored closely with black abolitionists who risked their freedom and their lives to secure the freedom of their enslaved brethren. He likewise documented the harrowing stories of fugitive slaves, who wagered everything to gain control of their personhood, their bodies, their lives. “My Own Master” challenges the notion of black passivity and shows African Americans as active agents in breaking the bonds of slavery.”

mom3The exhibition displays artifacts that document a variety of forms of rebellion: running away, planning insurrections, writing abolitionist works and manifestoes, and buying one’s own and one’s family’s freedom. It concludes with a recently acquired broadside printed by African-American leaders in Richmond a year after the city surrendered.


Portraits of black abolitionists from books in our collections are featured in the gallery and on the poster.

FullSizeRender (10)


Our mini-exhibition, “Read, Weep, and Reflect: Creating Young Abolitionists through Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was curated by undergraduate Wolfe Docent Susan Swicegood (CLAS 2015, Curry 2016). Curator Molly Schwartzburg asked Susan to develop an exhibition around a recently acquired early puzzle about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, which is our second such puzzle. Susan tracked down a wonderful range of children-related publications and “tie-in products” from the nineteenth century. It is not to be missed!


The new puzzle is on the left.


Games, theater tickets, and more!

uncle3Come on by and take a look!

On View Now: Fred Hagstrom’s Passage, The Little Book of Slavery and their Origins

The blog has been on summer vacation! We are so pleased to be back with the news that we have a new mini-exhibition ready for visitors! We encourage you to stop by the First Floor Gallery to take a look at  “Fred Hagstrom’s Passage, The Little Book of Slavery and their Origins.”

hagstrom_caseThis exhibition features two recently acquired artists’ books that draw on artifacts deeply rooted in our collections of African-American history and slavery-related materials.Using iconic images and texts from the transatlantic slave trade and the anti-slavery movement, American artist Fred Hagstrom produces a compelling interpretation of this history. On display with Hagstrom’s books are artifacts the artist used as the conceptual foundations of his artistic statements about the immorality of slavery. In both books, he produces heavy layers of texture and color in his interpretations of the iconic diagram of the slave ship Brookes, photographs, engravings, and texts from the era of slavery.

Of particular note is Hagstrom’s use of our library’s famous daguerrotype of Isaac Granger Jefferson, who was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. Visitors may compare the original image with Hagstrom’s interpretation of it.

This daguerrotype of Isaac Granger Jefferson is frequently reproduced as an historical artifact; Hagstrom's pixellated image of it, juxtaposed with high-resolution close-ups of the equally iconic image of the "Slave Ship Brookes," opens new interpretive possiblities.

This daguerrotype of Isaac Granger Jefferson is frequently reproduced as an historical artifact; Hagstrom’s exaggeratedly pixellated image of it, juxtaposed with high-resolution close-ups of the equally iconic image of the “Slave Ship Brookes,” opens new interpretive possiblities. (MSS 2041. Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History)

Detail of Hagstrom's Passage as it is exhibited.

The page featuring Isaac Granger Jefferson in  “Passage,” as it is exhibited. (N7433.4 .H34 P37 2013. Associates Endowment Fund)


Also on display is one of our copies of the famous diagram of “The British Slave Ship Brookes,” as it appeared in “An Abstract of the Evidence Delivered Before a Select Committee of the House of Commons, in the Years 1790 and 1790.” Edinburgh, Printed for J. Robertson, 1791. (HT1162 .a5 1791 no.1 Plate)

This exhibition offers just a glimpse into Mr. Hagstrom’s work, which we hope will be a fertile ground for study by students and scholars alike. Our artists’ books collections cover a wide variety of genres, aesthetic approaches, and subject matter, and we are particularly interested in examples that relate to our varied collecting strengths. Perhaps this exhibit will tempt you to come take a closer look at Passage or The Little Book of Slavery in our reading room after the exhibition comes down. Until then,  here are some more of the striking justapositions to be found in Passage:

The front cover of Passage. Image courtesy of the artist.

