Research fellow investigates the manumission movement

With human history jam-packed full of wars, crises and revolutions, many facts lost to time may never resurface in the future. Andy Langeland, a research fellow in the Helms School of Government, is determined to uncover truths hidden in the rest of history.

Since the manumission movement is an obscure topic that falls between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the history of this movement seems to fall through the cracks. Langeland’s hope is to bring the historical facts to light.

“As researchers, we should be seeking the truth of what happened, not what we wish happened,” Langeland said. “And as believers, our main focus should be on the truth. This (movement) is a part of historical truth in Virginia.” 

According to Langeland, manumission and emancipation were two different movements in history. 

“Manumission is an individual’s voluntary choice to free their slaves while emancipation refers to a government enforced or mandated freeing of slaves,” Langeland said.

Through his research, however, Langeland noted that the terms manumission and emancipation were used interchangeably with one another in that time period, adding a little complexity to the study. Because of this, few people are familiar with what manumission means, since it was associated with the term emancipation so often throughout history. 

Local examples of manumission in central Virginia sparked Langeland’s research. When he was first approached to research this project, it seemed few people really knew of the term or what it was. Langeland claimed he even had to look up the definition of manumission.

“This is why I’m doing the research,” Langeland said. “I have a B. A. in history, and I had never heard of manumission.”

Langeland started locally researching the manumission movement in Virginia. According to him, Virginia had some of the largest slave populations prior to the Civil War. However, even though Virginia had a slave economy, some Virginia citizens began to question the morality of the institution of slavery and began setting slaves free through manumission.

“There are some really good examples of people manumitting their slaves,” Langeland said. “George Washington manumitted 123 people through his will.”

The research process has been long and meticulous thus far, and it is still ongoing. According to Langeland, manumission documents were written at the county level, meaning they were filed at county courthouses within huge books and will books.

“There is no state-wide catalog of all of these freedom documents referring to a person being freed or showing a person giving (slaves) their freedom,” Langeland said. “All the deeds and wills are in county courthouses or on film in archives, like the Library of Virginia or the local Jones Memorial Library.”

These documents were not separately cataloged. Since slave owners who wished to free their slaves would do so at county courthouses, researchers today can go to a county courthouse, to look at a particular deed book and page number and they can find manumission documents. That means Langeland has to go through these deeds by each county, not by state, making the process more tedious.

Langeland has been able to further his research more efficiently by utilizing deed indexes. Deed indexes include names, dates and types of documents. In some county indexes, Langeland has been able to locate what the past court clerks have labeled as “freedom” or “emancipation” documents, which included any documentation of people freeing slaves. However, slaves freed within last will and testaments are not separately noted, and often require more extensive research to locate.

Langeland’s research comes from multiple original documents that have survived the times, secondary sources and even film acquired from libraries. Since this research can be long and drawn out, Langeland has students and volunteers to assist him. 

Langeland said one of the more interesting parts of his research has been the nuance of relationships he has observed throughout the body of documents he’s read – it’s not a cut-and-dry topic at all. Manumissions occurred all over America, even throughout the Civil War, and while the topic of slavery can be hard to discuss, it’s necessary to bring historical facts to light.

 “History is rough, but we should know the reality of it,” Langeland said.

Pickard is a feature reporter for the Liberty Champion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *