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Buried Treasure: Digging for Black History in County courthouses

illustration of old woman rocking in chair
Loudoun County Courthouse in Leesburg, Virginia, includes a large source of Black history in their Office of Historic Records and Deeds. Photo by author

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, individual states in the U.S. codified their legal statutes, including many laws specifically written to trip up free or enslaved Blacks. Considered “other” for centuries of our nation’s history, Blacks were listed in tax documents, civil and chancery court records as well as criminal records. Unlike on the census, court documents almost always record Black persons by name, as well as frequently giving physical descriptions. All information was painstakingly recorded by a clerk of the court, writing in beautiful, curely-cue fashion no matter if he was recording a whipping or a manumission.

Loudoun County, Virginia has an exceptional Office of Historic Records & Deeds, housed in the Leesburg courthouse. Office staff, working under the Clerk of the Circuit Court, have put online – and free of charge – an extensive record of Black history, including documentation and description of Free Blacks, Enslaved Blacks, manumission, and virtually every piece of paper recording Black lives. The records may be accessed here. Anyone interested in Black history will be gobsmacked by the treasure of material.

A brief example of records is shown below, from the Office’s online Record of Free Negroes Every name on the index can be searched and cross referenced. Since Nest of Abolitionists focuses on Loudoun’s Quaker history and how it interacted with Black history, on the index I typed “William Tate,” a Quaker involved in anti-slavery work in Loudoun County. His name comes up several times on the court’s “Record of Free Negroes” page. Even more significant information, uncovering Black lives, can be found. (Photo shown courtesy of Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.)

William Tate, photograph courtesy of Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA

Here is a transcript of several records from the Record of Free Negroes category:


Free Blacks Record of Free Negroes 1844-1861
Name: Gaskins, Areana Race: Black Sex: Female Age: 16 years Certificate #: 1616 Emancipated By: William Tate Physical Characteristics: 5 feet 2 1/2 inches tall, of a brown color with a scar 1/2 inch long on the left cheek, a short scar on the right cheek, and is quite fleshy. Page: 92 Misc.: Proved to be free by the affirmation William Tate.

Free Blacks Record of Free Negroes 1844-1861 Name: Gaskins, Elisa Race: Mulatto Sex: Female Age: 39 years Certificate #: 2286 Emancipated By: Will of Jon Oneall in 1806 Physical Characteristics: 5 feet 4 inches tall Page: 187 Misc.: Wife of Harrison Gaskin, and mother of William, Nelson, Margaret and Joseph Gaskins, proved to be free by the oath of Thomas Fred

Free Blacks Record of Free Negroes 1844-1861 Name: Gaskins, James – child of Amy Gaskins Race: Black Sex: Male Age: 12 years Certificate #: 2391 Physical Characteristics: Black color Page: 228-229 Proved to be free by the oath of Hampton R. Brewer and child of Amy Gaskins

(James Gaskins would go on to serve in Co. I of the 39th United States Colored Infantry Regiment during the Civil War. James is buried in Mt. Zion cemetery on Old Waterford Road, Leesburg, Va. Image below courtesy of Loudoun Museum, Leesburg, VA)


Free Blacks Record of Free Negroes 1844-1861 Name: Gaskins, Joseph – child of Elisa Gaskins Race: Mulatto Sex: Male Age: 13 years Certificate #: 2286 Physical Characteristics: Has a scar on the back of the left hand Page: 187 Misc.: Proved to be free by the affirmation of Thomas Fred and the child of Elisa Gaskin


Free Blacks Record of Free Negroes 1844-1861 Name: Gaskins, Judy Race: Black Sex: Female Age: 63 years Certificate #: 1615 Emancipated By: William Tate Physical characteristics: 5 feet 3 inches tall with a scar just in the center of the forehead and two small dark scars on the first and second knuckles of the right hand Page: 91-92 Misc.: Proved to be free by the affirmation of William Tate

(The link on Judy Gaskins’ name it to an interview she gave near the end of her long life. It was featured in an earlier post.)


Free Blacks Record of Free Negroes 1844-1861 Name: Gaskins, Margaret A.- child of Elisa Gaskins Race: Bright Mulatto Sex: Female Age: 14 years Certificate #: 2286 Physical Characteristics: 5 feet 2 inches tall Page: 187 Misc.: Proved to be free by the affirmation of Thomas Fred and the child of Elisa Gaskin


Free Blacks Record of Free Negroes 1844-1861 Name: Gaskins, Moses – child of Judy Gaskins Race: Black Sex: Male Age: 12 years Certificate #: 1617 Physical Characteristics: 4 feet 7 1/2 inches tall Page: 92 Misc.: Son of Judy Gaskins and proved to be free by the affirmation of William Tate

For the long centuries in which enslaved or free Blacks were everywhere but granted little official regard, these records are a gold mine of information. In spite of few Black written diaries or letters, few identified photographs, and even few names, we can learn about hidden lives and stories. Court documents are a feast in the often lean diet of Black American history.


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