Skip to content

When Past Meets Present: Collaborative Genealogical Research to Find Enslaved Ancestors and Starting the Conversation about Repair

by Dr. Jajuan Johnson and Vicki McGill

The Lemon Project Genealogy Initiative started in fall 2021 to locate enslaved persons directly or indirectly tied to William & Mary. To date, we’ve hosted numerous workshops for beginner and advanced genealogists, trained a group of budding family historians at James Blair Middle School, and built relationships with descendants of the enslaved in the Historic Triangle area and beyond. 

The genealogy initiative is part of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded project called “Sharing Authority to Remember and Re-interpret the Past.” The program builds on the research and community engagement of the Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation. In 2009, the college established the project to “acknowledge and rectify wrongs against African Americans at W&M, whether through action or inaction.” Since its inception, the Lemon Project contributed to a greater understanding of the university’s role in slavery while creating fuller narratives of the enslaved. 

Finding research clues about enslaved persons of the 17th and 18th centuries is a feat that requires a host of stakeholders, from archivists to descendants. Our method of learning more about the enslaved and their familial connections begins with the list of persons we are continuing to find in historical records, from bursar’s reports to church records. Recently, we’ve gained clues from a research inquiry of a relative searching for an ancestor possibly in our list of enslaved persons. 

The genealogy research method is not only potentially reparative in helping us learn more about the lives of free, freed, and enslaved persons, but it also empowers descendants unearthing details about ancestors relegated to the shadows of history. Perusing census records, tax records, and family papers in special collections enables descendants to correct deliberate historical omissions and write African Americans into history.

Genealogy research is a collective enterprise between fellow genealogists, archivists, family members, community historians, and institutions engaging in similar work. William and Mary is affiliated with the Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium, which provides a forum for institutions to develop best practices in “truth-telling projects addressing human bondage and racism in institutional histories.” Upon starting this post-doctoral research project, I’ve collaborated with Dr. Shelley Murphy with the Descendant Project Research at the University of Virginia, creating research methodologies, delving into newly digitized records, and connecting with descendant researchers.

A few months ago, I was introduced to descendant researcher Vicki McGill by Dr. Murphy. Vicki searched for ancestors enslaved in Williamsburg by Mary Stith, the daughter of William & Mary’s third president, Reverend William Stith. Our joint effort led to new information providing a greater understanding about her ancestors and slavery in the Historic Triangle area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of this research initiative, I’ve invited Vicki to join me in sharing her story about finding more records about her enslaved ancestors and the challenging but worthwhile process of doing this type of research. 

Vicki McGill on Finding Benjamin White, Sr. and Benjamin White, Jr. 

Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talk, featuring Vicki McGill & the Hundley History Committee, Vicki Simons & Kristen Allen

I often spend Friday evenings searching the Freedmen’s Bureau archives and other records as part of Dr. Shelley Murphy’s “Freedmen Friday” group on Zoom. One evening I decided to submit my fourth and fifth grandfather’s ancestors Benjamin White and Benjamin White Jr., who showed up as enslaved people held by a woman named Mary Stith who lived in Williamsburg, Virginia. 

During an intake session with Dr. Murphy, I shared a research report from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library on the Mary Stith Shop that mentioned Benjamin White and his son Benjamin White, Jr., census records indicating Williamsburg and, later, York County residence.

After sharing my findings with Dr. Murphy, I realized my ancestors resided closer to William & Mary than UVA, which led to the connection with Dr. Jajuan Johnson, who was doing the same work with the Lemon Project. The linkage demonstrates the importance of institutional collaboration in researching enslaved and freed persons. The referral to Dr. Johnson led to further discoveries expanding the narrative of my ancestors, especially learning about their indirect and direct linkages to the early leadership of W&M. 

Moving Through Research Barriers and New Discoveries

Learning the possible existence of a document listing your ancestor is a significant step in genealogy research. I encourage researchers to closely examine every record instead of relying on a transcription that may contain errors by the transcriber or omitted references about the document. The Mary Stith Shop report reveals she enslaved and emancipated Benjamin White. He later freed his son Benjamin White Jr. As mentioned, it’s essential to verify findings with other sources, which prompted Dr. Johnson and me to explore further. 

During a trip to the Library of Virginia, I was able to dive deeper into the records. After a couple of hours searching the York County Deeds of Emancipation on microfilm, I found records for both ancestors. Analyzing the deed for Benjamin Jr., I learned his father purchased his freedom from John Blair, Jr., which clarified the father and son were enslaved by two different families, which prompted questions about the connections between the two families. 

After sharing this discovery with Dr. Johnson, I inquired about the “Honorable John Blair” listed in the records. He responded by sharing that he was the nephew of James Blair, founder, and first president of William & Mary. Well, this was a significant breakthrough! Further research into Blair revealed my ancestor and countless other men, women, and children were enslaved by a man connected to the founding of this country. He was a delegate to the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 and one of three Virginia delegates to sign the Constitution and later became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The findings so far relate to the early lives of Benjamin White Jr. and his father. Recent clues include connections to Gowan Pamphlet, an early pastor of First Baptist Church of Williamsburg. Ultimately, I would like to determine how their descendant Richmond White, my third great grandfather, was born in Richmond, Virginia, around 1860, migrated to Williamsburg County, South Carolina, where some of his descendants still reside. Others migrated to other cities and states from that area.

Jajuan Johnson and Vicki McGill on Genealogy and Reparative Visions

Discovering that your ancestor was enslaved by one of the most prominent families in colonial Virginia, a drafter of both the Virginia and United States constitutions and whose signature is on the U.S. Constitution – the document you see on school trips to the National Archives Museum. Finding out that he was an inaugural U.S. Supreme Court Justice gives one pause at realizing your ancestor’s proximity to the founding of this nation. 

It raises questions about what your ancestors witnessed, and the potential of their lives void of enslavement. What if they had the opportunity to participate in the proceedings they possibly observed. How would the lives of their descendants be different if they had the right to read and write, or attend William & Mary? These discoveries also prompt considerations on how our enslaved ancestors built this county and created the generational wealth the descendants of their enslavers still enjoy today. The research illustrates the need for restorative and reparative efforts for descendants whose ancestors built this county and many of the well-funded and endowed universities within this nation. 

The Mellon Foundation funded projects such as “Sharing Authority to Remember and Re-interpret the Past” is one step in facing implications of unjust pasts that can potentially result in tangible forms of redress. In the meantime, we will work diligently in the production of new histories centering the dignity of the oppressed that prefigure possibilities. 

One Comment

  1. Connie Matthews Harshaw Connie Matthews Harshaw

    This is amazing and comes at a time when we are all trying to piece this great American story together with a focus like never before on our African American ancestors. Thank you both for this work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.