Sold Down River aims to expand genealogy for descendants of enslaved Virginians
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Melissa Williams has been working to trace her genealogy for nearly a decade.
She’s gone through ancestry websites and found her heritage stretching back centuries in Virginia.
“I've always been interested in history, you know, throughout my entire life,” Williams said. “It's personal for me, because I am a descendant of enslaved people in the United States of America. Both sides of my family, I can trace them both back to chattel slavery.”
Williams, a recent Norfolk State University graduate, is now part of a project that seeks to help other Black Virginians learn more about their family history.
It’s called Sold Down River and is a partnership between dozens of local historians and students.
They’re working to document as many enslaved people as possible who were shipped from Norfolk to New Orleans through Hampton Roads’ long-overlooked role in the domestic slave trade.
Those people’s stories will then go into a database, allowing descendants to obtain previously inaccessible information about where they came from.
“This gives us the opportunity to finally say 'There’s more to the story than we know,'” Williams said. “It encompasses the good, the bad, the traumatic. … I’m just glad we’re doing it now so that the generations under us don't have to pick up the slack and have a lot of the same questions that we had.”
“I was able to find it in our records,” said Troy Valos, who works at the Sargeant Memorial Collection at the Slover Library. “And once that was done, I started looking like, ‘Well, what else is there?’”
There was a lot, including sale records and manifests from ships that carried enslaved people south.
Over the years, Valos has increasingly uncovered more of what Norfolk’s slave trade looked like.
It was central to the downtown landscape. Slave jails held people while their owners were in town. Auctions were held at prominent city spaces.
Ships carrying people to New Orleans sailed from a harbor on the Elizabeth River, roughly where Waterside now stands.
The city also looms large in infamous stories about American slavery, though the connection is all but absent in most official literature.
One of the biggest Norfolk slave traders — a police officer named John Caphart — called himself a punisher and was the inspiration for the slave hunter character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Solomon Northup, who was born free in New York but kidnapped and sent to New Orleans as a slave, stopped in Norfolk during that journey.
Northup later wrote the memoir Twelve Years a Slave and describes a free Black mason being “shanghaied” off the Norfolk streets.
The flourishing trade developed in the early 1800s after local slave owners needed fewer people to work tobacco farms. By then, the soil was worn out and the tobacco market collapsed.
“In a sense it was a perfect storm where they had all this excess labor up here in Virginia, North Carolina, and they needed labor down in New Orleans, Mississippi, Alabama,” Valos said.
“So someone started getting the bright idea, well, let’s start moving the enslaved African Americans down and we could probably turn a pretty profit on it.”
In total Norfolk shipped more than 20,000 enslaved people, which is more than any other port, Valos said.
Valos’ research has sped up in recent years as he’s gotten more help to transcribe records. That includes students at Roadstead Montessori High School in Ghent.
NSU also recently became a partner. The school received a $150,000 grant this year from the Virginia African American Cultural Center for Sold Down River. The grant money will fund the development of the database of names.
Students are helping wade through the records led by Stephanie Richmond, co-director of the Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center for African Diaspora Studies.
“Norfolk has really been pretty forgotten when we talk about the domestic slave trade, mostly because the records were so sparse,” Richmond said.
The group is currently diving into a batch of notary public records from Louisiana — some of which are in 19th century French.
Thousands of people were taken over the course of about six decades, Richmond said. “That's going to have a big impact on the family members that were left behind.”
NSU also hired a genealogist with Ancestry.com who specializes in southeastern Virginia to help.
There are many stories that jump off the pages, said Camilia Bell, an NSU senior on the project.
Freed people of color who bought other enslaved people their freedom. African Americans who fought for the Union in the U.S. Colored Troops. Women who were sold based on their aesthetic appeal. Children with single-digit ages loaded onto ships and taken to a foreign city.
Bell said their goal is to uncover those stories.
“A lot of times it kind of gets diminished in numbers and not really to the actual human beings that were involved, that were impacted and that died a lot of the times in these different travels,” Bell said. “We're trying to humanize the victims of the slave trade. And a lot of times, that’s not really the focus.”
There are standard records like those marking births and deaths.
But look beyond those, too, Valos said. Churches list names of their congregations and people buried in their cemeteries. Military records reveal information about service members.
It’s tough the further back you go, he said.
“We’ve got records that are missing, either because it’s a concerted effort or just carelessness or sometimes a natural disaster,” Valos told attendees.
Often names will be spelled differently in various records, he added. They’re also mainly written in cursive, making them harder to decipher.
Matching up names and following a person’s life through the official record is akin to putting together a puzzle when pieces are missing.
TCC student Kyra McFadden, 18, said the workshop inspired her to do an ancestry test.
“I would like to know my background because unfortunately, not a lot of African Americans know a lot about their ancestry,” McFadden said. “I didn’t think about it a lot when I was younger, but now that I’m older, I would like to know.”
Williams said she’s become a sort of representative for her family, the keeper and compiler of information about their ancestry.
“A lot of the elders in my family have already passed away and we really can’t have those conversations with them about our origin story, how it starts in the state of Virginia,” she said.
“I think [this project] is important so that you can put everything into its full context, and do with that information what you will.”