Guide to African American Manuscripts


As Great Britain's largest and wealthiest North American colony, and later as the state with the largest enslaved and free black population before the Civil War, Virginia long occupied center stage in America's turbulent history of bondage, freedom, and the quest for racial equality. For four centuries the lives and careers of African Americans in the Old Dominion have figured intimately in the shaping of state, regional, and national history.

The full assessment and acknowledgment of that participation, however, have only recently begun to take place. Increased accessibility to various records of African American life that survive in archival repositories has proven essential in fostering this modern historical reevaluation.

The Virginia Historical Society began collecting manuscript records of the commonwealth's past at the institution's founding in 1831. Over the years, a major collection of documentary materials has been compiled, the great bulk of which is concentrated on the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Within these records, much evidence of the lives and contributions of African Americans both free and enslaved.

The museum's holdings of African American materials consist largely of the records of slaves and slavery in the Old Dominion. Other materials concern the African colonization movement, freedmen and women in the immediate post–Civil War era, black educators in the early and middle twentieth century, and desegregation in modern Virginia.

The collection entries that make up this guide reveal the broad range and scope of materials that touch on many aspects of African American life in Virginia and in the United States over the past four centuries.

This online guide was originally issued in published form. Compiled and adapted by F. Holly Hodges. Through support from a grant by The National Endowment for the Humanities, an independent federal agency. A reviewed and enlarged second edition was prepared by Harold M. Marsh, Jr., and E. Lee Shepard with support from grants by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy as part of its African-American Heritage program. 

How to use this Guide

The majority of the entries in this guide cover major manuscript collections (that is, numbering fifty items or more). In many instances, entries begin with a very brief summary of the overall collection in order both to provide context and to suggest to researchers potentially useful groups of papers into which they might venture in the hope of discovering additional, related materials.

Each entry heading contains the collection or item name, date range, item (or page) count, and the collection or item call number. In some instances, reference is made to the availability of microfilm, which generally means that the filmed version of the collection may be leased through interlibrary loan. In such instances, the researcher should contact the museum's reference department for additional information.

In most cases, location of a described item or items is indicated by reference to section numbers i.e, series or sub-series levels), and in some rare cases, by item numbers (such as item b133). Researchers may be required to go to the museum's online catalog, for additional supplementary identification of item numbers in order to request specific material.

Some collections contain so many African American materials that we have only provided samples of items to be found there. Specific entries will reflect such instances. In other cases, supplementary finding aids are available in the society's reading room that provide much greater detail on specific collections than can be included in this guide. For the most part, we have not included in this guide secondary studies in the society's holdings (such as theses, dissertations, essays, or speeches) or copies of materials in other repositories unless the content or rarity of the item seemed to dictate otherwise.

If a collection or portion thereof has been published, an attempt has been made to include that information in the guide entry. Virginia is assumed in the identification of all localities unless otherwise indicated.

Materials are constantly being identified in and added to the society's African American manuscripts holdings. The best source for information on those items is now the online catalog.

Download a PDF version of the Guide to African American Manuscripts.

Collections guide

A   Abner - Aylett

B   Backus - Byrd

C   Cabell - Cyrus

D   Dabney - Durgin

E   Early - Everett

F   Fairfax - Funsten

G   Galt - Gwin

H   H. A. White & Co. - Hutchison

I – J   Independent Order of St. Luke - Justice

K-L   Keith - Lupton

M   McCalla - Myers

N-O   Nalle - Overby

P   Page - Provine

Q – R   Quesenberry - Rutherfoord

S   St. Luke's Church - Sydnor

T   Talbott - Tyree

U-V   Unidentified - Virginia

W – Z   Wade - Zirkle

Other collections at the VMHC

Manuscripts form only one portion of the society's study collections. The library also holds a comprehensive collection of published material documenting Virginia's history and culture. The library has an extensive collection of published state and local histories, directories, genealogies, and other studies that only occasionally include the contributions of African Americans. These sources may include information on slaveowning families and plantations.

To this store has been added the rapidly developing collection of more recent publications pertaining to black family life. This would include published record sources such as registers of free Negroes, church histories, and special community and family studies. Standard reference works are supplemented by more specialized works relating to African Americans, such as works documenting black soldiers, fugitive slaves, and landmarks associated with black history and achievement. 

The VMHC receives more than 300 periodicals, many of them with a genealogical or local history emphasis. Specific references in these journals to people, places, and events in Virginia are indexed by the staff and added to the online catalog. This additional indexing can assist researchers in locating information on prominent black Virginians, including Maggie Walker, Booker T. Washington, John Mercer Langston, Carter G. Woodson, and Arthur Ashe. The library also collects information on African American authors, businesses, and educational and charitable organizations. Certain types of collections, such as broadsides and sheet music, have special finding aids to identify materials pertaining to African Americans.

A significant number of paintings, drawings, advertisements, programs, sketches, and other original images depict African Americans and African American topics. Also extensive files of photographic prints, organized alphabetically by subject, and these include many individual, family, and institutional group portraits of African Americans. Portraits of African Americans are frequently found among the Foster Studio Collection of glass plate negatives, which is indexed by name.

Among three-dimensional objects are the only surviving Virginia slave whipping post, taken from Portsmouth by a Union soldier; a doormat made by slaves of Robert E. Lee at Arlington; a rag doll c. 1810 dressed as a black man; a banjo from an African American family in Smyth County; a medal awarded by the Virginia State Agricultural Society for a carpet made by slaves to the design of their mistress; and a pewter pass for a slave woman near Warrenton, c. 1830.

The society's ephemera collections, organized by type of material in more than one hundred boxes, include such items as a program for Booker T. Washington's speech in Richmond in 1915; a program from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Mass Meeting in Petersburg in March 1962, autographed by Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders; programs for performances of the Tuskegee and Fisk Jubilee Singers; a publisher's circular for Mongrel Virginians (a polemic about miscegenation); funeral parlor and church fans with African American themes; a poster for "Negro History Week" in 1958; several games documenting rising black consciousness in the 1960s; and an original cartoon by Joe Cannaday for the Richmond Times-Dispatch concerning Arthur Ashe's death. A large collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century advertisements, especially for tobacco, feature African Americans, usually portrayed stereotypically.