Author: Patricia Miller

editor of Encyclopedia Virginia

Charting the Transformation of Monticello and Public History

The passing of Daniel P. Jordan, the long-time head of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and runs Monticello, is a good opportunity to reflect on the changes that have come to Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home and plantation, as well as the field of public history at large.

Jane Kamensky, the current  president of the foundation, called Jordan  “the most consequential president on the Mountaintop since Jefferson himself.”

Jordan received his PhD in history from the University of Virginia in 1970 and joined the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1985. Read more about: Charting the Transformation of Monticello and Public History


What’s in a Name?

The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors voted on March 1 to rename UVA’s newly renovated main library in honor of Edgar F. Shannon Jr., the university’s fourth president. The move removes prominent eugenicist Edwin A. Alderman’s name from the building. 

Alderman, who was the first president of the university, was a noted educator and champion of the Progressive Movement who was credited with modernizing the structure of the university and increasing professional and technical instruction. Read more about: What’s in a Name?


The Challenges of Getting the Past Right

We at Encyclopedia Virginia value accuracy and getting it right when it comes to telling the story of Virginia’s history and culture. Since we went online in 2008, we have continually refined our processes to ensure that we’re getting it right—or at least as right as is possible for a staff of fallible humans.  Read more about: The Challenges of Getting the Past Right


Remembering the Father of Black History

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s a good time to remember Carter G. Woodson, who is known as the Father of Black history and who in 1926 created the forerunner of Black History Month—Negro History Week.

At the time, the idea that African Americans might have a history worth preserving and studying was radical. Read more about: Remembering the Father of Black History


A “Special Meeting Place” Focuses on Indigenous History

As amazing as it seems for an area that was once home to numerous Native tribes that were part of Tsenacomoco, the Powhatan paramount chiefdom that stretched from the James to the Potomac rivers and west to the fall line, a new Virginia state park in the region is the first to honor Indigenous history in the Commonwealth. Read more about: A “Special Meeting Place” Focuses on Indigenous History


Witches of Virginia

Chances are if you’re thinking about witches this Halloween when a shadow scuttles across the moon or a black cat crosses your path, you’re picturing a woman accused of casting spells or associating with the Devil in the frosty woods of New England. The accused witches of Salem, in what was then the Province of Massachusettes Bay, are the country’s most famous purported practitioners of the dark arts, but Virginia had its own experiences with witchcraft trials. Read more about: Witches of Virginia


Support Encyclopedia Virginia

Encyclopedia Virginia’s September fundraising campaign is underway to raise $10,000 to support free, public access to Virginia history.

While we’ve been fortunate and grateful to receive financial support from a variety of sources throughout our history, projects like ours thrive with reader support. When readers contribute, we can create nuanced, relevant content that helps students, journalists, educators, and everyday citizens understand Virginia’s history and culture. Read more about: Support Encyclopedia Virginia


The “Racial Brain” Collector and the Dark History of Eugenics

A recent Washington Post investigation revealed the extent of the “racial brain collection” amassed by Ales Hrdlicka, the curator of the division of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum, which was a forerunner of the National Museum of Natural History.

Hrdlicka was primarily responsible for gathering some 250 human brains in the early decades of the twentieth century from a network of scientists, physicians, and professors, all in service of proving the biological superiority of white people. Read more about: The “Racial Brain” Collector and the Dark History of Eugenics


The Myth of “Living Off the Land” at Jamestown

In a recent Washington Post article about the Artemis project, which aims to establish a long-term human presence on the South Pole of the Moon, NASA’s Prasun Desai likened the astronauts to “the settlers who came to Jamestown” and “lived off the land.” 

While it’s tempting to think of Jamestown as a proto-Artemis full of intrepid settlers, that was far from the reality, as our entry on the Early Jamestown Settlement makes clear. Read more about: The Myth of “Living Off the Land” at Jamestown


“Third report of a committee of the representatives of New York Yearly Meeting of Friends: upon the condition and wants of the colored refugees.” (May 1864)

In this report, dated May 1864, the Committee on Colored Refugees, who were representatives of the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends, gives its assessment of the needs of the formerly enslaved people escaping behind Union lines and how Quaker charity efforts were meeting them in contraband camps across Virginia, including Alexandria. One of their agents, Harriet Jacobs, wrote her own letter documenting what she saw in Alexandria and Washington, D.C. For Quakers, the abolition of slavery was a moral and religious imperative.


Letter from Sarah Stewart to Dolley Payne Todd Madison (July 5, 1844)

In this letter, dated July 5, 1884, Sarah Stewart, an enslaved domestic at Montpelier, writes to her enslaver, Dolley Madison, reporting that the Orange County sheriff had seized many of the people enslaved by the Madisons to pay their debts. Stewart implores Madison to ask her neighbors to purchase those enslaved people who had been seized to prevent their being permanently separated from their families by slave traders taking part in the domestic slave trade. Ultimately, the enslaved community at Montpelier was largely broken up because of Madison’s financial difficulty.


“Downing and the Fine Collector.” (December 21, 1855)

This article, published in the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator on December 21, 1855, gives an account of the New York state militia mistaking Thomas Downing for a white man of the same name who was trying to escape militia duty, which was required of male citizens between the ages of 18 and 45. At this time, Downing was famous across New York City for his restaurant, community organizing, and activism. The story originally appeared in the New York Evening Post.




Governor’s ‘Crucial Decision’ Program

This is a published version of the speech that Governor Mills Edwin Godwin Jr. gave in January 1968 proposing that the General Assembly revise the state’s constitution and submit a new document to the voters for ratification. Rather than summoning a constitutional convention, he argued that the legislators should authorize him to appoint a Commission on Constitutional Revision, who would revise the constitution. In November 1970, voters ratified the new constitution.


“Suit Seeks End of Virginia Poll Tax for Voting” (December 7, 1963)

In this article, published December 7, 1963, in the Norfolk Journal and Guide, Evelyn Butts states her reasons for filing suit against Governor Albertis S. Harrison Jr. and three Norfolk city employees: the unconstitutionality of the poll tax. Her case was combined with another case under the name Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections, and on March 24, 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the poll tax was unconstitutional. In 1962, as Congress debated the Twenty-Fourth Amendment banning poll taxes in federal elections, Governor Harrison reaffirmed his support for the poll tax in Virginia’s state and local elections.