1880 U.S. census
U.S. Census Bureau

Dear Professor Gates:

Julia Ann Scott (born about 1840, died in December 1893) was my maternal great-great-grandmother, a “mulatto” woman who lived in Lunenburg County, Va. According to her marriage record to Willis Rainey on Aug. 15, 1868, her mother was M. Kensey, but no father was listed. I have suspected for some time that her father was a Virginia state senator and attorney, William J. Neblett (a white man), but I have no real proof. A family story is that when my mother was growing up in Kenbridge, Lunenburg County, Va., descendants of Mr. Neblett referred to my relatives (descendants of Julia Ann) as cousins and would hire the men in my family to work for them.

In my research, primarily on Ancestry.com, I've found that Julia and her children often lived near the children or grandchildren of Mr. Neblett. So, when I found her marriage record I was surprised to find her maiden name was Scott and that her mother was listed as M. Kensey. I’d like to know: Who is M. Kensey, why was Julia's last name Scott, who was her father and what is the connection between my family and the Neblett family? —Bonita Parker, Ph.D.

What we found illustrates the close relationship that the emancipated people and their former owners frequently had in the years following the end of the U.S. Civil War, and the ways old patterns of power and economic interdependency endured.

One common arrangement was sharecropping, under which black people were exploited in a form of “neo-slavery,” as some have described it. Sharecropping was "[a] system in which landlords lease the use of their farmland to tenants, or sharecroppers, in exchange for a percentage of the crop yield,” as described in the encyclopedia Africana (which I co-edited with Kwame Anthony Appiah). At first, some former slaves achieved a measure of financial independence under such agreements, although after the collapse of the Reconstruction period, many of the pacts devolved into less-equitable arrangements in which poor blacks were exploited.

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How Close Were the Scott/Rainey Family and the Nebletts?

You were able to find your ancestors, Willis Rainey and his wife, Julia, in the 1870 U.S. census (available on FamilySearch) in Lochleven, a farming town in Lunenburg County, Va. Despite Julia’s having been enumerated as “Judy,” the location of the family’s residence, the ages of Willis and “Judy,” relatives’ ages, and other points of identification agree, such that you also confirmed their presence in the 1880 U.S. census (available on Ancestry.com, subscription required). 

Also in 1880, the Rainey home was listed on the census shortly after the household of lawyer William J. Neblett, who was white, and whose descendants your family has long suggested were relatives. The fact that Willis and several other black heads of households listed nearby worked on a farm might suggest they worked Neblett’s land.

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One additional note on the 1870 census: Katy Doris, age 7, bore a different surname than either Willis Rainey or Julia, at least as the census records it. This may indicate she was the child of only one of the couple, or neither of them. If she was Julia’s daughter, her last name might indicate an earlier association for Julia you have not previously investigated. You could search for local Doris families to consider this clue further. While we could not find anyone other than Katy named Doris in Lunenburg County in 1870 and 1860, you could continue searching in neighboring Mecklenburg, Brunswick, Nottoway and Prince Edward counties.

The 1870 census was the first federal census made after emancipation; it was the first record of its kind to list all African Americans by name. We searched for the household William J. Neblett, Willis and Julia’s white neighbor in 1880, and found it listed two pages earlier than theirs in the 1870 census. Enumerated then as a farmer and lawyer, from the value of his real estate holdings, $13,500, we find that he probably had the largest farm in the area, despite several other white farmers listed around the Raineys and the Nebletts. 

Just as you probably would if investigating a place in person, we recommend searching census records for a few pages immediately surrounding your ancestors and the people with whom they interacted. Often, relatives and others whose names, occupations, places of birth, or further information might trigger a breakthrough in tracing your roots, were living immediately nearby. 

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In this case (as shown in the graphic below), you can see Lizzie Scott, a 28-year-old, black domestic servant enumerated immediately before the Neblett family. With her, you will see a 2-year-old girl, Caroline Scott, and a 16-year-old young man, George Washington, also listed as a domestic servant, both of whose race was also listed as black.

The following scenario is plausible: As the census enumerator moved from household to household listing each person and each family group, Lizzie Scott might have received him at the door to the Nebletts’ house and provided information about her family immediately before the Neblett family was listed, too. In any case, given your family lore, she could have been a relative of Julia or had a shared history with her. Tracing her to later records, such as a death certificate or those of any children she might have had, could be an avenue for additional research.

