Unearthing the Public's History Through Discovery and Data Science--Finding Virginia's Freetowns

Urban Studies and Planning; Race, Ethnicity and post-Colonial Studies; Social History; Data Science

This project documents 50 vanished Black “ freedom communities” through data, digital visualizations, archival research, and oral histories to create public-facing access tools for the communities.

Research Interests
  • Public History
  • Urban History
  • Digital innovation
  • Data Mining
  • Community engagement
  • Social constructions of race, community social hierarchies, and identity in eighteenth and nineteenth century America

If you stand on Cowherd Mountain in Orange County and look in any direction, you’ll see a vast, shallow crater of land that stretches over three central Virginia counties: Albemarle, Louisa, and Orange. In the eighteenth century, more than a dozen plantations were built and worked in these counties by enslaved laborers. Many of these places still exist today, and have been the subject of intense scrutiny by historians and memoirists who have documented the lives of the slaveholders and, in recent years and to a lesser extent, the Black laborers who called this landscape home. Largely undocumented, however, are the 50 or more “freedom communities” that flourished in Central Virginia from the middle of the nineteenth century, when they were occupied by free Blacks; through Reconstruction, when they were joined by settlements of emancipated Blacks; and into the twentieth century, when they continued to provide a measure of security and self-determination for Blacks circumscribed by the violence of Jim Crow. Almost all of these communities, centers of Black endurance and achievement, have vanished. Or more accurately, they have been erased by the agents and agencies of white supremacy. The stories of how these communities were built, and the people who built and nurtured them, still live in the memories of lifelong Black residents of these central Virginia counties. There are still traces of them on the landscape. There is documentary evidence waiting to be unearthed in plantation records, historical maps, tax filings, photograph collections, newspaper archives, and other records held in UVA’s Special Collections but also in historical societies, county tax and probate records. Freetowns have a particular story to tell about how community is built and sustained across time in the most challenging of conditions. This is our collective history that is being lost forever. This project is intended to make visible this important part of American history.

Finding and beginning to document Virginia’s Freetowns will be the work of our 3 Cavs grant. We anticipate conducting field work, oral history interviews, and archival research that will constitute a digital database of Freetowns in Virginia; produce scholarly articles and monographs about the individual Freetowns and the larger “Mixing Bowl” network comprised of dozens of Freetowns; generate podcasts about the “history keepers” who have kept these stories alive; and contribute to the ongoing work of community collaborators whose efforts to restore hidden histories can benefit from the original research conducted by the 3 Cavs faculty and the teams of undergraduate and graduate students we will enlist in this effort. There were Freetowns all over the South. This project will serve as a research exemplar for future geographic and spatial studies. We see this as a launch pad for applying for external grants from the Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. We also anticipate multiple opportunities to collaborate and interact with other UVA initiatives in the race-place-equity space, including the Equity Center, the Democracy Labs, Rotunda Imprint, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and many others around Grounds and in the larger community.

Desired outcomes

Not only are Freetowns vanishing from sight and memory but the only way they are known is through limited academic research and oral histories. The primary outcomes for this project are: 1) to make both the information and the research process available and accessible to the public including, but not limited to, residents of the communities, children in K-12, and to a broader public that shares in both the creation and the maintenance of Freetowns; 2) to give UVA undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to use original sources and innovative data-mining techniques to re-write history by finding it; and 3) to create a permanent digital archive to support the continued work of scholars and practitioners who want to document the broad spectrum of life of Blacks in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Virginia.