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Project volunteers on a Wednesday in August: Linda Thurston Collins, Gloria Johnson Gilmore, Robin Patton, Mark Shumake, Lisa Bailey and Linda Austin.Every other week, a group of volunteers of both African American and Caucasian descent gather around a long table at the Louisa County Historical Society’s Sargeant Museum and set up their laptops, in what has developed into a “sewing circle with computers,” as member Robin Patton put it.

The volunteers are part of a research project called “Will the Stones Whisper their Names,” which is documenting the burial sites of African Americans, many of whom were enslaved. Because so many of the enslaved grave markers may be simple unmarked stones or a pile of rocks, the committee hopes that learning more about who owned the property will provide “whispers of names.”

The volunteers are also researching county birth and death records, typically beginning with the 1860 slave schedules, and the records and wills of slave owners. The project also takes input from the community about the location of burial sites through a downloadable app called ArcGIS GeoForms, and places them on maps.

But the project is more than record-keeping and documentation. It is about personal family searches, oral histories, and sharing stories and findings with each other. The conversation and sharing is similar to sewing circles, in which members stitched stories into the fabric of their lives as they worked on projects.

Gloria Johnson Gilmore, Linda Austin, and Linda Thurston Collins are among the project’s volunteers. Though they have strong local ties, they have major gaps in information about their family trees. Gilmore said she began her family search 40 years ago and still enjoys the journey. She has genealogy resources to trace back to 1870, but then said she “hit a brick wall” as she searched for kin. Along the way, as she worked with the Louisa County Historical Society, she said she “found four generations of free black women who were very independent.”

Historical society member John Purcell gave her several books, including one about free blacks in Louisa County, to aid her search. In it she discovered the name of her great-great-grandmother, Sarah Jackson, and three additional generations. For many years, Gilmore and other family members had thought her ancestor’s name was “Sue” based on oral history. The discovery of a death certificate led to finding other family members and names.

The revelation “blew me out of the water,” Gilmore said. Discovering family photos and meticulous records that her grandmother kept about their church and household spending has been a treasure trove.
Collins is still living on the land where she was born in Louisa. “I’ve always wanted to know my family,” she said, adding that her mother died shortly after Collins was two. She knew that her grandfather, Willie Q. Thurston, was a slave who had been freed, and that her father was the youngest child in his family, but there is so much more to the family history that she is eager to learn, especially on her mother’s side.
The mapping of cemeteries is key to discovering names and locations of many African American families. If volunteers can find cemeteries, which can be difficult, they can often learn the name of the white owners of the land at emancipation. A look at the 1870 census can then lead to the discovery of freed African Americans still living at or near where they were enslaved.

Gilmore said that when they visit rural sites where the cemeteries are found, the gravesites are not often visible except for a yucca or periwinkle plant, often planted to mark the area where graves are mere impressions in the ground. Sometimes they are still tended in a clearing. Sometimes they are concealed by vegetation.

Patton and Austin enjoy the technical work of mapping and entering data, while Gilmore and Collins are quick to admit they are led by the stories they’re learning about people.

Lisa Bailey, who formerly managed the Piedmont area tourism bureau in Louisa County, also has long family ties to Louisa County. She’s among the white volunteers on the project who, along with black volunteers, struggle to understand the impact of slavery in the past and present.

In the historical society’s request for funding from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Elaine Taylor, executive director, said, “Only a new historic narrative of slavery and race, which this project will address, can give us the shared humanity and understanding of our past to heal our deepest national wound. We believe it is toward that healing that the irresistible current of good wants to carry us.”

The around-the-table discussions by historical society volunteers about race, slavery and current dynamics are open, candid, caring and timely. More volunteers are welcome. Call 540-967-5975 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .