Giving identity to forgotten people

SALEM, VA. – Christina Budd follows spidery handwriting faded to walnut brown in giant ledgers of birth records from the mid-1860s. She’s doing detective work to give identity to forgotten people.

The Randolph College senior spent her Christmas break searching old record books in the Roanoke County Courthouse for the Salem Museum, looking for the names of slaves and freedmen oftentimes identified only by first names: “Yellow Tim.” “Jim.” “Mary.”

Christina Budd researches records for slave births in Salem and Roanoke County, in the Roanoke County Courthouse Records Room for a Salem Museum Project. Photo by Meg Hibbert

“I’m just really interested in learning about all these people who lived back then,” Budd said, “and hopefully, giving them some recognition.”

Slaves don’t typically show up by name in historical records, Salem Museum Director John Long explained.

“We can give some identity to these people who have been lost in history,” he added.

Budd was developing a slave data base for Roanoke County and Salem that will be a continuing project of the Salem Museum. She’s only the first researcher of many to come as other interns express an interest, Long hopes.

“We just needed the right intern to get the project started,” he said.

The local project is patterned after one the Virginia Historical Society called “Unknown No Longer,” with the goal of pulling out as many names of slaves as they could, Long explained.

Budd, who graduated from Salem High School in 2009 and whose mother is Sally Budd, who teaches sixth-grade science at Andrew Lewis Middle School, got interested in doing an internship for credit with the museum after taking a class from Kelley Deetz on “Archeology of Slavery” and “Black Expressive Culture.”

Deetz was teaching at Randolph College in Lynchburg at the time and now teaches at Roanoke College.

“Often there is only the mother’s name and the baby’s name in the ledgers,” said Budd. “Slaves could marry, but it was not a legal marriage because they were not considered citizens. The father wasn’t necessarily recorded,” Long said. The same was true for death records.

Budd started with birth records in the courthouse from 1856. “There were a lot of Marys, Williams and Johns,” she said. She copied by hand the names, dates and places, then entered them into a computer on Excel charts for the museum. “I have a little over 400 cells,” she said.

There are columns for white, colored – and under the latter – free or slave – as well as male, female, born alive or dead. There is also a space for mother, sometimes father or owner.

Some of the more useful notations for African Americans looking into their genealogy are those with the most specifics. Take this entry, for instance:

“Charles, born June 20, 1854, mother Emily, owner J.R.C. Brown (the owner of the Brown House, now the home of the Salem Museum).”

“We knew Brown owned slaves, but whether they lived at the ouse or outlying property is not known,” Long said.

Since the Salem area has mountains with smaller farms, there were fewer slaves in the Roanoke Valley than in places that had more tillable land such as plantation country in eastern and southern portions of Virginia and in the Deep South.

“There were 321 families in Roanoke County who owned slaves, and 258 of them owned fewer than 10.”

One of the largest slaveowners in the Roanoke Valley was Nathaniel Burwell, Long said, who owned 108 slaves. Edward Watts, who lived in what is now Northwest Roanoke, owned 170.

At least twice, in 1903 and 1910, Burwell’s grandchildren, the Logans invited former slaves to come to reunions. One photograph in the museum’s collection shows white hosts and black guests.

Budd got two hours of college credit for her 72-hour internship. She’s proud to have been able to add to genealogy records for African Americans, and to give identity to people who weren’t considered citizens.

“I think it would be good for Salem and Roanoke County to know about people that, unfortunately, were not considered people. This is a reminder that they were here, to acknowledge them and appreciate them,” said Budd, who is considering a career in museum work.