by Karin Wulf
Over the years people have wondered about the name “Omohundro.” Many have asked about the derivation of the name itself and about why the OI carries the name. But there are always questions, too, about how the Omohundro name might be connected to the early Virginia economy that was dependent on the exploitation of enslaved people. That last question—not addressed on the OI’s website as the others are– and the conversations it has prompted over the last months (and in particular at the annual meeting of the OI’s Executive Board and Council in early May 2016) are the impetus for this post.
This is an overdue season of reckoning for many institutions complicit in the economy of transatlantic slavery and in other, often related, economies of oppression and dispossession. As institutions of higher education have recently and prominently wrestled with how to address and learn from their histories, historians have played an important role just in the last year at such places as Harvard Law School and Georgetown University, and more than a decade ago at Brown University. President of the Mellon Foundation Earl Lewis wrote about how “we cannot exorcise the past without confronting it fully.” These confrontations are not meant to resolve a difficult history, but rather to engage it; the American Historical Association’s Executive Director Jim Grossman observed that it is incumbent on us “to keep that past in direct conversation with the present.”
Founded in 1943 as the Institute of Early American History & Culture, the OI was renamed in 1996 to mark a bequest from Malvern Hill Omohundro Jr (known as M. H.) and his wife, Elizabeth “Libby” Overbey Omohundro. M. H. had been a student at William & Mary in the 1920s, but did not complete his degree; accounts suggest that the urgency of Depression-era family economics took him to New York to begin a business career. He came back to Richmond and was in first the fine arts trade and then real estate, both ventures he joined in with his brothers. M. H. began supporting the OI in the 1970s; my predecessor as Director, Ron Hoffman, and his, Thad Tate, each enjoyed getting to know him. With the money he made after the Depression, M.H. was generous to the OI as well as other organizations.
M.H. did not build his twentieth-century fortune on slavery or the slave trade, but the history of a privileged Virginia family is often connected in any number of ways to the economy that privileged them. M. H.’s paternal great-uncle, Silas Omohundro, was a Richmond-based slave owner and slave trader. After working for the large slave-trading firm of Franklin & Armfield in Alexandria, Silas resettled in Richmond, where he operated “a middling slave trade from a boardinghouse and private jail.” Silas and others of his family began to buy extensive real estate in Virginia and elsewhere; fraught and ultimately litigated contracts among family members during and after the Civil War as well as controversy over the settlement of his estate suggest the complexity of his finances.
Silas owned but also married, had children with, and willed the bulk of his estate to Corinna Hinton Omohundro. His accounts are held at the Library of Virginia, and a number of scholars have used these and other sources including court cases instigated during the estate settlement to write about Silas, his business, and his family. In this space you’ll shortly hear from Alexandra Finley, a Ph.D. student here at William & Mary and a dissertation fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies; she wrote an M.A. thesis on the Silas Omohundro family and is now completing her dissertation on the racialized entwining of sex, family, and finance in antebellum Virginia.
The Omohundro family was, like so many others, implicated in the economy of slavery through both owning and trading human beings as commodities. On the eve of the Civil War more than a quarter of free families in Virginia owned slaves. The Omohundro Institute is not named for someone who directly participated in slavery. Still, the name rightly challenges us for its echo of privilege founded on racial hierarchy and a legacy, if not the wealth itself, of that privilege.
But the Omohundro name also challenges us for reasons that are historically and culturally specific–namely, because in a western European tradition we “name” families patrilineally. The Omohundro Institute must consider the implications of Silas Omohundro’s history because his great-nephew, his brother’s grandson, shared that name. Thinking about the historical context of family histories and family memories is a research interest of mine; I’ve written about the ways that eighteenth-century British Americans wrote and performed their families’ stories and that the state compelled family histories through legal and other practices. As interesting to me as the ways that early modern people construed family connections are the ways that we continue to think about the significance of lineage.
