JMU history students continue to add to Rockingham County historical database

Published: Feb. 12, 2022 at 8:15 PM EST
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) - Since 2017, Rockingham County Circuit Court Clerk Chaz Haywood has partnered with the James Madison University history department to digitize historical documents from the court’s archives as part of the ‘Histories Along the Blue Ridge’ project.

“What I love is that we are having JMU students who are coming in with a strong love of history, and they’re telling the story of local folks that they don’t even have a connection to, so that’s just a global love of history,” said Haywood.

Each semester, graduate students of JMU’s history program partner with Haywood to digitize select archive collections to preserve stories of the county’s history through documents, some of which date back as early as the 1700s.

“One of the great things about the partnership as well is that we’re able to house these things through JMU and the access is free. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, for most clerk’s records, I have to charge you 50 cents a page to see it,” said Haywood.

In the current stage of the project, documents are being added to the Overseers of the Poor collection which highlights the differences in aid offered to struggling white people versus what was offered to struggling black people in the county.

“You could have an apprenticeship that would get you out into a trade if you were white, or you would be indentured as a servant to somebody if you were African American. If people today can’t quite understand what structural racism is, it’s the outcome of that ten years down the road, a generation down the road,” said Dr. Kevin Borg, a history professor at JMU.

The database contains over 2,000 PDF files that were converted from old documents and allows people to search for ancestors or anyone of interest to find any documents their names may be on across all its collections.

Students come up with the collections they want to focus on and create when they begin their part of the project and have created collections ranging from the history of Shenandoah National Park, to election records, to prohibition records.

“Each student is different, each student’s interests, skills, and abilities are different, so this is not a primary workflow approach, this is an educational approach,” said Dr. Borg.

The database can be accessed freely through the JMU libraries’ website and the ease with which people can search for names and historical records has made it popular among residents of the county and those with roots in the area.

Chaz Haywood says he hopes to one day have 80 percent of the court’s records and archives digitized. He adds that the project has also given students valuable experience in the field of history.

“By these students coming in here the other side of that is we’re helping propel them into a career of saving history, of telling the stories of history,” he said.

You can check out the full ‘Histories along the Blue Ridge’ database here.

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