In Virginia, where slavery began in the American colonies in 1619, the Virginia Historical Society has discovered the identities of 3,200 slaves from unpublished private documents, providing new information for today’s descendants in a first-of-its-kind online database. Unknown No Longer is a database that is the latest step by the Society to increase access to its varied collections relating to Virginians of African descent. Since its founding in 1831, the VHS has collected unpublished manuscripts, a collection that now numbers more than 8 million processed items.
The Virginia Historical Society received a $100,000 grant to pore over some of its 8 million unpublished manuscripts — letters, diaries, ledgers, books and farm documents from Virginians dating to the 1600s — and began discovering the long-lost identities of the slaves.
Quoting from the Unknown No Longer Web site:
Within these documents are numerous accounts that collectively help tell the stories of African Americans who have lived in the state over the centuries. Our first effort to improve access to these stories came in 1995 with publication of our Guide to African American Manuscripts. A second edition appeared in 2002, and the online version is continually updated as new sources enter our catalog (http://www.vahistorical.org/aamcvhs/guide_intro.htm).
The next step we envisioned would be to create a database of the names of all the enslaved Virginians that appear in our unpublished documents. Thanks to a generous grant from Dominion Resources and the Dominion Foundation in January 2011, we launched the project that has resulted in this online resource. Named Unknown No Longer, the database seeks to lift from the obscurity of unpublished historical records as much biographical detail as remains of the enslaved Virginians named in those documents. In some cases there may only be a name on a list; in others more details survive, including family relationships, occupations, and life dates.
Unknown No Longer does not contain names that may appear in published sources at the VHS or in unpublished sources located in repositories other than the VHS. On the other hand, those whose names appear in the database need not have lived their lives solely in Virginia, for our collections contain plantation records, for example, kept by Virginians who moved to other states, taking their slaves with them. In addition, if we know that an individual named in a post-Civil War document had been enslaved before 1865, his or her name will appear in the database.
It will take years to scour the millions of documents likely to contain the names of the enslaved. Rather than wait, we want to launch Unknown No Longer as a work in progress. In that fashion, we hope it will help promote access to our collections, even as we add to the list of names. As of September 2011, there are already more than 1,500 slave names in the database, a number that we hope and expect will grow rapidly as we continue to uncover the names of those who are unknown no longer.
The Unknown No Longer database is available free of charge at http://unknownnolonger.vahistorical.org.