In Their Own Words: Voices of African American WWI Veterans

On Sunday, November 11, 2018, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the technical end of World War I, was observed by our nation and many countries throughout the world. As with other major historical events, I viewed the day through the lens of a historian and genealogist. It can be quite an interesting enterprise; as a historian, you want to know all of the facts of an event, and as a genealogist, you’re eager to place your ancestors within the context of those events. 

Over the years, our family has located the grave sites of many of our ancestors that served in World War I. We’ve tracked them to historic African American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Richmond and Suffolk in Virginia, Buncombe, Franklin, Henderson, Hertford, and Warren counties in North Carolina, and Knoxville National Cemetery in Tennessee.

At times, whether simply visiting their gravesites, or planting flags, I’d find myself staring down at the stones, and wondering what their WWI experience was like. Sure, I could review the details of the various battles and engagements in books, or read first-person accounts from some of the more famous veterans, but those sources wouldn’t tell me what my ancestors thought, nor how they felt about the war.

That’s why I was so excited to learn about the WWI History Commission questionnaires, many of which have been or are currently being digitized by local and state libraries. A historical window into the minds and memories of long-deceased ancestors? Perfect!

Colored Soldiers Attention – The Virginia War History Commission has decided to place record of the achievements of the colored soldiers from Virginia in the World War in the volumes with the record of the white soldiers, for this purpose of Board of Negro Collaborators has been appointed to collect this data. Headquarters have been established at the Mechanics Savings Bank building and all persons knowing of persons, who distinguished themselves abroad will send their names and addresses to Prof. T. C. Erwin, Secretary, Mechanics Savings Bank Building, Richmond, Va. As there is but a limited time to secure this information all persons are urged to act at once. It will be very unfortunate if this history should be published and the colored troops not recognized in the compilation due to negligence or failure to send in the information. Questionnaires may be obtained for the asking by sending for the same as indicated. Write at once and help this worthy cause.

The Richmond Planet, Saturday, April 24, 1920

During a two-day visit to the Library of Virginia, I eagerly reviewed reels of microfilm, looking for any applications that our ancestors submitted to the commission. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any at all, and felt the familiar feeling of smacking into another genealogy “brick wall.” However, amidst my disappointment, I noticed something else; some of the veterans had chosen to fill out their applications thoroughly, supplying detailed answers to questions about their views on religion, the war, and (if relevant) their combat experience. I paid close attention to applications submitted by veterans that lived in the same neighborhoods as my ancestors, and have included a small portion of them here.

Richmond, Virginia

Pvt. Otis P. Robinson (1890-1918) – Company B, 545 Engrs

Original gravesite of Pvt. Otis P. Robinson, American Cemetery, St. Nazaire, France, 1918. Library of Virginia

Otis Purcell Robinson was born on March 2, 1890 in Richmond, Virginia. He was the son of William T. Robinson and Victoria Edmonds, who are both interred in Evergreen Cemetery. He was the brother of Carrie Gustava Robinson Harris Gladden (1880-1948), William Bernard Robinson (ca.1884), Oscar C. Robinson, and Julian Merchant Robinson (ca. 1889).

Prior to World War I, Pvt. Robinson worked as a porter, and general laborer with the British American Tobacco Company (est. 1902). He was a member of Sharon Baptist Church. He enlisted on June 5, 1917, and left for Europe on September 23, 1918 aboard the Rijndam, a Dutch-owned vessel built in Ireland in 1901, acquired by the U. S. Navy for troop transport on May 1, 1918. 

Sometime during the voyage to Europe, Otis P. Robinson contracted pneumonia, and died on October 15, 1918. He was originally interred on October 19, 1918, in grave 326, plot K, square #1 of the American Cemetery, located in St. Nazaire, France. He was disinterred on November 7, 1921, and re-interred in Richmond National Cemetery, Virginia, in February, 1922.

Grave of Pvt. Otis Purcell Robinson, Richmond National Cemetery. Source: Ancestry.com

From his last letter to sister Carrie:

“Dear Sister, pray for me, or pray to God in heaven, is better than anything else I know; pray God Bless you and be with you, until we meet again. From your devoted brother Otis P. Robinson – Camp Humphreys Va. 545 Co. Engrs.”

Pvt.Robinson’s 1920 questionnaire was filled out by his sister, Carrie. In it, she included the following words:

“My star of hope — I looked from out my window and in the sky afar a tiny ship a anchor, There shone a golden star. Tis a lamp set in his window, a light unto my feet, Both he, and I are waiting until we two shall meet; It beams before my vision, It sooths my weary brains; It gives me peace in sadness and banishes the pain; My star of hope so precious I call this Golden Star; It shineth in my (unreadable); my loved one lost in War; devoted sister Carrie G. Harris.”

Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. (1899-1963) – Pvt., Student Army Training Corps, Virginia Union University 

A. Lincoln Harris, Jr., The Crisis (1922)

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr., regarded as the first nationally recognized African American economist, was born on January 17, 1899, Richmond, Virginia, to Abram Lincoln Harris, Sr. and Mary E. Lee , who are interred in East End Cemetery. He was the brother of Edna Celeste Harris Johnson, Cyril David Harris (1908-1909), Miriam Harris Fisher, Collins Jonathan Harris, John Malcolm Harris (1907-1937), and Madelyn G. Harris. A Baptist in faith, he was a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.

His attitude towards military service:

“Prior to being inducted into the army I felt that any war fought to preserve the autonomy of weaker people should be supported by all liberty loving persons.”

On the effects of camp experience in the United States:

“Camp life such as I experienced was physically wholesome. I was more fit physically after discharge mentally, conditions were less favorable.”

Overall effect of war experience with his state of mind before the war:

“My actual experience had no effect upon my religious beliefs because I had no oversea experience. But the basic causes underlying the World War with its subsequent horrors and brutalities which are constantly referred to by eminent scholars some of whom had actual experience in the conflict force me to conclude that religion is inefficacious as a panacea for human social ills. Religionists have used the channels of public expression for the purpose of sowing the seeds of discord, racial and international hatred.

Still as a believer in the potency and effectiveness of the doctrines of Jesus Christ, my faith is unshaken. The solution of international problems is to be had only by the application of these teachings in social as well as individual life. Until now, hardly can any nation boast of having lived in accordance with the ideas of Christ. One nation is no more reprehensible than another.

In short, my knowledge of the recent war forces me to draw a hard line of demarcation between religion and Christianity, for surely ardent religious fervor was amply demonstrated on all sides during the recent crisis but the love of Jesus Christ was woefully lacking.”

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris, Jr. Photo: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Dr. Abram Lincoln Harris passed away on November 15, 1963, and was interred in Montrose Cemetery, Chicago. His obituary in the November 18, 1963 edition of the Chicago Tribune described Dr. Harris as a “distinguished economist, social theorist, teacher, and writer.” On Dr. Harris’ legacy, the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote:

“Abram L. Harris, 64, formerly of Richmond,professor of economics at the University of Chicago, died Saturday in Chicago.

Dr. Harris, a Negro, headed the department of economics at Howard University at Howard University in Washington from 1936 to 1945. He also had been on the faculties of West Virginia State College and the College of the City of New York.

An authority on the problems of the Negro, he came to the University of Chicago in 1946. His books include “The Black Worker,” “The Negro as a Capitalist,: and “Ethics.”

Survivors include his wife, a brother, Jonathan Harris of Richmond, and a sister, Mrs. Madelyn H. Edmunds of Washington.”

The Richmond Times Dispatch, November 17, 1963

Norfolk, Virginia

PFC Floyd Bishop – Company B, 540 Engrs. Svc Bn.

Floyd Bishop was born on July 4, 1892, in Mapleton, Hertford County, North Carolina, to Richard Bishop (1838-1916), a farmer, and Margaret Gatling (ca. 1849-1937). He moved to Suffolk, Virginia by 1910, where he found work as a general laborer and later, as a cook with the Merchants and Miners Steamship Company. He enlisted at Norfolk, Virginia, on August 3, 1918, and departed from Hoboken, New Jersey for England aboard the USS Leviathan on October 27, 1918.

PFC Bishop arrived at Liverpool, England, on November 3, 1918. On his questionnaire, PFC Bishop noted that he wasn’t involved in any engagements, and was moved with other members of his company to various camps in France from November 11, 1918, to May 21, 1919. He departed from Marseille, France, on May 21, 1919 for Brooklyn, New York aboard the USS Brittania, arriving on June 6, 1919.

On the war, and its effects:

Before the war, I was passive as to the treatment of the common people colored, in particular, but since the war I am constantly reminded that my people (colored) are not getting any of the things that I served in the war to help bring about—democracy.

After the war, Floyd returned to his previous occupation, as a cook. He married Miss Estelle Rogers on January 21, 1932, at Norfolk, Virginia. The couple divorced a little over six years later.

PFC Floyd Bishop passed away on December 10, 1952. He rests in Calvary Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Portsmouth, Virginia

Pvt. Harvey Page (1888-1950) – 15th Company, 4th Bn., 155 Depot Brigade

Gravestone of Pvt. Harvey Page, Mount Olive Cemetery, October 11, 2010

Pvt. Harvey Page was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on April 9, 1888, to Charlie Page and Georgia Watkins. He was the husband of Emma Wilson, and affiliated with the Baptist church.

Pvt. Page enlisted on October 27, 1917, at Portsmouth, Virginia, and was stationed at Camp Lee, Virginia. Soon after arrival, he was transferred to Company B, 370th Infantry. He left for Europe aboard the USS Finland on April 30, 1918. 

USS Finland, ca. 1918. Source: navsource.org

In his questionnaire, Pvt. Page was somewhat apologetic in tone; he could not remember exact details and dates regarding his combat time. He did note that some of his engagements were centered around “fighting in the Argonne forest,” which most likely refers to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Pvt. Page left Brest, France on February 2, 1919, and arrived in New York City on February 9, 1919. He returned to his family in Portsmouth, Virginia, and continued his previous occupation as a general laborer. 

In his application, he noted that his combat experience during the war was “impossible to describe.”

Pvt. Harvey Page passed away on November 30, 1950, from complications of acute endocarditis. He was interred in Mount Olive Cemetery on December 10, 1950, by funeral director Edward A. Colden

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow – Company H, 369th Infantry, 93rd Division

New York’s famous 369th regiment arrives home from France. 
National Archives and Records Administration
Records of the War Department
Record Group 165
National Archives Identifier: 533548

Pvt. Ollie Lee Snow, one of the infamous “Harlem Hellfighters,” was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on May 26, 1895, to William Snow and Etta Bass. Little is known about his early history in Tidewater, Virginia; he was a Baptist in faith, and worked as a shipfitter helper at the Norfolk Navy Yard. On August 18, 1916, he married Miss Willetta Fuller (1898-1944), daughter of George Washington Fuller, Sr. (1876-1923), and Mary L. Davis (1878-1946). By 1920, he was documented in Portsmouth’s Jefferson Ward, at 1010 Green Street, with wife Willetta, and George and Mary Fuller. Willetta Fuller Snow and her parents are all buried in Portsmouth’s Mount Olive Cemetery.

Gravestone of Willetta Fuller Snow, Mount Olive Cemetery (Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex, est. 1879). Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2011. The visible damage to the right upper portion of her gravestone was caused by lawn maintenance.

According to military records, Ollie Lee Snow enlisted on October 27, 1917, at Camp Lee, Virginia. Stationed there through early December, 1917, he was transferred north to Hoboken, New Jersey, where he left for Europe aboard the USS Pocahontas, arriving in Brest, France on January 1, 1918. 

USS Pocahontas, ca. 1918. Source: navsource.org

In his questionnaire, Pvt. Snow’s responses were pretty straightforward. Despite the racism and discrimination that many African American veterans faced, he had a favorable view of his overall military service, and noted that camp life prior to combat was beneficial “physically and mentally.” He wrote that his overseas experience improved his health, and strengthened his religious beliefs. Regarding combat, he “felt he was doing the right thing in fighting for Uncle Sam.” He also provided relevant details of his combat experience, regarding his participation in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He noted that he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, on September 29, 1918, by Marshall Ferdinand Foch, for his conduct during the Battle of Snake Hill. 

Soon after submitting his questionnaire in the Spring of 1920, Pvt. Ollie and Willetta Snow relocated to New York, where he lived until his death on August 31, 1929. He was interred in Cypress Hills National Cemetery on September 7, 1929.  

Tales from the East End: A sketch of the life of Valentine Griffin (ca. 1820-1894), Richmond, Virginia

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.

Richmond Planet, April 7, 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.

Richmond Planet, April 7, 1894

“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.

 

1854 Free Negro Tax List, Library of Virginia

 

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.

 

Free negro certificate for Reuben Griffin, 1848, Henrico County Court, 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.

 

1877 Beers map, Jefferson Ward, Richmond, Va. Library of Congress

 

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:

 

The Richmond Planet. Date unknown

“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.

 

Gravestone of Malachia H. Griffin, Evergreen Cemetery. April 6, 2013. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

Independent Order of Saint Luke building, Richmond, Virginia. January 22, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

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.

 

Memorials to United States Colored Troops, Pt. 6 – Richmond, Virginia

Memorials to United States Colored Troops

A photo-essay series dedicated to the United States Colored Troops, and how they were remembered in contemporary news media

Pt. 6

Richmond, Virginia

East End Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond National Cemetery

 

William I. Johnson, Sr. – East End Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia. Photo, New Journal and Guide, 1938

 

William I. Johnson, Sr.