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You also found an index entry for the marriage of Willis Raney and Julia Scott on Aug. 15, 1868, in Lunenburg County on Ancestry.com, which you sent to us. We suggest that you seek the original document this entry references, as it would be the first record including your ancestors by name and it likely contains additional useful information: perhaps the name of witnesses, a bondsman or the precise location of the marriage. It can be found on Family History Library microfilm 2,048,460 or in Lunenburg County Marriages volume 23, page 181, line 60. From the index entry at least, Julia’s father was not listed, but her mother was recorded as M. Kensey, as you noted.

The collection Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872 can be searched as more data is gleaned about Julia and her origin. It is ideal for researching male ancestors, but also contains substantial genealogical information about female ones. Unfortunately, at this point, we were unable to confirm any of the records for women named Julia and Julia Ann Scott pertaining to your ancestor; several we found lived in other parts of Virginia.

Did the Nebletts Own the Scotts/Raineys?

The 1850 and 1860 U.S. censuses include slave schedules, enumerations of slaves possessed by each slave owner. Key points of information gleaned from the later censuses and marriage record can be correlated with records in these sources. 

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We recommend that you first search the 1860 census for Lunenburg County Neblett slave owners with a female slave, about 13 years old, possibly listed as a mulatto—in keeping with the information found in the 1868 marriage record, 1870 census and 1880 census record of Julia. You will see in the 1860 slave schedule (via Ancestry.com) that William J. Neblett did indeed own slaves in 1860 matching Julia’s description. Both a 14-year-old black female and a 14-year-old mulatto female were included, as was a 12-year-old mulatto female. Any of these three might well have been Julia. You will also see records which fit the ages and genders of both Lizzie Scott, of uncertain, but possible, relationship to Julia, and a 6-year-old black male who might have been Lizzie’s fellow domestic servant in 1870, George Washington.

Checking other Nebletts to see if they owned slaves might be helpful. In Lunenburg County, you will see a Colin Neblett who owned a 14-year-old mulatto female and also a 17-year-old mulatto female. You will see this on the second page of the lengthy list of slaves he owned, via Ancestry.com (also, look at the first page for leads).

Finally, our search uncovered several Scott slave owners in the schedule of Lunenburg County, but only one of these seemed possibly connected from the 1860 slave schedule records. Edward C. Scott was the major local slave owner by the Scott name (see first and second pages via Ancestry.com. In the population schedule, we find that he was a wealthy farmer in Lewiston (later the county town of Lunenburg), about the same age and with similar property holdings as William J. Neblett.  Several slaves were listed, black and mulatto, who might have been Julia. If Julia was in a Scott household in 1860, it seems likely it was that of Edward C. Scott.

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In the slave schedule of the 1850 U.S. census, black girls ages 3-4 years old were among the slaves of both William J. Neblett and Edward C. Scott. Also, a 2-year-old mulatto girl was listed in Sterling Neblett’s enumeration. (All records available via Ancestry.com.)

Sterling Neblett was the father of William J. Neblett, we find from the digest of legal actions between heirs of Sterling and his sons, Sterling Jr. and William J. Neblett in the Southern Recorder. Frequently, plantation owners and other large landowners appear in such court reports. In this case, it also provides further useful information: that William J. Neblett died with a will, on Aug. 14, 1891. It also provides the dates of death of Sterling Neblett Sr. and his wife, Ann.

Perhaps the best available source of evidence of a relationship between a white slave owner and any children born into slavery are the probate records. With dates of death such as those of the Nebletts, the records of estates can be found. In this case, having occurred after emancipation, Neblett’s slave children would neither be bequeathed as property to his heirs nor emancipated. However, bequests might have been made to them or their family members. Perhaps Lizzie Scott, if not Julia, given her apparent residence with the Nebletts, would have been left property in such a way that might suggest a biological relationship, if not a traditional familial one.

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Lunenburg County probate records are indexed on Family History Library microfilm No. 32,379.  The records themselves may then be ordered from the Family History Library on microfilms Nos. 32,380 through 32,385.

What About Julia’s Mother?

While we did not find M. Kensey (or anyone else named Kensey, Kinsey, McKenzey) in our searches, Lunenburg County and other counties’ probate and deed sources might well include her name among the records, either with Julia’s or separately. In addition to Family History Library microfilms, probate records and deeds can be searched at the Library of Virginia in Richmond, as well as strictly for Lunenburg County in the courthouse registers in Lunenburg. 

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You should seek the probate records of Edward C. Scott, his wife and the Nebletts in these sources to continue this research. In the absence of any probate record suggesting a relationship to Julia, deeds of chattel property were often recorded as well as land property, often naming individual slaves.

Good luck with your search!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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This answer was provided in consultation with Christopher Lee, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.