Genealogist Shelley Murphy
Further actions the University is taking to address this history include initiating a descendant outreach program, which included hiring Shelley Murphy, whose “passion for genealogical research” is going on 30 years.
Murphy moved from Michigan to Virginia – where she has deep ancestral roots – in 2003. She has worked in a range of nonprofit jobs, but calls this one “a dream opportunity.”
“There is nothing like being part of helping individuals and families learn about their ancestors, share some tips on research, and share the forgotten stories, and their contributions to the communities and the University,” Murphy said. The city and the surrounding counties all played a role in what was going on during those times.
Murphy has built more than 45 family trees, which helps to keep family lines organized. “Now it takes some time meeting descendants, doing the research and verifying the information,” she said.
A Facebook page, “Finding the Enslaved Laborers at UVA,” is a great tool for this work, where Murphy posts items that viewers can see and potentially contact her about. “I am also posting some of the steps I use, questions I ask and challenges that are faced when researching African American ancestry,” she said.
“There are a lot of myths on conducting slave-era research, and this is a way to combat some of those myths,” she said. One misconception is that you can’t find an enslaved ancestor, although it can be difficult if records were not well-kept or destroyed.
Murphy said you have to look where the ancestor was located. If they were enslaved, they were property, so you think of where the property records are and seek them out, she explained.
“One of my tips is to follow the money, land, water, community and the faith of the people,” she said.
“People should know the contributions that were made by enslaved and free laborers and what role their ancestors played. Some of these families probably had no idea their enslaved ancestor even worked on building UVA. They need to know – it’s their history, and it is community history.”