Historian Unearths Unlikely Stories

Historic preservation major Emmanuel Dabney is museum curator for Petersburg National Battlefield, overseeing objects including this  field desk owned by Union Army doctor Edward Barry Dalton. Dabney has been fascinated by the Civil War since he was in fourth grade.

By Emily Freehling

Growing up in Dinwiddie County, Emmanuel Dabney ’08 couldn’t have avoided Civil War battlefields if he’d tried.

“I literally grew up a mile away from part of the Petersburg National Battlefield,” he said.

Dabney, who works for the National Park Service as museum curator at Petersburg National Battlefield, traces his fascination with Civil War history to fourth grade.

“It hooked me, and it has not let go,” he said.

A high school guidance counselor recommended Mary Washington, and after two years at Richard Bland College in Petersburg, Dabney transferred to UMW as a historic preservation major.

These days, Dabney says his fellow preservation majors are an invaluable network for troubleshooting professional problems and questions.

“I feel like we are all able to provide each other support,” he said.

After graduation, Dabney earned a master’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Then he returned to the Civil War site that had captivated him as a child.

He started in Petersburg as a seasonal interpretation ranger and worked his way up over the years.

Dabney enjoys helping people to understand the complexities of how the Civil War affected Americans on a human level. The artifacts he curates help him tell the stories of how plantation families, enslaved people, soldiers, and civilians lived and died throughout the tumultuous period.

Dabney has furthered that mission with his own research on the family of Silas Omohundro, a white Richmond slave trader whose wife, Corinna Omohundro, was enslaved.

Dabney said the story stopped him in his tracks when he first encountered it in a book about Civil War Richmond.

“After grad school, I said, ‘Let me go back to this and figure out how this woman was able to make sense of her world,’ ” he said. “And this man, who is supporting his family by buying and selling people just like his family … is not able to come to any sort of thought process that this is morally reprehensible.”

Dabney did archival research and spoke with descendants of the Omohundro family to better tell this complex story of how slavery affected American life. He continues to travel to lecture about the story, and recently he visited Mary Washington to speak to a historic preservation class taught by Lauren McMillan ’08.

“I hope my work in talking to people about these things is enabling them to have better conversations about who we are as Americans, and that we include all of the people in America in those conversations,” he said. “People may have different perspectives about how we got to where we are in our present day, and it’s valuable to listen and exchange ideas in a manner that is grounded in historical record.”


  1. One of the best historians we have worked with and an even better person. He represents your institution with class.

  2. A wealth of knowledge and an amazing man. Very proud to call Mr. Dabney a friend!

  3. Giles Parker says

    As the NPS Regional Museum Curator for the Northeast and MWC grad, imagine my pride in finding one of our best and brightest (and UMW grad) spotlighted. Emmanuel has consistently demonstrated leadership in the preservation and care of the Petersburg collection, and now serves as a representative on our regional Cultural Resources Advisory Group! Kudos UMW for producing our next generation of stewards! Kudos Emmanuel on being a role model for the next generation of NPS Curators!

  4. Stephen Wilson, '94 says

    Excellent article; way to go Emmanuel! I also transferred from Richard Bland College to UMW, so go RBC and UMW! Keep up the excellent work at the NPS.

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