The scourge of writer’s block was an unwelcome visitor this week, and thumbing through newspaper archives seemed the only remedy for sheer frustration. However, an interesting obituary in the Richmond Planet caught my attention. It featured a brief summary of the life of Mr. Valentine Griffin, an aged and much respected figure in Richmond’s African American community, who passed away on March 16, 1894.
“Died at his residence, 1222 Buchanan St., Friday morning, March 16, 1894, in the seventy-fourth year of his age, Mr. Valentine Griffin. Deceased was born of free parentage in Charles City County, Va., worked as hireling until he became twenty one years of age. He removed to the County of Henrico, and there remained until the beginning of the Civil War. He was pressed into the service of the Confederates in the year of 1862, and placed upon the breast works. Near the close of the year 1863, he left the Confederates and went to the Union Army, and was placed in charge of the Commissary, where he remained until the close of the war.
He was with the Sherman Division in the far South, and it was some time after the surrender before he returned.
In 1866 he removed to his late residence in this city.
He was a member of the church for forty nine years; was a member of the Fidelity Division, Sons of Temperance for twenty years; was a member of the Rising Sons of Zion for thirty eight years, and the Daughters of Messiah for twenty nine years. In all these he was a faithful member.
All who knew him loved him, and he continually added to his host of friends. The principles of honesty, integrity, and sobriety, which were inculcated in childhood, and which are peculiar to and characteristic of himself, grew stronger as he grew to manhood; but in his declining years when nature began to fail him, they remained undaunted and the same; even imperishable shall they live. When he shall have mouldered away in forgotten dust, the philanthropist of ancient or modern times could not have left a richer legacy than he, ever had they their million extended from generation to generation. In tears of regret we leave Valentine Griffin to sleep the sleep of a peaceful citizen and a devout Christian and gentlemen.”
Immediately following the obituary was a testimonial to Mr. Griffin from Spencer T. Hancock.
“Dear Sir: Excuse me if you please. I want to say a word about my friend, Mr. Valentine Griffin. For twenty years I have known well. He was a pure, honest, upright Christian man. His word was as good as his bond. In all of his dealings with me for 20 years he never one time failed to fulfill a promise. If too unwell to attend to it himself, would invariable send a son or daughter.
In speaking of his afflictions to me he would cheerfully remark: ‘I am in the hands of the Lord. He knows best, and all that He does is right.’ I cannot express my feelings as I would wish, but a pure, good Christian man has left us to reap his reward, which I feel must be great. I am past three score and ten, have had dealings with a great many all over the country and never with a more honest, upright, Christian man than Valentine Griffin. What an example the has left for his children. May they follow it. May God bless us all, and may we all pattern after the life of this good man. He was my good friend, and I am proud to say, Valentine Griffin was my friend.”
A man of African descent, born free in 19th-century Virginia, pressed into Confederate service, escaped to Union lines, Sherman’s march to the sea? As a genealogist and confirmed history buff, this was simply too tempting. I had to dig a little deeper.
Half of my paternal ancestors from Virginia were born free from slavery, though that status didn’t necessarily make their lives any easier. One of the many restrictions placed on their freedom was the passage of a law in 1793 that required free African Americans to register every year.
“Free Negroes or mulattoes shall be registered and numbered in a book to be kept by the town clerk, which shall specify age, name, color, status and by whom, and in what court emancipated. Annually the Negro shall be delivered a copy for twenty-five cents. A penalty is fixed for employing a Negro without a certificate; the Negro may be committed to jail. Every free Negro shall once in every three years obtain a new certificate.” (Black Laws of Virginia)
Forced to abide by the punitive measure, at age 21, Valentine Griffin registered with the Charles City County Court in July, 1841, along with siblings John, William Bolling, David, James, Cassandra, and Eliza Ann. His registration read:
“Ordered that it be certified that it appears to the satisfaction of the Court by the testimony of _______that Valentine Griffin (son of Reuben Griffin), a man of dark brown complexion, 21 years old the 15th of April last, five feet six inches high, scar on the fore finger of the left hand, and one or two on the back of the right hand, was born free in this County.”
