Maddy McCoy’s passion for genealogical connections has some extremely personal roots. The Fairfax City resident, who is compiling a Slavery Inventory Database for Fairfax County, was influenced, in part, by a search for her own family history.
An adopted child, McCoy, 36, began searching for her own birth family in her late 20s, after the birth of son Ronan Taylor, now almost 10 – which, statistically, is fairly typical, she says.
“Having the right to know one’s identity … one’s kin … resonated with me. It naturally fit,” says McCoy about her affinity for the now 2-year-old project.
The experience of discovering her own mostly Welsh roots was seriously grounding and powerful, says McCoy, a trained researcher and certified historic preservationist.
For African Americans, this kind of identity-confirming research is especially difficult because of “the wall of slavery.” Written records pertaining to African Americans and their families prior to the Civil War are rare and incomplete, according to McCoy.
McCoy has found great interest in the results of her work and a demand for a network of information that is “a coherent, organized reference.”
Although documentation is critical for authenticating oral histories, the “backbone” of the project, McCoy says, is the input of African-American families who live or have lived in Fairfax County.
An important tool in gathering this information is a “Family History Questionnaire,” which “often provides vital clues that cannot be found anywhere else,” she says.
Matching a family’s personal stories with written documentation is like solving a “massive puzzle.” But when she is able to make those connections, it is extremely satisfying, McCoy says, and makes for “a lot of WOW moments.”
Members of the Fairfax County History Commission were sufficiently wowed by the project to award McCoy – who is doing the database as a volunteer – a $3,000 grant this past summer to continue her work.
Before the database was started, there was no centralized way for people of African-American descent in Fairfax to trace their ancestry, says Sallie Lyons, a commissioner representing the Mount Vernon District. She describes the database as “the Holy Grail” for connecting living people with their slave ancestors.
Lyons, a Mason Neck resident, expects that the gaps filled by the database will not only be meaningful to regional history but eventually will also become part of an important national network.
“As painful as some of this history is, it needs to be told. It’s part of Americana,” says fellow history commissioner Anne Barnes.
The project got its start when Virginia Room librarian Brian Conley turned McCoy on to the controversy surrounding Fairfax’s Guinea Road cemetery, a hub of African-American life in Fairfax County in the late 1700s.
“One day Brian gave me the Guinea Road cemetery file; I was up to 3 a.m. reading it,” McCoy says.
When the Virginia Department of Transportation wanted to widen the road in the area of Little River Turnpike and Guinea Road in the City of Fairfax, VDOT disputed the existence of a cemetery for slaves from the Fitzhugh Plantation. It took a long time for archaeologists to get involved, according to McCoy.
But in spring 2006, VDOT workers and archaeologists exhumed the remains of more than 30 people, including children. In August of the same year, the remains – which were first studied at Radford University – were reburied under a historic plaque in Pleasant Valley Memorial Park, a cemetery in Annandale.
The Slavery Inventory Database project began with McCoy’s research into the identities of the individuals buried in the cemetery on Guinea Road.
Two years later, McCoy’s zealous pursuit of the histories of Fairfax County’s African-American families, the sites of their communities and the “hundreds of graveyards in this area that were obliterated by development” has earned her a bit of a reputation. "
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