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Difference Maker: Lauranett Lee

Alumna works tirelessly to bring the names of Virginia’s slaves out from the shadows

As Lauranett Lee (Grad ’02) turns over page after crinkled page of Virginia slaveholders’ property records, it’s the occasional handwritten value ascribed to an old man or child noted in simple script next to the record that always stops her cold: $0.

Despite four years of combing through these records, she still isn’t used to seeing it.

“In order to own another human being, you had to be able to shut down part of your own humanity,” she says. “To be part of that system—public whippings, attending auctions—it had to do something to your own humanity. It’s all very chilling.”

Lauranett Lee, curator of African-American history for the Virginia Historical Society, turns over page after crinkled page of Virginia slaveholders' property records in search of references to enslaved people. Yolanda C. Jones

Lee, curator of African-American history for the Virginia Historical Society, is searching for references to enslaved people to add them to “Unknown No Longer,” a public database of enslaved Virginians who appear in inventories, bills of sale, wills and other records that are part of the society’s collection of more than 8 million unpublished documents.

It is the largest project of its kind. While several counties and plantations, including Monticello, have launched similar efforts, there are no other known statewide projects and, even if they existed, none would rival the significance of Virginia’s.

In 1790, half of all of the slaves in the nation were in Virginia, and Virginia was the source of most of the slaves as slavery moved into the deeper South,” says Alan Taylor, a UVA history professor and two-time Pulitzer prize-winning author. “What went on in Virginia set the tone for the entire nation.”

Various notations about people held in slavery in the society’s archives were no secret. Lee came across them regularly and told colleagues about them in the course of ordinary office conversation. As those conversations continued, one of Lee’s colleagues, Eileen Carr, an archivist, began to sense the data’s immense genealogical value. But the data would have to be compiled painstakingly by a researcher combing through those millions of records.

Lee was the obvious choice. The society created an internship focused on African-American history for her in 1992, when she was a master’s degree student at Virginia State University. It later hired Lee in 2001 as its first curator of African-American history, just as she was finishing her Ph.D. at UVA.

Lee says that before joining the society, she’d always held slavery at arm’s length. She knew some of its painful legacy personally. Growing up in Chesterfield County during desegregation, she recalls being forced to sit on the floor of the bus in fourth grade because the white students at her Midlothian, Virginia, school would not give her a seat.

“It was a very difficult, lonely and tense time,” she says.

So as a doctoral student, Lee focused her dissertation on the Reconstruction era, and developed exhibits and programming at VHS that, if they touched on slavery at all, moved on from it very quickly. When her colleagues approached her about developing the project that would become “Unknown No Longer,” she says she had zero interest in it.

“I just laughed,” she says. “But I put my personal feelings aside because I saw the value. I had been seeing more and more people coming in looking for their ancestors.”

It is for them that she says she pores through slaveholders’ records. In an era when algorithms plow through massive data sets in an instant, she is like the archaeologist searching with brush and spoon to reveal long-buried slivers of information. Her work happens in the historical society’s elegant reading room, where she pulls boxes from shelves and folders from boxes and slips of paper from folders.

“This is always a puzzle, trying to unwrap all of this,” she says.

The earliest months of the project were the hardest. She had nightmares of running through fields and awoke in panic. Her family told her they were tired of hearing about her finds. “They’d say, ‘We know this is what you do, but we don’t really want to hear about it at Thanksgiving dinner.’”

Coupled with the death of her mother, the time was “just pure hell,” she says. “I would sometimes be in the hallways just crying.”

As months passed, she says she learned to cope better, to lean on colleagues, to walk away when it became too much. She launched the database in 2011 and continues adding to it, patiently building it name by name.

“This work is extremely valuable, not just for historians, but for family historians seeking information about their ancestors,” says Taylor, who came to UVA after Lee graduated. “It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to do without the work she’s done.”

Lee says her work is deeply satisfying.

“When I have left earth, I will have something to show for my time here,” she says. It’s an awesome responsibility.”