Valentine’s obituary noted that he moved to Henrico County soon after his twenty-first birthday. Shifting to Henrico County documentation, I located a marriage record for Valentine and Nancy “Lewis or Adams” (per the document), on January 5, 1847. There’s evidence that several family members made the move to Henrico along with Valentine. Between 1851 and 1864, his name regularly appears on lists of free African American registrants with James and William Griffin, who may have been his brothers.
In addition, I located what may be a “free negro” certificate for Valentine’s father, Reuben, who registered at the age of eighty-two in Henrico County Court on April 3, 1848. If correct, Reuben’s date of birth would have been sometime around 1766, which would appear to match the date of birth estimates for Reuben Griffin in the 1810, 1820, 1830, and 1840 Federal Census records of Charles City County, Virginia.
By 1850, Valentine, Nancy, and son Malachi (Malachia), are documented in the Western District of Henrico County, and by 1860, are documented in Henrico’s Eastern Division, with children Joshua, Maria, and Jeremiah.
Valentine’s obituary notes that he was pressed into Confederate service in 1862. I located his Confederate service record. In it, Valentine is described as a “helper, native of Virginia, citizen of Richmond,” and “free negro.”
The use of the term “helper” is interesting; neither Valentine nor most free African American males between the ages of 18 and 50 had much choice in the matter. As the Richmond Dispatch reported on July 17, 1861, “any free negro duly detailed and notified as aforesaid, who shall fail or refuse to obey the requisition as aforesaid, shall be subject to the penalties provided by law for persons drafted from the militia and failing or refusing to obey such draft,” as per the regulations passed by the Virginia Assembly regarding “negro conscription.”
After the war, in the 1870 Census, Valentine is documented in Richmond’s Jefferson Ward, working as a tobacconist. Sons Malachi and Joshua worked in a tobacco factory, and daughters Maria and Sarah, and son Joseph were “attending school.” In 1880, the Griffins were living on N. 20th Street, with Valentine documented as a general laborer, wife Nancy keeping house, son Jeremiah working in a tobacco factory, and daughter Maria listed as a servant.
Spencer T. Hancock, who provided a written testimonial to the Richmond Planet in honor of Valentine Griffin, relayed a wish for Valentine and Nancy’s children to someday “follow his example, “ and if Mr. Hancock meant an industrious life spent serving their community, then by all accounts they did. Son Jeremiah B. Griffin eventually relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he married, and became a pastor. He passed away on March 31, 1910, as a result of a terrible trolley accident, as reported by the Philadelphia Enquirer. He’s buried in Merion Memorial Park, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
Son Rev. Joshua R. Griffin, ordained in 1887, was a shoemaker by trade. He was also a mason, member of the Common Council of Jackson Ward, and later, a trustee and president of the East End Memorial Burial Association. A small biography of Rev. Griffin was carried in an 1895 edition of the Richmond Planet:
“J. R. Griffin was born in Henrico County, October 9, 1853. He sold daily papers during the war. Later he attended night school and also the public schools for several sessions after they were established.
On account of straightened circumstances, he went to work in a tobacco factory. He conceived the idea that he could learn a trade of some kind during his leisure moments, and accordingly served an apprenticeship under Mr. Smith, a shoe-maker who did business on 25th street, and Mr. Patterson (now deceased), who lived also in Church Hill.
In 1880, he went in business for himself____. He has done business within ____blocks of the present location ____May, ’81.
He served on the Republican City ____Committee one term.
He was judge of election of the 4th Precinct, Jackson Ward in1884 in the Blaine and Cleveland campaign when more than 800 suffragans cast their ballots for their choice.
In 1886 he was elected to the City Council when the reform movement swept the city. He was true to the nominees of the caucus, through all the exciting scenes.
In 1892, he was re-elected and served faithfully. He was again elected in 1894, which term he is now serving.
His motto is “Find the right, and stick to it.”
He is a member of Friendship Lodge, No. 19, A. F.M. He is secretary and has served six years. Has served as W. Master for five years.
He is Royal Arch Mason and is now holding the position of High Priest of Mt. Olivet Commandery, Knights Templars. He is now serving a third term as Eminent Commander, being elected consecutively. He served as District Deputy Grand Master three consecutive terms, and as Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of the State of Virginia. He has been superintendent of the Fifth Street Bapt. Church Sunday School since its organization. Although last summer he tendered his resignation it was not received.
He is a man of independent action, carefully weighing facts as presented to him and fearlessly acting in accordance with his convictions. Rarely losing his temper in a controversy, he is influential with those with whom he comes in contact. He is a pleasing speaker and possesses oratorical powers of which he may well be proud.”
Joshua married twice, to first wife Minerva Payne (ca. 1854-1904), and in 1909, to Virginia A. Stewart Miles, widow of Reuben Miles, and daughter of Thomas and Mary Stewart. Rev. J. R. Griffin passed on January 30, 1914, and is buried in East End Cemetery with several family members.
Son Malachia H. Griffin was also active in social welfare and masonic organizations in Richmond, including the Independent Order of Saint Luke. Malachi passed away on February 26, 1905. At the time of his death, he’d just been promoted to the position of watchman at the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. A description of his death and funeral was featured in the March 4, 1905 edition of the Richmond Planet.
“Seldom has there been a greater funeral display than was witnessed last Tuesday afternoon at the First Baptist Church, when Mr. Washington Early and Mr. Malachi Griffin, both faithful and devoted members of the I. O. St. Luke were laid away forever. There were about seventy-five carriages in the procession. One hearse was behind the other, both being preceded be a floral car, containing the costly designs sent by friends of the deceased.
Rev. W. T. Johnson, D. D., and Rev. Z. D. Lewis, D. D., were the principal speakers at the services, while letter after letter of condolences were read from friends and organizations. It was after 6 o’clock before the cortege moved to go to Evergreen Cemetery.
A peculiar feature of the affair was that Mr. Early had been watchman at the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. His death created a vacancy and Mr. Griffin, who was apparently well was elected to succeed him. He went on duty Saturday night and on Sunday morning, he was a corpse, dying suddenly after reaching his residence on North 8th St.
Previous to this Mr. Griffin had made arrangements for draping the hall in memory of Mr. Early and it later transpired that he was draping it for himself as well. The remains of both of them ‘laid in state’ at the St. Luke’s Hall and the funeral just described was the result. Funeral Director William Isaac Johnson had charge of the remains of both of them. Mrs. Maggie L. Walker, the accomplished official of the order was present.”
According to his death record, (George) Washington Early (ca. 1858-Feb. 25, 1905), Malachia’s predecessor, was from Cumberland County, Virginia, and noted as a “night watchman.” He was unmarried at the time of his death. Mary E. Griffin, wife of Malachia H. Griffin, who passed in 1918, is also buried in Evergreen Cemetery with her husband.
One question lingers: just where are Valentine Griffin and his wife Nancy buried? There are three candidate cemeteries, Barton Heights, Evergreen, or East End Cemetery. A trip to the Library of Virginia should sort that out. Until then, I continue to marvel at how one genealogy clue (in this case, an obituary) may illuminate a glorious path of discovery. It introduced me to the Valentine Griffin Family of Richmond, a free family of color from Charles City County, Virginia, and their legacy of social and political service to Richmond’s late 18th-early 19th century African American community.
Albert Jones, United States Colored Troop
“On the out skirts of Portsmouth, Virginia, where one seldom hears of or goes for sight seeing lives Mr. Albert Jones. In a four room cottage at 726 Lindsey Avenue, the aged Civil War veteran lives alone with the care of Mr. Jones’ niece, who resides next door to him. He has managed to survive his ninety-fifth year. It is almost a miracle to see a man at his age as supple as he.
On entering a scanty room in the small house, Mr. Jones was nodding in a chair near the stove. When asked about his early life, he straightened up, crossed his legs, and said, “I’s perty old – ninety six. I was born a slave in Souf Hampton county, but my mastah was mighty good to me. He won’t ruff; dat is ‘f yer done right.”
The aged man cleared his throat and chuckled. Then he said, “But you better never let mastah catch yer wif a book or paper, and yer couldn’t praise God so he could hear yer. If yer done dem things, he sho’ would beat yer. ‘Course he wuz good to me, ‘cause I never done none of ‘em. My work won’t hard neiver. I had to wait on my mastah, open de gates for him, drive de wagon and tend de horses. I was sort of a house boy.”
“Fer twenty years I stayed wif mastah, and I didn’t try to run away. When I wuz twenty one, me and one of my brothers run away to fight wif the Yankees. Us left Souf Hampton county and went to Petersburg. Dere we got some food. Den us went to Fort Hatton where we met some more slaves who had done run away. When we got in Fort Hatton, us had to cross a bridge to git to de Yankees. De rebels had torn de bridge down. We all got together and builded back de bridge, and we went on to de Yankees. Dey give us food and clothes.
The old man then got up and emptied his mouth of the tobacco juice, scratched his bald head and continued. “Yer know, I was one of de first colored cavalry soljers, and I fought in Company ‘K.’ I fought for three years and a half. Sometimes I slept out doors, and sometimes I slept in a tent. De Yankees always give us plenty of blankets.”
“During the war some un us had to always stay up nights and watch fer de rebels. Plenty of nights I has watched, but de rebels never ‘tacked us when I wuz on.”
“Not only wuz dere men slaves dat run to de Yankees, but some un de women slaves followed dere husbands. Dey use to help by washing and cooking.”
“One day when I wuz fighting, de rebels shot at me, and dey sent a bullet through my hand. I wuz lucky not to be kilt. Look! See how my hand is?”
The old man held up his right hand, and it was half closed. Due to the wound he received in the war, that was as far as he could open his hand.
Still looking at his hand Mr. Jones said, “But dat didn’t stop me, I had it bandaged and kept on fighting.”
“The uniform dat I wore wuz blue wif brass buttons; a blue cape, lined wif red flannel, black leather boots and a blue cap. I rode on a bay color horse – fact every body in Company ‘K’ had bay colored horses. I tooked my knap-sack and blankets on de horse back. In my knap-sack I had water, hard tacks and other food.”
“When de war ended, I goes back to my mastah and he treated me like his brother. Guess he wuz scared of me ‘cause I had so much ammunition on me. My brother, who went wif me to de Yankees, caught rheumatism doing de war. He died after de war ended.”
Albert Jones died the morning of February 27, 1940, burned to death in a terrible house fire. Later that day, he was interred in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery by the Home Burial Company. He was 102 years old. As his burial site is currently unmarked, we have submitted the application for a new gravestone. ♦
(Source: WPA Slave Narratives, January 8, 1937)
Born in the Yadkin area of (what is now) Chesapeake, Virginia, Lillian was the daughter of Esau Baines (1878-1967), and Nancy E. Williams (1886-1981). Lillian graduated from I. C. Norcom High School in 1924, and in 1925, enrolled in the Dixie Hospital Training School for Nurses (est. 1891), on the campus of Hampton University. The treasurer of her senior class, Lillian was a proud representative of Portsmouth’s Truxtun community when she graduated from the Dixie School for Nurses in 1928. As the Daily Press reported, the senior class motto was “Not for ourselves, but for the whole world.”
After graduation, Lillian served as a maternity nurse in Norfolk, Virginia. In 1932, she was appointed the official tuberculosis nurse for Portsmouth’s African American community by the City of Portsmouth. Lillian’s daily responsibilities included door-to-door home health visits, where she supplied information and care to those who were sick, and provided comfort for families. Unfortunately, it was a short post, as she succumbed to complications from surgery for a serious ear infection, and died at Kings Daughters Hospital in Portsmouth on January 11, 1933. She was twenty-eight years old.
As the New Journal and Guide reported, her death came as a shock to Portsmouth’s African American community. Members of the Tidewater Nurses Association attended her funeral, which was held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and presided over by Rev. Harvey N. Johnson. Portsmouth’s first African American female funeral director, Nancy Thomas Wheeler, performed the hymn “The Vacant Chair.”
Ms. Baines rests in the Baines Family plot in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, less than fifteen feet from busy Deep Creek Boulevard. ♠
Two more replacement headstones for Civil War veterans have been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They will be installed as time and weather permits. They are:
Cpl. John Cross, 10th United States Colored Infantry
Cpl. John Cross, of the 10th United States Colored Infantry, was born enslaved about 1833 in Gates County, North Carolina, owned by the Langston Family. He escaped in 1863, and enlisted on the fourth of December of that year at Craney Island, Virginia. He mustered in at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on December 17, 1863. He was appointed Corporal on August 1, 1865, and was discharged from service on May 7, 1866, at Galveston, Texas.
John Cross was married to Eliza Robbins, a free person of color also from Gates County, North Carolina, shortly after the war. The ceremony was performed by Rev. William Brock Wellons of the Suffolk Christian Church. Cpl. John Cross passed away on May 29, 1894, and was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). His wife, Eliza Robbins Cross, passed on July 2, 1913. She was also interred in Mount Olive Cemetery, presumably near her husband. Her gravestone has not been located.
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis, 1st United States Colored Cavalry
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis, of the 1st United States Colored Cavalry, was born enslaved in 1842 near Tarboro, Edgecombe County, North Carolina, on the Foxhall Estate. He enlisted on December 3, 1863, at Newport News, Virginia, and mustered in at Camp Hamilton on December 22, 1863. He was promoted to Corporal on April 25, 1864, and promoted to Sergeant on November 26, 1865. He was discharged from service on February 4, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.
After the war, Sgt. Lewis returned to Tidewater, Virginia, and married Josephine Baker, a free person of color from Smithfield, Virginia, on August 21, 1867, Portsmouth. The ceremony was performed by Rev. John W. Godwin, the first pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (est. 1865), Portsmouth.
Sgt. Ashley H. Lewis was also an ordained minister, serving as pastor for First Baptist Church Mahan (est. 1866), Suffolk, Virginia, from 1880-1883, and the second pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church (following Rev. John W. Godwin), from 1885 to 1890, the year of his death. According to information culled from his death certificate and an article from the Baltimore Sun, Rev. Lewis died from complications of apoplexy, or, a cerebral hemorrhage, on the morning of November 29, 1890. His wife Josephine, whose name also appears on the family monument, preceded him in death, passing on August 6, 1890. ♠
How many times have volunteers walked past this headstone, without knowing the full story? Meet Cornelius Riddick, born enslaved in 1845, Norfolk County, Virginia, husband of Mary J. Harrell of Elizabeth City, North Carolina….and member of Company B, 2nd Regiment, United States Colored Cavalry!
Cornelius enlisted on December 22, 1863, at Fort Monroe, Virginia. He fought in several battles, including Suffolk, Virginia, on March 9, 1864, and Drewry’s Bluff, on May 16, 1864. He mustered out on February 12, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas.
After the war, he returned to Virginia and married Mary Jurissa Harrell, daughter of Ennis and Joyette Harrell, on January 22, 1868, in Portsmouth. The ceremony was performed by Rev. John H. Wingfield, of Trinity Episcopal Church. By occupation, Cornelius “worked on the railroad,” likely the Seaboard Air Line Railroad, whose office headquarters were once located in a historic building at the intersection of Water and High Street, before the company relocated to Richmond in the late 1950s. Cornelius passed away on June 22, 1897, from complications of the flu and bronchitis. He was buried in the family plot in Mt. Calvary Cemetery on June 24, 1897. His wife, Mary, passed in 1914, and is buried next to her husband.
