Amateur genealogy has become a national passion. But Black Americans researching their family histories often find dead ends at 1865, with the trauma of slavery, family separations, and missing documentation. Now, a local historic site is launching a project to help fill in the blanks.
The 246 Years Project is an initiative of Morven Park and Loudoun County Circuit Court Clerk Gary Clemens and his Historic Records Division team. Morven Park is building an online database organizing fragmentary information about Loudoun’s enslaved communities, allowing descendants to delve deeper into their family histories.
“At 1865, you hit this brick wall. … You had to be your own researcher to find your family,” Morven Park Executive Director and CEO Stacey Metcalfe said. “We’re pulling it all together.”
The 246 Years project officially launches in February and will offer free public access to the database by the end of next year. The initiative takes its name from the 246 years between 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to Jamestown, and 1865 when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Before 1865, the names of the enslaved were omitted from government records including census, birth, and death registries, making it challenging for descendants of enslaved people to trace their ancestry through online genealogy services.
This is where Virginia’s historic homes and estates, many of which housed enslaved in the 19th century, can help fill in the blanks. These historic houses often have their own unofficial records documenting the harrowing process of family separation.
“All of this was in house records because enslaved people were considered property. You didn’t have birth certificates. You didn’t have them in the county records. … It wasn’t at the local courthouse. It was house records, or communities had them in their Bibles,” Metcalfe said.
The project got started in 2016 before Metcalfe joined Morven Park. At the time, Morven Park Director of Preservation Jana Shafagoj developed the idea of taking the bare facts, including births, deaths and sales of humans to help descendants weave together stories and connect missing threads.
“The stories come out once you start tying them together,” Metcalfe said. “[Shafagoj] wanted to start tying together the families, the legacies. … The leadership wanted to expand the narrative of Morven Park. They needed to include those who were enslaved living here on this property.”
Shafagoj got things rolling several years ago, launching a dialogue with the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC, which brings together 40 historic homes open as public sites in the DMV. But the effort was waylaid by the pandemic. When Metcalfe came on board as Morven Park’s executive director in December of 2020, she made reviving the project a priority. Metcalfe and Shafagoj work with an advisory committee made up of Loudoun’s Historic Records Clerk Lori Kimball and authors, historians and genealogy experts from the county’s Black community, including Stephen Hammond, Kevin Grigsby and Phyllis Cook-Taylor.
The Morven Park team found a perfect partner in Clemens, whose office has one of the most complete historic records collections in the commonwealth and has ongoing collaborations with the Balch Library, Loudoun Freedom Center and Loudoun Farm Museum related to African American history in the county.
“There’s a natural connection and the timing was impeccable,” Clemens said. “In the last 10 years, we’ve been very aggressive about preserving any documents we have in the courthouse that pertain to African Americans and the enslaved. … Immediately I realized we have a connection here. What we were doing we could share with them, and what her team was doing, we could make available in my office.”
Clemens’ hope is to offer the descendants of enslaved people in Loudoun—and one day the rest of Virginia—“one-stop-shop research.”
“You do research in one place, and you have to go someplace else. The neat thing about this collaboration is that we’re combining our resources so there’s more information,” Clemens said.
“It’s a unique opportunity for Loudoun County and for the whole commonwealth of Virginia,” Clemens said.
The Morven Park project is starting local, but Metcalfe and Clemens say they’ll likely expand to other Northern Virginia communities and even statewide in coming years.
“I want it to be a gift right now for Loudoun County, and I know Loudoun County will rally around that and help us make it a really robust database,” Metcalfe said.
For Morven Park, the initiative is in line with a movement among historic sites in the south to provide new perspectives on the institution of slavery after glossing over it for decades. While Morven’s mission remains focused on preserving the legacy of World War II-era Virginia governor Westmoreland Davis, whose widow Marguerite created the foundation that funds the nonprofit, Metcalfe said there’s also room to examine the property’s 19th century past, including its history of slavery.
The nonprofit is also working to preserve historic 19th century buildings connected to the property’s enslaved population, removing early 20th century stucco facades and restoring stonework.
The 246 Years Project was launched with seed money from The Davis Foundation and Clemens’ office, and organizers are launching a separate fundraising and grant writing initiative to cover the estimated $90,000 per year cost to keep the project running and fund Metcalfe's commitment to keeping the database free to the community.
“That has been something that we wanted to do: Telling these stories and sharing these legacies and giving back the narratives,” Metcalfe said. “This is a gift to the community.”
For more information about the 246 Years Project, go to morvenpark.org/246years.
How much is this really costing tax payers?
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