ABINGDON, Va. — A local organization dedicated to helping future generations understand their heritage is embarking on a yearlong effort to preserve the ancestry of African Americans in Washington County.
The Historical Society of Washington County has kicked off a project to identify as many descendants of pre-emancipation African Americans who lived in Washington County as possible and invite them to visit the county during Juneteenth next year to explore their history and their ancestry.
“This is an ambitious project that will take a lot of work — and a lot of volunteers, but I believe the time is right to do this, and I believe it will be a remarkable learning experience for everyone involved,” said Walter Jenny, president of the local historical society.
“In 1870, there were 2,876 blacks in Washington County — about 17% of the total population,” he said. “Today, the African American population is estimated to be about 806, about 1.5% of Washington County’s population. The total population increased from 16,816 to 53,740.
“Our focus will begin with those 2,876 individuals who were here in the 1860s,” he said, “and learn where they came from and where they and their descendants went.”
The historical society has started a family tree on www.ancestry.com with the names of African Americans who lived in Washington County during the 1860s and earlier.
“Our hope is to connect with their descendants and help them to connect with their distant cousins now scattered around the country who share the same ancestral stories and same DNA,” said Jenny.
The president of the historical society said he knows of only a few historical organizations in the country that have conducted similar research to this extent.
“I think Washington County is uniquely situated because we don’t have a whole lot of numbers to work with. But it’s a large enough group that it will give us an interesting taste of the dynamics of this project.
“Washington County was not a major slave-holding county, but we did have slaves.
“We know we won’t find them all, and that’s okay. In the process, we hope to learn more about pre-Civil War Washington County.”
Jenny said he can see the project going on for years. “With any genealogy research, you’ll never get to the bottom of the barrel. At least this project will be a way of breaking through the barriers that the African American community has experienced,” he said.
Jenny said from his studies he knew the 1870 census has long been a dead end in African American genealogical research because it’s the earliest census that listed enslaved black people with surnames.
“With the amazing discoveries that have been made with DNA testing, I wonder if it’s possible to bridge that gap by going beyond the 1870 census and making connections in the African American community that was broken up by slavery.”
Jenny hopes the online family tree will offer them hints to locate current living people who are researching some of the same individuals.
“I’m anticipating that at some point we will make some matches between people who have common DNA but didn’t know each other,” said the president of the historical society, who hopes the project will uncover people with connections from throughout the country.
The project is important for the community, especially now, when the death of George Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, has prompted worldwide protests to draw attention to racial profiling and discrimination.
“African Americans have just as much right to explore their fascinating roots as does anyone else,” said Jenny.
“We hope that anyone who is a descendant of slaves in Washington County before the emancipation will want to participate in the project. We may be able to help each other.
“If readers are not descendants of pre-emancipation blacks in Washington County, it still may pique their curiosity about their own ancestry and encourage them to do more research on their own or in conjunction with the historical society.”
The historical society will continue to develop events in connection to the 2021 Juneteenth celebration.
The Historical Society of Washington County will partner with universities and colleges, such as Emory & Henry College, to further their research.
“We hope that by next June, senior members of families will sit down with Emory & Henry College students to record their oral histories.”
In the meantime, Jenny said the historical society will conduct open sessions to identify goals and leaders for the project.
Amin Aleem, a resident of McDonough, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta, will be helping with the historical society project.
Raised in the Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas, Aleem said his great-grandmother Katherine Brown, the youngest of 11 children to Lilburn J. Brown and Thadosia Weeks, relocated from Glade Spring to Washington, D.C., by way of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Personally, I hope to reconnect the descendants of Katherine Brown with the descendants of Lilburn J. Brown and Thadosia Weeks, who may still live in Washington County or its surrounding areas,” he said.
“In 1866, the Freedman’s Bureau walked throughout Washington County, Virginia, registering persons of color who had been cohabitating. Through their work, the marriages of cohabitated individuals became legal federally and later were recognized by the Virginia state government,” Aleem explained.
“Their Cohabitation List of Freed Slaves and Free Persons of Color in Washington, County, Virginia, in 1866 is not currently a part of ancestry.com’s searchable database.
Aleem said his role in the project is to input the names of the individuals listed on the 1866 Cohabitation List of Washington County to the historical society’s family tree, so that the portal can be found and used as a resource for genealogist searching for information about their ancestors.
Anyone who wants to be part of the development of the project can contact Walter Jenny at email@example.com.