In 1951 M.H.’s father, Malvern Hill Omohundro, Sr. published a weighty tome, almost 1300 pages, The Omohundro Genealogical Record; The Omohundros and allied families in America; blood lines traced from the first Omohundro in Westmoreland County, Virginia, 1670, through his descendants in three great branches and allied families down to 1950. In this Genalogical Record Omohundro noted that Corinna Hinton Omohundro was Silas Omohundro’s third wife, though her age and maiden name were incorrect and her race and enslaved status were unremarked.
Of course all families are more than a patriline. M.H.’s maternal great-aunt, Elizabeth Van Lew, was, in the words of her principal biographer, Elizabeth Varon, “a rare elite white southern abolitionist.” Van Lew headed a Union spy ring in the Confederate capital of Richmond during the Civil War and in the assessment of George Sharpe, the Union’s head of military intelligence, “for a long, long time she represented all that was left of the power of the U.S. government in the city of Richmond.” Varon observes that Sharpe’s was “a remarkable statement for a nineteenth-century man to make about a nineteenth-century woman.”
The Van Lews came from Philadelphia, and Elizabeth was educated there—it’s cited as a source of her antislavery views. Elizabeth Van Lew’s legacy as an abolitionist and insurgent during the war was extended afterwards. As the appointed postmaster in Richmond, she employed black men and women much as she had done during her days as a spymaster. But her record on race is not straightforwardly progressive either. She too owned slaves; she may have been influenced by their views, and she may have secretly freed many. She was also enthusiastic about schemes to send formerly enslaved people back to colonies in Africa, and she may or may not have sent one of her most trusted allies among her slaves, Mary Richards, to Liberia and then called her back into slavery and service as a spy. Maggie Lena Walker was born in Van Lew’s house, where her mother had been a slave, was likely freed and remained for a time to work as a cook.
Does it make a difference that the OI’s Mr. Omohundro shared a family background with both slaveowners and abolitionists, a slave-trader and a Union Spy in the capital of the confederacy? I think it does, not because Silas Omohundro’s slave-trading is somehow balanced by Elizabeth Van Lew’s abolitionism, but because both are emblematic of the many ways that ideologies of race saturated the early American past. It reminds us that as historians the most important, urgent work we do is to conjure the past contexts that have shaped our own. There are not single or linear paths from the past to our present or future, but there are critical dynamics that have shaped who and what we are as individuals, communities—and institutions.
The Omohundro Institute has a long tradition of supporting and publishing scholarship exploring important and varied histories of race and slavery in early America. In the October 2012 William and Mary Quarterly Annette Gordon-Reed reviewed the OI’s 2nd edition of Winthrop Jordan’s White over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812. Gordon-Reed first read White over Black a few years after it was first published by the OI in 1968 during a Texas summer when she was only twelve years old. “White over Black was the first serious history book I had ever read,” she wrote, “and it suggested to me a model of how one might go about writing history.”
Not every work of scholarship can claim to have inspired such a precocious reader, and one who would write Pulitzer-winning scholarship herself on race, slavery and the American national founding, but Jordan’s and other OI books and the extensive scholarship published in the WMQ have informed and inspired scholars and scholarship for seven decades. Supporting scholars and scholarship is what the OI does and does best—it is our core mission. Supporting scholars and scholarship on the rich diversity of Vast Early America has been an increasingly important priority. The challenge and the opportunity of reflecting on the Omohundro legacy, however, requires us to ask what more we can do, and what we can do differently.
The Omohundro Institute is an institution with a history; it is also a community with enormous potential. In the next months I will be sharing with you some of what this community is doing in reflection and with respect for that history. This will include a different form of fellowship support, and a local project on race and slavery. It will include ongoing conversations here and elsewhere on our website, at our conferences, and in our publications about the many forms of diversity and the many histories of which our scholarship is, and as scholars we are, a part.
The OI’s 75th anniversary in 2018 is always in my sights. M. H. made a substantial contribution to the Omohundro Institute for its 50th anniversary, the language of which is quite simple: he wanted this gift to serve “the most pressing needs” of the organization. It is a pressing need, as we aim toward 2018, to be good historians not only of the early American past, but of our own organization. I have no doubt that we will look back to this moment and find that we did some things of enduring value, and others that we wish we had done better. The mistake I am determined we will not make is to leave these issues unexamined.