Tunneling My Calling - Researching Enslaved People

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This afternoon, I am tucking myself into the underground irony of sunlight in the Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.  This endeavor – this research about Brackett’s Farm in Louisa County, Virginia – fits in that space, which is hollowed out from the earth and tunneled up to day.  All research into the lives of enslaved people would do well to have such a space.

This work scars my heart with every inventory, every sales receipt, every time a dollar figure is placed next to a human name.  Yet, when I turn the pages on records that may have never been read with the purpose of knowing these people, when I let my fingerprints grab the edge of a 150-year-old sheet of paper and find names, ages, family members there beyond the whorls and ridges of myself, the joy I feel turns those scars into tears and smiles every time.

I would be lying if I said that I did not do this work for myself. That is not the only reason, but it is one. This joy.

It is also a fair critique to say that my white-skinned finger tips are not the ideal ones for this task.  I carry that knowledge in me as well.

Still, I have come to this – after years of weighing the sadness of this work against the joy, after daily conversations in my mind and with people I trust and respect, after prayers and journal entries and deep, soul-tugging sighs – I am answering a calling. 

As with any mining expedition, I cannot see the purpose of this digging, or more expressly, the reason I have been led to the mines.  At least I can’t see it full.  I have my 3x great-grandaddy James Henry and the light brown skin he let look tanned, and I have my 3x great-grandmother Sarah Andrews, the woman James Henry married, and the slaves they owned.  I have the plantation my father’s work carried us to when I was 14 and the way that land has become home. I do it because my life has been what it is – my family home, our farm, my stories – owe their foundations and fortitudes to enslaved people.  All these things have led me here, no doubt.

But they are not all.  The rest of the why is beyond my lamp and pen.  I may never know all of it.

So I do this work for myself, because it answers some part of all the things that have become a part of who I am as I let myself be shaped more and more into who I was made to be.

More, though — I test myself to be sure I am honest here; I think I am — I do this work because somehow, someway it matters to those blessed people whose names I find on those pages.  How it matters, well, that’s just not mine to know.

This afternoon, as I take out a very sharp pencil and loose-leaf pieces of paper, as I read page on page of slanted, white-hewn handwriting, I will pray.  I will pray I am up to the task. I will pray to find every name. I will pray for the people in the pages and the people who come from and after them. I will pray that this work does what it must, that my calling fills its purpose. I will tunnel onward.

If you or someone you know has connections to Brackett’s Farm or the Green Springs area of Louisa County, Virginia, I would be thrilled to hear from you.  Please take a look at this page, and stay tuned for updates on the research findings and plans for remembering that precious, strong community.