About the Project

About the Project

This database reflects extensive independent research in Albemarle County Court Minute Books conducted by Benjamin Ford. Albemarle County Minute Books contain individual registration entries for free black citizens scattered throughout its volumes. Over the course of three years, Minute Books between 1807 and 1865 were searched for registration entries. Each entry was transcribed and entered into a spreadsheet database. In late 2008, the Virginia Center for Digital History agreed to transform the information into a searchable online database.

The title of the database, Free People of Color, refers to the wording of the individual register entries recorded in the Albemarle County Minute Books. When the registration for a free black was entered by the clerk in the Minute Book, the name of the individual was taken followed by the phrase ‘man of color,’ ‘woman of color,’ ‘boy of color,’ or ‘girl of color.’

About the Albemarle County Court Minute Books

The information contained in this database comes from Albemarle County Court Minute Books available in the Albemarle County Courthouse in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Minute Books accessible in the Albemarle County Courthouse were limited to the 1807 to 1904 period. Of these, only the years 1807-1865 contained free black registration entries.

The Minute Books contain a variety of legal information recorded during Court sessions. In addition to free black registrations, the Minute Books also record arrests, legal cases and their outcomes, petitions by citizens, appointments by the court, and a variety of other matters. As a legal record, the Minute Books document the prominent social and political issues at both the larger County, and particular individual levels, during the antebellum period.

The free black registrations available in the Minute Books should not be perceived as a comprehensive list for Albemarle County. Rather this data should be perceived as only one source of information on free black citizens and their registrations. Other sources of information on free black citizens and registrations for Albemarle County include a List of Free Negroes (1833 and 1853), Deeds of Emancipation (1841-1864), and Free Negro Registers (1804-1864), all at the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

Free Blacks and the Registration Process in Nineteenth Century Virginia

Following the moral doctrines of human rights and freedom embraced in the American Revolution, in 1782 the Commonwealth of Virginia passed an act authorizing and permitting the manumission of slaves. As a result, in the ensuing decade the free black population of Virginia grew rapidly. Reacting to white concern about the increasing numbers of free blacks, in the 1790s the Virginia Legislature began to impose far reaching legal controls on its free black citizens. In 1793, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law prohibiting the immigration of free blacks into the Commonwealth. During the same year, the Legislature also passed a law requiring all free blacks to register with the local court every three years. Once a free black citizen registered with the court, a legal record was created documenting their status. A formal list, or register, of free blacks for each year was kept by the court, the registration was subsequently copied into the court records (Minutes Books), and a copy of the registration was given to the individual. The copy of the registration, commonly referred to as ‘free papers,’ allowed blacks to prove their freedom and were required to be produced upon demand. Failure to register could result in fines or imprisonment.

The registration system established by the Commonwealth in 1793 was the legal foundation for controlling the free black population of Virginia. Throughout the pre-war nineteenth century, free black citizens in Virginia faced a concerted governmental effort, at both the state and local level, to restrict their liberties.

Information Contained in the Database

The free black registrations for Albemarle County contain a wealth of personal information about the individual as recorded by white court staff. Most registrations contain identical information in a similarly worded format, however when clerical omissions occurred certain information was not recorded.

A typical registration entry contained the individual’s name, age, height, complexion, and a description of distinguishing characteristics or marks that generally focused on the head, face, and arms and legs. A number of registration entries contained information on familial relationship between spouses, parents and children. Registration entries for newly emancipated blacks often contained information on how freedom was obtained including the date of emancipation and the name of the former master. A few registration entries also contained information recording aliases and/or maiden names.

The database also contains information that will allow the researcher to find the individual registration entry in the Albemarle County Minute Books. Individual registration entries are accompanied by the date of the registration, the Minute Book and the page number. Not all Minute Books however contained page numbers. In the cases where page numbers were not present, the registration entry can be found by referring to the date of the registration and searching the pages for that date.

A total of 1195 registration entries spanning 58 years were transcribed from the Albemarle County Minute Books. Because many free blacks re-registered with the court over the course of their lifetime, the 1195 registration entries do not represent 1195 distinct individuals.