Two staff members from the Library of Virginia came up to Alexandria yesterday to explain some of the resources in the collection in Richmond or online. The focus was for people doing genealogy, but, of course, there are other applications. If the person was free before the Civil War, researchers can use the usual census records, as well as such resources as "Free Negro Registers" and "Free Negro Lists." In addition, people who were enslaved but gained freedom had to, by Virginia law, leave the state within 12 months or risk going back into slavery. They explained this law was not uniformly enforced, but had some heartbreaking examples of individuals singled out. If they wanted to stay in Virginia (for example, to remain close to other family members still enslaved), they had to petition to remain in Virginia. They submitted a petition with duly humble language, signed by as many as 70 or more (white) individuals attesting to their good character, etc. The General Assembly considered each case singly. No guarantees of a positive result by any means.
If the person was enslaved before the war, the unfortunate investigatory route is, as one of the archivists said, "find out as much about the slaveholder as you can," hoping that the enslaved person shows up in a will, chancery case, or other document.
In both cases, she listed many resources. Go to the Library of Virginia website, see "Using the Collections."
Also of interest--a new project, scheduled for launch in January, called "Untold Virginia: The American American Narrative." Basically, it aims for depth, not breadth. Instead of people's lives scattered across many different types of records, it brings together bits and pieces from different collections that related to one person.