JMU History Students Continue to Add to Rockingham County Historical Database

HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — Since 2017, Rockingham County Circuit Court Clerk Chaz Haywood has partnered with James Madison University’s History Department to digitize historical documents from the court’s archives as part of the “Histories Along the Blue Ridge” project.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 have JMU students who come in with a strong love of history, and they tell the stories of local people that they don’t even have a connection to, so it’s just a global love story,” Haywood said.

Each semester, graduate students from JMU’s history program partner with Haywood to digitize select archival collections to preserve stories of the county’s history through documents, some dating back to the 1700s.

“One of the benefits of this partnership is also that we can host these items through JMU and access is free. In the Commonwealth of Virginia, for most clerk’s records, I have to charge you 50 cents per page to see it,” Haywood said.

At the current stage of the project, material is being added to the Overseers of the Poor collection that highlights the differences in the help available to struggling white people versus what was available to struggling black people in the county.

“You could have an apprenticeship that would lead you to a trade if you were white, or you would be hired as someone’s servant if you were African American. If people today can’t quite understand what structural racism is, it’s the result of those ten years later, a generation later,” said history professor Dr Kevin Borg. at JMU.

The database contains over 2,000 PDF files that have been converted from ancient documents and allows people to search for ancestors or anyone of interest to find documents on which their names may appear in all of its collections.

The 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, it’s an educational approach,” said Dr. Borg .

The database is freely accessible through the JMU Libraries website, and the ease with which people can search for historical names and records has made it popular among county residents and those with roots in the area.

Chaz Haywood says he hopes one day 80% of court records and archives will be digitized. He adds that the project also gave the students valuable experience in the field of history.

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

You can view the full “Stories Along Blue Ridge” database here.

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