The front cover of “Passage.” Image by Peter Lee, courtesy of Fred Hagstrom.

A page spread in Passage. Image courtesy of the artist.

A page spread from “Passage.” (Click twice to zoom in to read the text.) Image by Peter Lee, courtesy of Fred Hagstrom.

Passage pages 5 (2)

A page spread from “Passage.” (Click twice to zoom in to read the text.) Image by Peter Lee, courtesy of Fred Hagstrom.

You can learn more about Hagstrom’s work on his Carleton College website.

Patron’s Choice: A Slave Negotiates her own Sale, 1852

This week we are pleased to feature a guest post from Harrison Fellow Lauren LaFauci.

Dr. LaFauci spent several weeks in Special Collections this spring as an Elwood Fellow at the Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture. She was researching for her current book project, entitled Peculiar Natures: Slavery, Environment, and Nationalism in the Southern States, 1789-1865. She teaches at the University of Tulsa.

A tireless researcher who dug deep into our collections, LaFauci generously shared her most interesting finds with the Reading Room staff. She agreed to write for Notes from Under Grounds about one item in particular: a letter from a slave-owner describing how he came to sell his his slave Fanny. As LaFauci points out, we can only get so far in recovering the circumstances of this sale since this letter is our only source.


Writing from Halifax Court House, Virginia to his brother Alex in Williamsburg on October 4, 1852, Ben Garrett closed his letter with the following important news:

You must tell Ma : that I have sold Fanny to Mr Poindexter who Keeps a Hotel in the village – opposite to Easley’s store – I did not intend or wish to sell her, but she behaved so badly I was compelled to do so – I sold her for the sum of $850.00 payable on the 1st day of May next –

Such a note—while always jarring to 21st-century readers, even to those of us reading about and studying slavery—communicates nothing unusual to its recipient. Citing what he perceived as Fanny’s bad behavior, Ben told Alex that he “was compelled to [sell her],” which was a common punishment. However, the rest of the letter communicates something highly unusual, at least for those stories preserved in the archive:

She told me, she had rather be sold than to go back to Williamsburg You know I disposed of my home & lot at the Co: House & determined to remove to my plantation sometime in November next. She was opposed to living in the Country – not wishing to leave the Village I told her to go to the plantation, whereupon she ran off from me & was gone a week. – When she came home, she said, she wanted to be sold & that “arrangements” were made the night before she returned home for her to get off to a free State or out of the State, but that she preferred being sold in the Village – I have had a deal of trouble with her – more than all the rest together for it was almost impossible to control her. She exhibited no signs of penitence & asked me to sell her. Poindexter offered me a large price & I determined to let her go – I understand that he & his wife are pleased with her & if she will behave herself, they will treat her well – Of course I will account for her value – but I will add, she is one of the most difficult negroes to control I ever saw –

Say to Ma : I am sorry I had to sell her, but that she asked & was anxious to be sold – I think she was Kept by some white persons about the Village, which was the cause of her conduct. I saw her to-day & she seemed to be satisfied with her new home from her appearance —  I know that she was treated well at our house & there was no excuse for her behaviour & then to have the impudence to run away from me & stay out a week. If it was not that she was aunt Lucy’s child (who has been so faithful) I should have no pity for her – [. . .]

The opening page of the letter. (MSS 9974-a: Papers of the Garrett Family. Photograph by Molly Schwartzburg)

The opening page of the letter. (MSS 9974-a: Papers of the Garrett Family. Photograph by Molly Schwartzburg)

This story presents a number of thorny questions. If we take Ben’s communication of the events at face value—a large “if,” and more on that below—then Fanny took distinct and savvy actions to achieve her desired outcome. First, she resisted Ben’s orders to “go to the plantation” in the country by running away for one week; at that time, she may have been making the “arrangements” Ben alludes to. Such truancy would have signaled to Ben that she was willing to take drastic actions in order to get her way, while simultaneously giving her time and space to effect her own escape or sale. Second, she appears to have negotiated this sale; Ben notes that Fanny “asked & was anxious to be sold” and that she “was opposed to living in the Country” and would “rather be sold than to go back to Williamsburg.”

