Maddy McCoy, a self-proclaimed cemetery enthusiast, was interning in the Virginia Room in the Fairfax Library in 2005 when she recognized the devastating impact of development on many small, African American cemeteries in the county. Some were known through oral histories; most went unmarked and undocumented. She began to research the (few) records that existed, supplemented with spatial modeling that could show the existence of gravesites through changes in the landscape.
This led to Maddy trying to learn more about the history of the county’s African American communities. In so doing, she began to understand frustration of many African Americans with enslaved ancestors who came into the library to research their family history. Even if they could find them in the 1870 Census, they often hit a wall, unable to go back further, even though their families may have lived in the area for generations before that.
The 1870 federal census listed a person’s location, age, gender, and race, in addition to first and last names. However, the censuses of 1860 and earlier did not include the names of the enslaved.
Thus, the challenge: how to go further back in time to find a person?
Some of the answers sat in the archives of the Fairfax Courthouse. Slaves were property. Thus the records were not related to death certificates or funeral notices but to such records as estate sales, deeds, and wills (listed among the deceased person’s effects). Maddy worked alongside archives staff, their interns, and volunteers. They spent several years poring through every county deed and will book from 1742 through 1870, thousands of pages in total. The archives staff continues to expand this project with Maddy working in a consultancy role. The result: Approximately 30,000 entries with as much information as could be culled.
A momentous development, Maddy told me recently, is that she is transferring these records from index cards to a searchable online database. The system is being tested now, with hopes it will go online this summer.
An unexpected discovery emerged from her research. Fewer than 5 percent of enslaved individuals shared their enslaver’s surname. She pointed out that this could not be generalized to other places, but it was the case, at least, in Fairfax County.
Maddy also works with historic properties, museums, and other places who want to trace the enslaved people who once lived and worked there. For example, she began with the known names of people who were enslaved at the Carlyle House in Alexandria in 1780 and has expanded to more than double the original number. She is currently attempting to establish connections to living descendants.
Her goal, through her database, is to identify as many living descendants of enslaved individuals in Fairfax County, as possible. She describes more of her work on Slavery Inventory Database, her website.