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Uncovering names of slaves at Bloomsbury estate in Orange connects ancestors, descendants

Absolam, William Crump, Agga, Anthony, Peter, Esther B., Reuben, Frank, Caleb, Jacob Dade.

These are just some of the names uncovered in the initial research of a project from the James Madison Museum to tell the stories of the people once enslaved at the Bloomsbury estate in Orange, and to help descendents connect to their ancestors.

As of June, research had led to the identification of 197 people enslaved at Bloomsbury between 1782 and 1865. All but 33 had first names, and nearly 70 had both first and last names, according to Zann Nelson, who is leading the project. Nelson is a historian and president of Right the Record, a project to document the stories of Black Culpepper residents.

“When you have a name and not just a number, it elevates your level of humanity,” Nelson told The Daily Progress. “You become real. You’re not just an object or a piece of property. You are Robert or Olivia.”

Or Sylvia, or Caslow, or Charles, or Judy, or Sally.

Bloomsbury, where tours are managed by the James Madison Museum, is the oldest extant dwelling in Orange once owned by the Taylor family. One goal of the ongoing project is to help descendents find their ancestors, who “fueled so much of our collective history in this country,” Nelson said.

To find names, Nelson has looked through tax records, databases, letters and diaries that may have recorded slaves’ names, genders and ages. Some come from inventories of shoes or pants, which documented who received what article of clothing, or records of new births among slaves.

The 1870 census, the first after emancipation, provides richer information: first and last names, places of birth and familial relationships that allow Nelson to find the people nestled in the looped cursive of 19th-century records:

Among them are Jacob Dade, Joshua, Billy, Betsy Green, Araminta James, Harry, Polly, America Long, Essex, Matilda.

Next steps will be decided once Nelson presents her final findings at the James Madison Museum, according to Bethany Sullivan, director of the museum.

The museum is working on a handout which includes information on Bloomsbury’s archaeology and slaves, so visitors can have a fuller history of the site. That information is expected to be compiled into a more formal booklet in the next few years.

Bloomsbury isn’t the only site attempting to tell the stories of the people enslaved there. Less than a week ago, James Madison’s Montpelier announced plans for a monument to memorialize those enslaved at the former president’s estate.

“There’s many, many of us who are trying to correct this problem,” Nelson said.

Still, Bloomsbury’s project is “not using anyone as a model,” Sullivan said.

“We wanted to step in with a clean slate: no preconceptions, no one else’s goals,” Sullivan said. “We really are not patterning ourselves off anyone. We want to get it done as right and as accurately as possible.”

Nelson described a thread she unraveled during her research, one that takes place in Kentucky, where one of the last Taylors to manage Bloomsbury eventually relocated. Nelson obtained scans of his diary from the Taylor descendants still living in Kentucky. Taylor’s entries describe bringing a number of slaves with him.

Nelson looked through insurance records and found a man named Jerry, who worked on Taylor’s shipping line in Kentucky. When one Jerry popped up in tax records back in Virginia, Nelson suggested the likely conclusion that Jerry had also relocated to Kentucky. That provides a means to find Jerry’s descendents: looking to Kentucky.

“I’m hoping that what I do will fuel somebody else’s research into their family,” Nelson said.

Nelson is also hoping that people who own similar estates — which likely also kept slaves — will want to do something similar, she said.

“It helps the community understand, and it helps people find their ancestors and give some depth and some breadth to these enslaved people,” Nelson said. “They were real, they had lives. They had children and families, they had jobs. They had dreams.”

They are Sukey Madison, Joe, Kitty Nelson, Kitty Oliver, Violet, Spencer, Peter Parker, Henry Patterson, Doll.

“And some of them I’ve been able to see their dreams come to fruition after enslavement,” Nelson said. “The resilience is remarkable.”


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