Hands on History: History undergrad student works with slavery records in Fairfax Circuit Court archives

Hands on History: History undergrad student works with slavery records in Fairfax Circuit Court archives

1) Where was your internship and how did you find it?

My internship was at the Historic Records Center of the Fairfax Circuit Court. I first learned about it from a friend who had an internship there last semester. She thought I would be interested, so she invited me to an Archives Day at Fenwick Library where the Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center had a display. While at the Archives Day, I learned what kind of records the Center had and what work I could do with them. At that point, I was excited to apply!


2) What were your main responsibilities on the job?

Initially, I held responsibility for processing old court documents from 1905 and 1906. These papers had been folded up for over a century, so I had to handle them carefully while I unfolded them and put them in a humidification chamber so we could press them flat without damaging them. Then, I would index the already-flattened documents.

After transitioning to virtual work (as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown) in the second half of the semester, I worked on two different projects. In one, I read scanned versions of old chancery cases to see whether the case mentioned slaves. If it did, I marked that in an index so that later on, someone else can go through and create index cards gathering information on each slave and slaveowner. My research contributes to the Slavery Index kept at the Fairfax Courthouse and will help future researchers and family genealogists uncover the past.

In my third project, I used the database HeinOnline to find old versions of Virginia’s law code, which I searched for references to the duties of the Board of Supervisors. I tracked how these duties grew and changed over time. The purpose of this project was to help clear out some of the documents held by the Historic Records Center which actually belong to the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors. There were many documents misfiled like this, because (at least historically) the Clerk of the Circuit Court also served as the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors, and in addition, the Board of Supervisors often met at the Courthouse.


3) What were the most rewarding aspects of your internship?

The most rewarding part was also a pretty intrinsic part of the experience – working to preserve the old documents. It felt so satisfying to start with papers that I sometimes couldn’t even hold flat on the table and end with them as creaseless as if they had been ironed. Knowing how old they were made it feel extra important to handle them

carefully, which also made it that much more worthwhile to complete the process of flattening and filing.


4) What was your biggest accomplishment?

After moving home and switching to distance learning, I struggled for a while to complete enough hours every week. I began to fall behind, but one weekend I caught up by finishing about 16 hours over the weekend, and I’m proud of the fact that I pushed through even though it was draining to work on the same task for so long over those two days.


5) What did your internship teach you about being a professional historian?

This internship taught me how much professional historians use technology, such as electronic databases, to store and process information as well as to conduct analysis and research. This excited me, because even though I’m very happy focusing my studies in the humanities, I also enjoy learning about mathematics and other STEM topics. In fact, during the semester I learned that one of my professors had been involved in starting a Digital Humanities minor at George Mason, and I decided to add this minor partly because my internship showed me how many applications it could have.


6) Did anything surprise you?

The sheer volume of records at the Courthouse surprised me. I hadn’t spent any time in archives before this internship, so I didn’t know what to expect, but there was so much information available there. Though it’s a very cheesy thing to say, I found it kind of awe-inspiring.


7) Is there anything else you would like to share about your internship experience?

At the beginning of the semester, I was nervous about taking this internship as a freshman. The application recommended that applicants be juniors or seniors, and I didn’t know what would be involved in the internship or if I was ready for it. After finishing the internship, I’m very thankful that I had this great opportunity. The experience taught me that it never hurts to try something like this, and it really helped me grow in my academic, professional, and personal life. I’d recommend both this specific internship and also any internship opportunity to interested students, whether freshmen or not.