These lines from the third page of the letter reveal the extent of Fanny's influence upon her owner. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)

These lines from the third page of the letter reveal the extent of Fanny’s influence upon her owner. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)

If we assume Ben’s version of events, Fanny told him that she preferred to be sold “in the Village” rather than relocating to his rural plantation. Such a preference raises an intriguing parallel to the narrative of Harriet Jacobs, who similarly desired to stay within the town of Edenton, North Carolina, where she gained some protection from the advances of her lecherous owner, James Norcom: “It was lucky for me that I did not live on a distant plantation,” she wrote, “but in a town not so large that the inhabitants were ignorant of each other’s affairs. Bad as are the laws and customs in a slaveholding community, [Norcom], as a professional man, deemed it prudent to keep up some outward show of decency” (47).**  In another parallel with Jacobs, Fanny appears to have been on intimate terms with “some white persons about the Village”: readers of Jacobs will recall that she forms a relationship with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, having two children with him, in order to protect herself from the sexual advances of Norcom. Both Fanny and Jacobs seem to engage in alternative relationships to gain increased power within a system designed to deny them such agency.

A page from Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, demonstrating compelling parallels with Fanny's much more heavily mediated story. (PS 1293 .I54 1861. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)

A page from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, demonstrating compelling parallels with Fanny’s much more heavily mediated story. (PS 1293 .I54 1861. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)

And now to that big “if” – to what extent can we take Ben’s account of this story as “the truth”? If Fanny was indeed seeking shelter from sexual advances, can we trust that she really “asked & was anxious to be sold”? Or was Ben trying to cover for himself, to provide a reason for the sale of an enslaved woman who was clearly important to the family?

These questions, among many others, make up the central problem for historians of slavery: most of the stories about enslaved people in the archive are mediated through the voices of the people who legally owned them. We attempt to ascertain the “true” course of events, but we must frequently do so through the words of those with the power to construct such stories however they wish, and for audiences with motivations similar to their own. In a time when enslaved people were prohibited by law from learning to read and write, any evidence of literacy would have been hidden from those with the power to preserve such words, leaving us with mere traces and glimpses. We work through several layers of meaning, only to emerge with more questions than we had at the start. How do you interpret Fanny’s story?

Author’s note: I have reproduced the spelling, formatting, and punctuation as they appear in the original letter. Any errors in the transcription are my own.

Class Notes: Kirt von Daacke’s HIUS 4501: Slavery & Social Life at Early U.Va.

Yesterday, Kirt von Daacke, history professor and former Special Collections student employee, and his HIUS 4501: Slavery & Social Life at Early U.Va. researched through some of our most treasured, old, and fragile University Archives materials.  They pored through these early records, which document the founding, building, and day-to-day management of U.Va.  These early records include Board of Visitors minutes, faculty chairman journals, faculty minutes, letters from Thomas Jefferson’s descendants, proctor’s ledgers, etc.  So what do these records have in common?  The threads of a slave economy run through them.

One student was doing preliminary research on the University’s practice of hiring out slaves for labor.  He searched through the proctor’s ledgers (proctor’s ledgers show evidence of financial transactions) and found many kinds of payments, including purchases of stoves, fees for brick work, and the hiring out of slaves.  Although challenged by the stylized script of the time, the student found several entries related to his topic in the February 12, 1820 labor account.  Lines 4 through 8 from the top of part of the ledger page, below, show the University paying a Boxley, Nu[nce], Sandridge, and Barksdale for the hiring of negroes.  Incidentally, N[elson] Barksdale was a University employee, so it appears that the University may have been getting enslaved workers owned by their employees.  These enslaved workers likely worked on crews, building the University.

The student not only learned about the topic he was researching, but gained insight into the materials and methods of primary research scholarship.

Detail showing slaves being hired out for work at U.Va., 12 February 1820, from the University of Virginia Proctor’s Ledger, 1819 to 1825. (RG-5/3/2.961. Image by Petrina Jackson)