Learning How to Research Your Family’s History

It was February 22, a cold, dreary, rainy afternoon outside where many colorful umbrellas adorned the porch of the Legacy Museum of African American History. But inside much warm chattering could be heard by interested visitors attending the panel discussion, “Giving Voice to the Past.”

Barbara Heath, director of archaeology and landscape at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and author of Hidden Lives: The Archaeology of Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, showed slides and discussed research done at Poplar Forest on slave life during the 18thand 19th centuries. She provided evidence that slaves participated in the local economy, recognized the importance of privacy, and formulated their views of the world around them. The presentation created interest in visiting the site.

The second panelist, Dianne Swann-Wright, is director of African American and special programs at Monticello and author of A Way Out of No Way: Claiming Family and Freedom in the New South. She is also guest curator for Legacy’s upcoming exhibit on the Black Church in Central Virginia. Dianne spoke about “Getting Word: The Monticello African-American Oral History Project.” By reading excerpts from her book, she created an interest in pursuing oral histories. To encourage that interest, she listed basic techniques for acquiring one’s personal genealogy.

Swann-Wright was followed by Wayne Rhodes, director of the Jones Memorial Library and co-author with Ted Delaney of Free Blacks of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1805-1865. Rhodes suggested many resources for persons who want to research family histories. These include vital statistics, census, and cemetery records; newspapers; and the Freedman’s Bureau archives. Repositories include the Jones Memorial Library and the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, which are genealogical libraries, and manuscript collections at Hampton University and Virginia Union University.

To conclude the panel, Ted Delaney, archivist and curator at the Old City Cemetery and co-author of Free Blacks of Lynchburg, Virginia, 1805-1865, reminded the audience that the Old City Cemetery is another valuable source of information about family and community history.

Following the panel and a question-and-answer session, a lovely reception provided by Poplar Forest allowed continuous expressions of interest and enthusiasm and an opportunity for guests to view Legacy’s current exhibit, “Prejudice, Perseverance, and Pride: Black Education in Central Virginia, 1923-1970.”

-By Barbara Cofield and Emmie Spencer

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