As the inscription on Cornelius’ headstone is fading, we’ll see if we can acquire a new one that includes a description of his military service in the Civil War. Fingers crossed! Hopefully we’ll be able to honor this freedom fighter in an appropriate way. ♥
Another freedomfighter discovered in Mt. Olive Cemetery! Meet Pvt. Ephraim Rees (ca. 1844-1928), of Company A, 14th Regiment, United States Colored Heavy Artillery. He was born enslaved in Pitt County, North Carolina, and enlisted on March 9, 1864, at New Bern (Craven County), North Carolina. He mustered out on December 11, 1865, at Fort Macon (near Beaufort, NC).
After the war, he returned to Greenville, Pitt County, North Carolina, and remained there most of his life with his first wife, Mary. After her death, he relocated to Portsmouth, and met and married Lizzie Parker (ca. 1888-1939), daughter of Robert Parker and Jane Riddick. Ephraim passed away on November 28, 1928, and was interred in Mt. Olive Cemetery by funeral director William Grogan.
Interestingly enough, I discovered Pvt. Ephraim Rees by accident; I came across him while researching his brother, who also served in the 14th Regiment, U. S. Colored Heavy Artillery. He’s buried in a historic African American cemetery in Greenville, North Carolina (more on him in a bit). Glad to have found you, Pvt. Rees! ♥
Quite a humbling experience, standing before the gravesite of carpenter, fugitive slave, freedom-seeker, and abolitionist William Craft (ca. 1824-January 27, 1900). I almost missed it. The story of William and Ellen Craft’s escape from slavery is legendary. Read it today: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom (1860).♥
Interesting story on the reclamation of African American history in Nashville, Tennessee, courtesy of the Associated Press.
Archaeologists are rolling high-powered radar gear through the thick outfield weeds and empty parking lots of an abandoned Nashville baseball stadium, looking for hints of unmarked graves of slaves and free black men who died building the war-battered fort next door.
The findings could prove pivotal for Fort Negley, one of the most significant Civil War sites for African-Americans and the focus of the latest clash between historic preservation and growth in a city with a complicated racial past.
The booming capital, which adds about 100 residents a day, is considering plans to demolish the ballpark for 21 acres of housing, shops, space for artists and musicians, and a park.
Dilapidated Greer Stadium, a minor-league baseball park from 1978 until 2014, sits where the fort’s black laborers toiled, lived and died a century and a half ago, and where 50 to 800 workers are thought to be buried. But there’s little in the written record about how they were laid to rest.
Fort Negley was named a threatened cultural landscape earlier this year. In August, Fort Negley Park launched a social media project to honor the 2, 771 African American laborers who built the fort and other Civil War fortifications in Nashville. Via their twitter page, the names of the men impressed into service are being released in individual tweets. The project will culminate in mid-December. A complete, digitized index of all laborers, free and enslaved, and names of associated slave owners may be found here. ♦
New U. S. Colored Troop discovery in Calvary Cemetery. Meet Private Edward (Edmond) Bray. He was a member of Company B, 2nd Regiment, U. S. Colored Cavalry. Born enslaved in North Carolina, he escaped to Union lines and enlisted at Fort Monroe, Virginia, on December 22, 1863. As per his military record, he was involved in the battles of Suffolk, Drewry’s Bluff, and New Market Heights, Virginia, in 1864. He mustered out on February 12, 1866, at Brazos Santiago, Texas, with the surviving members of his regiment. Later in life, he married, and settled in the Tanners Creek District of Norfolk County, the same area where one of our forebears landed in 1763, which was annexed by the City of Norfolk in 1955. Pvt. Bray passed away on January 5, 1926. Soon after, his wife, Mary, passed on August 7th. She is also interred in Calvary Cemetery. ♣