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U.Va. Center Puts Yancey Collection on the Web

Family Letters Offer A Rare Glimpse Of African-American Life And Education In The Rural South Of The Early 1900s

November 6, 2001-- In the early 1900s, an African-American schoolmaster named Benjamin Franklin Yancey traveled each summer from his rural Virginia home to work at low-paying jobs in white hotels in Richmond, Norfolk or West Virginia to support his family. He wrote often to his wife asking about his one-room school, their children’s clothes and shoes, the corn and potatoes he’d planted, and whether the cow had had her calf.

Within a few years, graduates of the school he’d founded were writing to him, and later to his widow, about such topics as their college exams, life in the U.S. Air Force, and preparations for a doctoral degree.

A cache of some 250 letters and papers of the B. F. Yancey family of Esmont in Albemarle County, one of the most extensive family collections offering glimpses of rural southern African-American life and education during the early-20th century segregation era, was discovered two years ago in the attic of a boarded-up house.

Now sorted and summarized by University of Virginia history graduate students, the letters have been transcribed and placed on the World Wide Web as part of U.Va.’s "Race and Place" project on the history of the Jim Crow period in central Virginia. Meant to be useful to

today’s schoolchildren studying history, to scholars researching the era, to genealogists, or anyone interested in southern history, the Yancey archive may be read and searched at

"The collection will be essential to any scholar of early 20th century African-American family life," said Kimberly A. Tryka, associate director of the Virginia Center for Digital History, which sponsors the "Race and Place" project with U.Va.’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American Studies.

Much African-American historical material about the era consists of census and other official records and newspaper accounts, she said. "A collection of letters such as this offers a much more personal picture."

Yancey, who died in 1915, came to rural Albemarle County in the 1890s to found, raise money for, and teach at the Esmont school for African-American children. One of the first black educators in Central Virginia in the decades following slavery, he and his wife Harriet Yancey corresponded often with family members, former students, friends and relatives throughout the country about topics ranging from community life to education and church matters to local gossip.

"The family appeared close-knit and supportive of one another," said William G. Thomas III, director of the digital history center. "Scrapbooks collected by family members indicate their interest and pride in being African-American and the importance education had in their lives."

The current elementary school in Esmont is named for Yancey, who is revered in community lore, but his descendants have long moved out of the area. To supplement the

Yancey Papers archive, graduate research assistants with the "Race and Place" project have begun conducting oral histories with longtime residents in the Esmont area, and that material too will eventually be published.

More About "Race and Place: An African-American Community in the Jim Crow South." It is a World Wide Web site that combines searchable databases of important primary sources with historical exhibits on African-American life in Charlottesville and Albemarle County, from about 1870 to 1930. The site invites users to explore an extensive collection of archival materials from the age of segregation, including hundreds of photographs, newspaper articles, letters, and other documents drawn from various collections at U.Va.'s Alderman Library. The Yancey Papers manuscripts are now in the library’s Albert H. Small Special Collections Library.

It is on the Web at

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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