A local historian’s quest to document the region’s African American history

Part One of a Two Part series: Culpeper Star Exponent, May 28, 2017

Note: this article is offered as a bit of background on our founder Zann Nelson and the path that lead her to the current work.


Elizabeth Ann Nelson has always had an interest in history and, more importantly, the people who make it.

At the age of 6, driving an old 8N Ford tractor around her family’s farm, the little girl now known as “Zann” grew up with a strong sense of curiosity and rugged work ethic under the thumb of a father who encouraged judging a person not by the color of their skin or the content of their wallet but by the strength of their character.

Nelson moved to the family’s 152-acre homestead in Reva at age 2 with her father, the late Jack Nelson, and her three older brothers. Her dad, a pilot with Pan American, needed help to keep the farm in good shape, and most of the workers were African-American from around the Reva and Shanktown areas of Culpeper County.

But the little girl who loved horses and diligently completed her chores—she even steered the tractor as her brothers tossed on hay bales—remained color blind.

“Those people we worked with were our neighbors and constituted much of our community and our daily life,” said Nelson.

Now Nelson works tirelessly to piece together histories for people with missing leaves—or even branches—in their family trees, an all-too-common situation for many black families whose family records become difficult, or near-impossible to locate prior to the Civil War.

From farmer to ‘detective’

For more than two decades, as her first career, Nelson continued to run the family business, raising livestock, breaking horses for the track and show ring, training riders and and rising early to manage the never-ending maintenance needs of a working farm.

She also raised two children, Jessica and Nathan.

As a grassroots organizer for area political campaigns, Nelson would occasionally visit Caanan Baptist Church in Reva with little Nathan in tow. There, they’d see Laura Hoffman, one of the women who worked on the Nelson farm.

“She was always like a sister,” said Laura’s daughter, Florence.

That relationship continued, and Nelson always made sure Hoffman, now 105, could find ways to spend time with her sister, Dolly, in New York even acting as the chauffeur so she could attend Dolly’s 100th birthday. She also arranged for Hoffman to meet President Barack Obama as a “birthday present” in honor of her own 100th.

“Zann’s such a good person,” said Florence. “Anything we couldn’t do, she would do.”

That included tracing Hoffman’s genealogy, something Nelson readily offers to do whenever a mystery exists or it’s too a difficult task for the curious.

Nelson’s path to historical research and writing began with a series of oral histories she’d heard from friends. A 12-year stint as director of the Museum of Culpeper History fed her interest as she set out to document and expand the tales people shared.

“The stories were intriguing,” said Nelson. “It seemed that no matter the content, be it incredible struggles or tragedy, there was always a positive moral of faith and fortitude. I felt compelled to continue the work and share the stories.”

But it was the hunt for the grave of young Allie Thompson, murdered by a Culpeper lynch mob in 1917, and denied the true account of his life and death by both the local officials and newspaper that cemented Nelson’s new avocation as an investigator.

That six-month search in 2005 even found Nelson trudging through the woods in the northern part of the county and won her and the Culpeper Star-Exponent a prestigious Associated Press Award.

“I’ve been researching Allie’s tragedy off and on ever since,” she said. “The story continues to haunt me. It simply is not finished.”

Connecting the dots

The Rev. Darryll Crump, president of the Orange County African American Historical Society, said what Nelson does is “a calling.”

Although he hasn’t yet been able to trace his whole lineage, he’s now aware that there were Crumps in Orange County during the Civil War and he’s excited to see where more genealogical research might lead.

“She’s found so many people,” Crump said of Nelson. “She’s discovered that a lot of people didn’t know they were descended from slaves.”

Nelson has also set the historical record straight, on numerous occasions.

One of her more celebrated accomplishments was correcting the name and birthplace records of Culpeper County native and National Baseball Hall of Famer Pete Hill. Hill, born in the village of Buena, near Rapidan, to a mother who’d been a former slave, proved a standout line-drive hitter and centerfielder in the Negro League and was posthumously honored in Cooperstown, New York.

In 2006, she began writing weekly columns for the Star-Exponent and for the Orange County Review in 2016. Sometimes she presents a light-hearted or humorous take on life on the farm and other times she maps out her dogged pursuit of pieces to fit into a historical puzzle. She writes exclusively about African American history for the Review.

Through the research department at James Madison’s Montpelier, another quest began. A folder and items provided to the foundation by New York resident Clara Payne piqued Nelson’s interest for more information about Payne’s background and launched an enduring friendship.

Payne, 95, spent the first seven years of her childhood in Orange County. A mini-sleuth herself, she often rummaged through the trunks in her family’s attic, collecting primary source material about her family.

Unable to attend school because of the color of her skin, she spent time listening to the oral history of her ancestors. She learned to read by matching words to pictures in the Sears & Roebuck catalog. And one day, a “white lady” gave her the stub of a pencil.

“I started writing all of our names and the words I knew in the margins of the catalog,” she said.

Many of Payne’s early relatives were horsemen and several participated in the Orange Colored Horse Show. The family’s original 15-acre property sold in 2015 and a cemetery, where a young Clara remembers playing, remains on the site.

In 1929, Payne’s family moved to New York after her grandmother died. Although she couldn’t attend college, she worked for one, first as a secretary and then in the office of student enrollment. She often audited classes, bringing her lunch, picking a topic to absorb for the day, and slipping into the back row. Payne was also able to travel across the globe acting as a chaperone for the students.

She married Arthur, a CPA, in 1946 and the couple had three boys – David, Dennis and Darryl, her sole remaining living child.

And when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last September, Nelson was right there with Payne to celebrate the Smithsonian building solely dedicated to highlighting the contributions of the country’s African Americans.

Payne has nothing but praises to sing for the many thousands of hours Nelson has put into archiving the history of the region’s African-American residents.

“It’s really a privilege that she’s doing this for us,” Payne said. “She’s been able to get through where maybe we couldn’t get through. She’s accepted.”

And through her research and writing, Nelson has become the go-to source for questions about “anything Culpeper and anything Orange.”

“She’s so very energetic about everything she does,” said Crump. “I think it’s going to have an impact in the area—and it’s going to change us.”

Identity denied

Nelson’s current “cold case” project began heating up this winter.

As the director of the African American Descendants’ Project for James Madison’s Montpelier Foundation, Nelson has been tasked with strengthening the alliance between area African American communities and Montpelier and identifying living descendents of those who had been enslaved by the Madisons or in Orange County.

Her current goal? Putting names to 16 enslaved Virginians sold in 1834 by the Madison estate to a sugar plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana, and the search for any living descendents.

With no surnames, no travel manifest, no bill of sale, only a few bits of correspondence and one given name—Betty—Nelson began delving into the mystery with her typical gusto and attention to detail.

Nelson said that Montpelier remains committed to interpreting a comprehensive and accurate account of African American history from slavery to the continued struggles for equality.

And she’s grateful for, and humbled by, the opportunity to work with the institution.

“It’s not all about altruism on my part,” Nelson said of her adventures in sleuthing. “I find the work, the people and absolutely the stories of not just survival but achievement on many levels to be inspirational to me personally. It has been an amazing gift to receive.”

Montpelier’s Vice President for Museum Programs Elizabeth Chew said Nelson’s work is more essential now than ever.

“Often for our white visitors, slavery is something that ended,” Chew said. “Slavery is personal. It’s not historical at all—it’s very much in the present.”

» NEXT: With only a few clues, Nelson travels to Pointe Coupee Parish near New Orleans to scour documents and meet with local residents in her quest to return names to the 16 enslaved people shipped from Montpelier to Louisiana.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *