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Virginia Untold: The African American Narrative

Project overview and search strategies for accessing pre-1867 records of enslaved and free Black Virginians


The institution of race-based slavery sought to destroy a Black person's individualism, agency, and basic human rights. Rarely do we hear Black or multiracial voices in records of this era that survive today, as most were written by those in power for those in power. The records that do survive have been overlooked, even ignored by libraries, archives, and other collecting institutions.

Many of the documents available through Virginia Untold have been stored for decades in bundles of administrative, court, and estate papers in drawers and basements of local courthouses and archives. Lack of processing and ineffective and insufficient description have complicated the search for records that document the experiences of Black people. Descriptive guides or online finding aids for these collections frequently do not contain information about enslaved and free Black people. 

black man with mask looking at case of exhibit materials
Visitor views a "Free Negro Register" on display at Juneteenth 2021 exhibition. Library of Virginia

Through projects like Virginia Untold, the Library of Virginia acknowledges the value of these records in enabling all Virginians to explore their individual and collective pasts. As stated in the Library of Virginia's 2018–2023 Strategic Plan, "records that have been in the Library's care for well over a century are yielding new insights because they are read with fresh eyes and more fully informed thinking." This begins with breaking down long-standing barriers to access.

Where We've Been

Work began in the summer of 2013 when the Library brought on two part-time staff members funded by a grant from Dominion Power. With additional support from the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), staff began identifying records containing names of enslaved and free Black men and women and indexing and digitizing them. They placed images into Transcribe, the Library's crowdsourcing transcription project, resulting in full-text searchable records being added to the Virginia Untold database. Hundreds of volunteers continue to transcribe historical material from the Library's collections, enhancing access to more than four centuries of history. 

woman speaking in front of classroom while others  listen sitting at desks with computers
Project Manager Lydia Neuroth leads a transcribe-a-thon at Henrico County Public Library. Library of Virginia

Where We're Going

In February 2020, the Library received a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant from the National Archives to hire a project manager to oversee the next phase of work and transform Virginia Untold from an ad hoc project to a fully staffed digital program.

We want to build best practices and documentation for archives and cultural heritage institutions seeking to begin or expand crowdsourced transcription. Virginia Untold applies reparative description and inclusive language practices. This includes reviewing and correcting past archival descriptions that contain offensive language, valorize white voices, and dehumanize oppressed communities, while adding historical context when necessary. We have transitioned to using From the Page, a crowd-sourcing transcription software that allows greater functionality, to address the challenges presented in Virginia Untold records. We are also collaborating with, an open-source architecture that connects data points about enslaved people from multiple projects. This allows us to reach a national audience and to expand the use and understanding of these records.

Since its beginning, the focus of Virginia Untold has been on digitizing pre-1865 records, but in order to understand our shared legacy, we must move beyond 1865 to connect our past with today. As the project evolves, we want to include records across more of the Library's collections, as well as from other archives and institutions. We anticipate that this is just the beginning.

Sankofa Symbol

gold sankofa bird on white background

This project reflects our belief that learning from the past and the lives of our ancestors enriches our understanding of our world and current circumstances. It helps us to grow as people, collectively and individually. We approached several of our community stakeholders, and they supported our decision to use the Sankofa symbol as our Virginia Untold logo. It is often depicted as a stylized heart shape or a bird reaching toward an object on its back. Sankofa originated in West Africa among the Akan people of present-day Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire. It is most often translated as "go back and get it." The Sankofa symbolizes the Akan people's critical and patient examination in their quest for knowledge. In the African Diaspora, it has evolved to reflect the importance of learning about the past in order to build a greater future. We acknowledge this project is one step of many required to create a better world. We hope you will join us in contributing to this mission and moving us forward.


The processing of local court records found in Virginia Untold has been made possible through the innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP), a cooperative program between the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Court Clerks Association (VCCA), which seeks to preserve the historic records found in Virginia's circuit courts. In February 2020, the Library received a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant from the National Archives to hire a project manager to oversee the next phase of work and transform Virginia Untold from an ad hoc project to a fully staffed digital program.

If you have questions about Virginia Untold, please contact Project Manager Lydia Neuroth at or (804) 672-5772.