Guest Post by Jennifer Stacy, Highland Council of Descendant Advisors, and Maria DiBenigno, Highland Postdoctoral Research Fellow
William & Mary’s Highland is a 535-acre historic site located in Charlottesville, Virginia and operated by the university. It is notable as the former plantation of the fifth U.S. President and W&M alumnus, James Monroe, as well as 53 women, men, and children who were enslaved by him. We know the names of some of these individuals; others we still seek to know.
Highland conducts ongoing research about its extant buildings and natural resources as well as ongoing community engagement. In 2016, Highland announced its discovery that Monroe’s house has been completely destroyed by fire, and the standing building was a separate Guesthouse built in 1818. This major site re-interpretation allowed us to have conversations about what historic sites get wrong and how we work to tell more truthful stories about the past. This discovery also helped connect Highland’s staff with members of the local descendant community whose ancestors were enslaved at Highland. In 2018, ten of these individuals formed the Highland Council of Descendant Advisors. The Council advises Highland staff on exhibit content, program planning, and community engagement through the concept of shared authority. Members present at regional conferences, including the Lemon Project’s Symposium, work with regional school systems, and interact with W&M students on a variety of topics, including food histories and on-campus concerns.
On Saturday, June 11, the Council hosted their first Descendants Day at Highland. It was an event long in the making. Attendees enjoyed a delicious lunch buffet from Ada’s Kitchen on Wheels, a local food truck owned by Highland descendant, Gloria Saylor, and named for her mother and Council member, Ada Monroe Saylor. The Council welcomed descendant groups and community members from all parts of Virginia, including our W&M partners at the Institute for Integrative Conservation, the Bray School Initiative, the Lemon Project, and Special Collections. Friends from the Historic Brattonsville Descendants Group traveled from their homes in Rock Hill, South Carolina to attend — the Council was so honored by their presence!
Dr. Jajuan Johnson, the Lemon Project Mellon Postdoctoral Research Associate, has spearheaded the Lemon Project Genealogy Initiative. We will continue to hold workshops as part of our Summer Sankofa Series this summer. In early June, we had an insightful talk with Nicka Sewell-Smith. In July, Bessida Cauthorne White joins us for another virtual workshop. She will be presenting on “Recognizing and Sharing Family Treasures.”
Register here to attend this virtual workshop with Bessida Cauthorne White.
Below is the workshop description:
Bessida Cauthorne White will talk about the importance of “Recognizing and Sharing Family Treasures.” Family treasures are highly valued possessions that may have been passed down from generation to generation or they may be newly acquired. They hold special meaning and tell stories about family experiences. They can be almost anything, including jewelry, furniture, housewares, clothing and textiles, photographs, books and documents, photographs, tools, musical instruments, artwork, medals, awards, etc.
White will talk about determining what is a family treasure or heirloom, and she will also discuss how to document the history and significance of family treasures. She will discuss using family treasures to explore and communicate family history and shed light on the broader African-American story. She will share a myriad of treasures from her own family history journey and talk about how she uses them to engage others in the pursuit of family history. A handout for the session will include resources for identifying and preserving family treasures.
Bessida Cauthorne White (B.S., J.D.), has been a genealogist for more than forty years. She is a family historian for nine families and manages DNA results for more than forty persons. An independent community historian, she is co-founder and president of Middle Peninsula African-American Genealogical and Historical Society and a founder of Greater Richmond-AAHGS. White has presented at numerous state, regional, and national workshops and conferences, and teaches genealogy courses at Rappahannock Community College. Recently she has managed several descendant projects, including the identification of the enslaved at Menokin (an 18th-century property in Richmond County, Virginia) and their present-day descendants. White has directed the research and application process for multiple state historical highway markers that reference African Americans in Eastern Virginia, and she presently has three markers at different stages of the application process. She is editor/co-editor of A Reunion of Recipes: The White Family Cookbook (1990), Help Yourself! There’s a God’s Mighty Plenty: A Treasury of Recipes from the Cauthorne & Brooks Families (First Edition 2000, Second Edition 2017), and Gather at the Welcome Table: The Angel Visit Baptist Church Sesquicentennial Cookbook (2016).
