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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · June 29, 2016

What’s in a Name: Or, Who Put the Omohundro in the Institute of Early American History and Culture

7 min read

by Alexandra Finley

I originally encountered the name Omohundro during my first year of graduate school, when I was an editorial apprentice at the Institute. During our training, then-director Ron Hoffman met with the apprentices to tell us the history of the organization, including how it came to be the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Dr. Hoffman regaled us with stories of the man whose financial contributions to the Institute brought about the change in title, Malvern Hill Omohundro, Jr. M.H., as he was called, was a native of Virginia and a graduate of William & Mary who maintained an active interest in American history. At his death in 1999, M.H. selected the Institute as the primary beneficiary of his considerable estate, which he had accumulated through the real estate market in Richmond.

It was in Richmond that I came across a very different but connected Omohundro, Silas, whose story would change the course of my graduate career. Just a few weeks after learning about Malvern Hill Omohundro, I found myself in the reading room of the Library of Virginia, pouring over the antebellum account book of Silas Omohundro, slave trader. Fellow native Virginian Silas Omohundro worked as an agent of the notorious slave-trading firm of Franklin & Armfield in the 1830s before operating his own slave jail in Richmond in the 1840s and 1850s. In the apt words of William Wells Brown, Silas made “a fortune by trading in the bones, blood, and nerves, of God’s children.”[1]

Silas’s Market and General Account Book, a detailed record of his credits and debits from 1855 to 1864, tells part of the story that captured my attention as a young historian. In between entries for shackles and other accoutrements integral to the violent business of selling people, Silas wrote down semi-regular payments of cash and gold, to a woman he referred to first as “C.H.” and later as Corinna. Throughout the 1850s, Silas purchased for Corinna, who was also the mother of six of his children, expensive dresses, jewelry, and a costly set of false teeth. Alongside gifts to Corinna, Silas wrote down the money he spent on his children with her: school tuition, apples, tickets to see a hot air balloon. From the perspective of Silas’s financial accounts the Omohundros looked like any other early nineteenth-century family. It was almost impossible to tell that Corinna, the mother of Silas’s children, was also his slave.[2]

The Market and General Account Book thus only tells part of the story. While the tallies and hastily scrawled numbers in Silas’s account book preserve Corinna’s name, there is much left unanswered. An entry from 1856 for “Bill of Negro Clothing to Corinna” for $391 highlights the important role that Corinna’s domestic labor played in Silas’s business, but not the physical and emotional toll that labor took on Corinna. We know that Silas regularly gave money to Corinna to “make market” but not where she went to shop, or if those brief errands gave her any sense of escape or independence. Least of all do we know what it meant for Corinna when Silas recorded in 1858 “Buriel Expences for my Still Born child” and then “Cash to [the midwife] Mrs. Brown for visiting Corinna.”

It is these questions that guide me as a historian and encourage me to transcribe another almost-illegible letter or cryptic ledger. Similar questions and issues guide the work of the Omohundro Institute – questions of race, freedom, unfreedom, and gender–and its affiliated scholars. It is also through these questions that the Omohundro family and the Omohundro Institute are most connected. The money that Malvern Hill Jr. left to the Institute has a lineage that partially goes back to the slave trade. M.H.’s grandfather, John B. Omohundro, was Silas’s brother. It is only appropriate that the same money should fund research that uncovers stories like that of Corinna.

I would like to suggest, then, that the Omohundro in front of Institute of Early American History and Culture call to mind not only the elite French Huguenot family that settled in Virginia in the 1670s but also Corinna Hinton, who after Silas’s death in 1864 consistently signed her name “Mrs. Corinna Omohundro” in legal efforts to collect all the inheritance due her from his estate.[3] Corinna’s story most accurately reflects the questions that guide early American historiography today, as well as the complicated legacy of slavery and the Atlantic and antebellum U.S. slave trades. If Omohundro can bring to mind Corinna’s story, then we as historians are doing justice to the name and profitably employing Malvern Hill Jr.’s bequest.

[1] William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter” a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (London: Partridge & Oakey, 1853), 4.

[2] General Market and Account Book, Silas Omohundro Business Records, Library of Virginia

[3] Richmond City Chancery Court Case File 494, Omohundro’s executor v. Omohundro, John Marshall Court House, Richmond, Virginia

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