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History Corner By Pat Ross & Fran Snead

February 06, 2006

Bassett Historical Center celebrates Black History Month with a wealth of information on African Americans at the Historical Center through history files, over 9000 family files, books, county records, census records and the computer. We have all published records and some unpublished material on Henry, Patrick, Pittsylvania, Franklin and Floyd Counties in Virginia, and Rockingham, Stokes and Surry Counties in North Carolina. These records include wills, deeds, tax lists, death registers, birth registers and cemetery records. Many of the unpublished records are found only at the Center.

One has to be careful when finding information on the computer, as much of this information is not documented; however, one can use it as a guide, and then document what is found. We have several sites at the Historical Center such as, Genealogy.Com and Heritage Quest for our patrons? use. These sites help a great deal when you are searching for someone not in our immediate area, or in another state; the social security records of a deceased member of the family plus vital statistics on these persons in some instances; census records, military records, and books in which a family surname is referenced. HeritageQuest also has a listing of books by subject, a person?s name, or a place that has the entire book online. These are great genealogical tools.

Family files contain family charts, marriages and obituaries, photographs, birth and/or death certificates and names and addresses of others researching the family. Some of the area families included in these files are Gravely, Hairston, Dillard, Martin, Penn and Redd. Many times patrons share their information with us, so one never knows what treasures will be found in the files.

History files include county history, history of the schools in our area, church directories, and the history of the churches in our area. Too often records can be lost and it is always a good idea to place a history of the church in our files, so that if such records are lost, they can be found here. One such church history was given to us by the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church that had celebrated their 70th Anniversary.

Books on the different families are housed here. One African American author is Cynthia Wilson who lives in Seattle, Washington and has written several books on her families by using our resources, courthouse records, and microfilm. These books offer the patron extensive genealogical information from both Virginia and North Carolina. One of Cynthia?s books is entitled Some African American Families of Patrick County, Virginia while other books are Registration of Free People of Colour in Patrick County, Virginia and Slaves in Wills, Inventories and Accounts in Patrick County.

Other books available at the Center and/or available in other branches of the Blue Ridge system are: Black Genesis: a Resource Book for African-American Genealogy,  Resource Book for African-American Genealogy, Slave Genealogy: a Research Guide with Case Studies, A Student's Guide to African-American Genealogy, Finding a Place Called Home: A Guide to African-American Genealogy and Historical Identity, and Family Pride: the Complete Guide to Tracing African American Genealogy. Other books that help in genealogical research are Free African Americans of North Carolina and Virginia and a three-volume set entitled Somebody Knows My Name: Marriages of Freed People in North Carolina, County by County. These books can help you begin your genealogical journey, while others give you the actual information for which you are searching. Books at the other branches may be checked out; however, ours need to be used here at the Center.

The Henry County Bicentennial Collection, a collection of 29 volumes, has several volumes dealing with African Americans. This collection is a collection of transcribed minute and/or order books plus loose papers found in the Henry County Courthouse in the mid 1970s. Some of these records deal with free blacks, some slave records, and the drafting of slaves. Free blacks were required by law to be registered by the court, so one can find slave owners and the names of their slaves. Another volume deals with bound children or the binding out of free blacks. Often free blacks had their children bound out, as a form of indenture in which a person assumed responsibility for the care of the child for a certain period of time. In the majority of these cases, the child learned a trade and this was legalized by the court.

Census records are always helpful in finding information on the families. The 1860 Federal Census is the first census that included the names of free blacks of all ages. This census listed the head of household, his occupation, and the age, sex and color of those living in his or her household. Each census to follow the 1860 would provide more information on the household as the 1870 would list the birth state of each person. The 1900 census gives you the age, sex, color, the birth month and year, and where the person was born. It will also tell the number of years a couple has been married, how many children they have, and how many children were living at the time the census was taken.

Henry County is very fortunate in that we are one of five counties in Virginia to have a Cohabitation List. A law was passed in February of 1866 to legalize cohabitation of former slaves in each county of Virginia. Due to county records being destroyed, and due to persons simply not being familiar with this List and trashing it, too many of these lists were destroyed.

The Cohabitation List served as the first census for the former slaves. In Virginia only, for both men and women, free persons of color were granted a license to marry. Marriage among former slaves had only meant the consent of the owner for the couple to live together as man and wife. When the law was passed in 1866 by the Virginia General Assembly, a couple would report to their county courthouse to register their names, and the names of their children. This made their marriage and children legitimate in the eyes of the government. This census gave the name of the husband, his age, place of birth, occupation, his residence, the name of his last owner and place of residence for the owner. It did the same for his spouse. Children of the couple were listed, as well as ages for each child.

Mr. John B. Harris, an educator, genealogist and historian for the African Americans of this area, went a step further in interpreting this List. He counted 603 couples with 78 different surnames. Of these, 118 were Hairstons, 28 were Martins, and 16 were Dillards. 550 of the men listed were farmers, 25 were blacksmiths, 17 were carpenters and 7 were mechanics. There were also wagoners, millers, shoemakers, joiners, butlers, and porters.

The collection of John B. Harris was given to the Historical Center by his family, and we are so thankful for the collection and for the work that Mr. Harris completed. His notes and files were the basis for the Resource Guide entitled Proud Heritage of Black Educators published by the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce for the new tourism campaign, unveiled on October 27, 2004. In addition to the Cohabitation List that he transcribed, he completed the transcription of the 1880 Federal Census for Henry County, a two-volume set. There is an extensive five-volume set of obituaries from the Henry County area from 1956 through 1996 that is also in the Harris Collection, indexed to make it more accessible for the patrons.

Mr. Harris, along with Mr. Beverly Millner, another genealogist and historian, completed African American Census 1870-1910 of Henry County, Virginia, a two-volume set. They also completed African American Marriages of Henry County, Virginia that includes some marriages of Martinsville, Danville, and Pittsylvania County. These are wonderful additions to African American research and are available only at the Historical Center.

With our area having such a rich and eventful history, it is wonderful that so much is available to help our African American patrons find ancestors dating back to the early 1800s.

So, come spend some time with us, and start this new adventure called Genealogy! It can be addicting!

Pat Ross
Branch Manager, Bassett Historical Center
?The Roots that Make Us One are Stronger than the Branches that Divide Us.? Author Unknown

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