The Lemon Project team is excited that genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith is joining us virtually on June 9, 2022, for “The Trifecta: The Secret Sauce of Researching the Formerly Enslaved.” Thank you to Dr. Jajuan Johnson, who leads the Lemon Project Geneaology Initiative. We’re glad that we can build on the 2021 Summer Sankofa Series Workshops and offer new topics in 2022.
Below is the workshop description that she shared with us:
“Genealogists and family historians alike have spent decades looking for a tried and true method for unearthing slaveholders of those enslaved prior to 1865. Learn how three crucial record sets (Civil War Pensions, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and Probates/Successions) can become just the wrecking ball needed to obliterate brick walls related to slavery.”
Interested in learning more about Ms. Sewell-Smith? Below is the biography from her website. Her website has a lot of useful information, including how to book a genealogy coaching session with her, how to connect with her Patreon community, and where and when she’ll be speaking.
“Nicka Smith is a professional photographer, speaker, host, consultant, and documentarian with more than 20 years of experience as a genealogist. She has extensive experience in African ancestored genealogy, reverse genealogy, and is expert in genealogical research in the Northeastern Louisiana area, and researching enslaved communities.
Nicka has diverse and varied experience in media with a background in audio, video, and written communications. She’s appeared on TODAY Show, CNN, MSNBC, on the series Who Do You Think You Are and has been interviewed by Oakland Tribune, The Undefeated, National Geographic, and TIME. She is the host of BlackProGen LIVE, an innovative web show with more than 125 episodes focused on people of color genealogy and family history.
She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, a member of two lineage societies (Sons and Daughters of the Middle Passage (SDUSMP), National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), and a past board member of the California Genealogical Society (CGS) and the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California (AAGSNC). Nicka served as the chair of the Outreach and Education Committee for AAGSNC, and is the former project manager for the Alameda County, CA Youth Ancestral Project where more than 325 youth were taught the value of family history.
Additionally, Nicka is the family historian and lead researcher for the Atlas family of Lake Providence, East Carroll, Louisiana and guides and coaches an active group of family historians at the Who is Nicka Smith Patreon community.
In 2009, Nicka launched ns2 photography following years spent as a happenstance photographer for the publications she worked on in high school and college. She utilizes a journalistic style while capturing high school seniors and weddings. Nicka’s work has been featured on The Africa Channel, Scrubs Magazine, The Bride’s Cafe, and The Oakland Post.”
By Dr. Sarah Thomas, Associate Director, The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation
William & Mary celebrated the dedication of Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved on May 7, 2022. We are excited to share with you photos and the video from the event. Thank you to Skip Rowland, ’83 for the photos and Jeff Herrick and his team for the video.
By Jajuan Johnson, Ph.D., Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow
In partnership with James Blair Middle School, the Lemon Project guided over a dozen students in genealogical research and exploring African American history in the Historic Triangle area. The camp, held July 13 – 15, 2021, had the theme “Black History Matters.” One of the main goals of the camp was for students to have a tangible experience with history through interaction with primary sources, family stories, and scientific experimentation.
The camp kicked off with students participating in a DNA experiment using strawberries led by William & Mary’s Biology department professor Dr. Shanta’ Hinton and her laboratory graduate students. Archivists from Special Collections at William & Mary’s Swem Library brought history alive with a mix of 18th and 19th-century photos, documents, and books at exhibit stations.
Genealogical research was a significant component of the camp. The learners received two days of intense training on the importance of genealogical research, ways to find documents on databases, such as Ancestry.com, and tips on interviewing family members. An essential partner in the process of family history instruction was Williamsburg Regional Library. WRL’s Reference Librarian Rachel Nelson guided students in accessing the research databases and discussed other resources available at the library, such as library hot spots and telescopes.
The camp culminated with a special showcase of their family history research projects. There are so many beautiful highlights to write about, but we encourage you to check out the video below to hear and see firsthand the transformative experiences of our learners. We are looking for hosting future summer programs where students will have the opportunity to spend time on our historic campus.
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.
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.