“W. I. Johnson, Sr., Pioneer, Buried With Honors Here – Funeral services for W. I. Johnson, Sr., pioneer citizen of Richmond, a former slave who became a prominent member of one of Richmond’s most highly respected families, were held here Wednesday of this week in First African Baptist Church, with Dr. W. T. Johnson, pastor in charge. Interment was in Evergreen Cemetery.

Mr. Johnson, a reputedly self-made man, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, February 14, 1840, and had attained the ripe age of 97, when he folded his arms in that sleep from which none ever wakes to weep.

Was pioneer Contractor

Mr. Johnson was one of the pioneers in the business world, having entered the contracting business during the dark and stormy days of reconstruction remaining active therein until a few years ago when he retired from active service because of injuries suffered in an accident.

Born and reared in slavery, Mr. Johnson saw his first experience on the battlefield as a body servant to his then “master.” Later, however, being a man of courage and initiative, he managed from the Confederate side to the Federal side when he escaped to a Yankee camp where he later served in the quartermaster corps of the Federal army. He took part in the bloody battles around Petersburg, Fort Harrison, Seven Pines, Danville and the famous battle of Manassas and was mustered out of the Federal service in Washington, in October, 1865.

Mr. Johnson has been an active member of the First African Baptist Church for 67 years; the Samaritans 65 years; Odd Fellows, 58 years; Masons, 58 years; Saint Lukes, 63 years and the National Ideals for sixteen years.

Buried With Masonic Rites

Full Mason honors were accorded this distinguished citizen as his funeral was conducted from First Baptist Church Wednesday at 2 p.m.

Mr. Johnson is survived by four daughters, Mrs. Ella Carrington, Mrs. Mamie Coleman, Mrs. Lavinia A. Banks, Mrs. Alice Johnson, and one son, W. I. Johnson, Jr. He is also survived by fourteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.” — The Richmond Planet

 

Sgt. Dillon Chavers Richmond National Copyright Nadia Orton 2016

Sgt. Dillon Chavers, Co. E, 5th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry. Richmond National Cemetery

 

“LAID TO REST – The funeral of D. J. Chavers, who died at his late residence 318 East Preston Street, took place Friday, October 15, at the Leigh Street M. E. Church, Fifth and Leigh Streets, at 2 P.M. Funeral Director A. Hayes was on time and the ceremonies at the church were simple and impressive. Rev. E. M. Mitchell, pastor, preached the funeral. On the rostrum were Rev. A. S. Thomas, D. D., Rev. W. E. Nash, Rev. S. C. Burrell, Rev. Evans Payne, D. D., Rev. T. J. King D.D.

The Scriptures were read by Rev. S. C. Burrell. Prayer was offered by Rev. A. S. Thomas, D. D. ‘Lead Kindly Light’ was sung by the choir. The call for Resolutions was answered by remarks eulogistic of the deceased, by Master Tilton of Friendship Lodge, No. 19 A. F. & A. M. He was a member of Venus Lodge, No. 46, Knights of Pythia. He had been a director of the Mechanics Savings Bank since its organization. Resolutions from that body were read by Vice-President Thomas M. Crump.

Rev. E. M. Mitchell sang a solo entitled ‘Home of the Soul.’ Ere the charming melody had died away, he began his text, which was from John 11:21.

‘Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here my brother had not died. He pictured the scene and the promise of the Savior that her brother would rise again.’ He dwelt upon the sterling qualities of the deceased and gave comfort to the weeping widow.

At the conclusion prayer was offered by Rev. T. J. King D. D. pastor of the Fifth Street Baptist Church. The choir sang. Funeral Director A. Hayes marshaled the pall bearers into line and the mourning throng filed out of the church. The Directors of the Mechanics Savings Bank attended the funeral in body. The casket was of finely carved oak and is known as the ‘State” casket. The funeral designs were numerous and costly. The pall-bearers were, honorary B. P. Vandervall, Col. Willis Wyatt, W. W. Hill, Dr. E. H. Jefferson, Dr. A. A. Tennant, Richard Davis, Christopher F. Foster, Ross Bolling. Active, Hezekiah Curtis, S. J. Gilpin, Thomas Liggon, J. W. Pryor, Dan Turner.

The remains were interred in the National Cemetery here. Arrangements had been made through Mr. Cosby Washington. The head stone will be 4855-A. Outside of this all that remains of D. J. Chavers has been swallowed up in that national grave yard to remain until the sounding of the last trump.” — The Richmond Planet

 

 

Cpl. Edward Stewart, Buffalo Soldier, Funeral – Richmond, Virginia 1938. Burial: Evergreen Cemetery

 

Edward Stewart, well known Richmond business man and first vice-president of the Southern Aid Society, was buried from the Second Baptist Church in Richmond Friday afternoon. The Rev. Joseph T. Hill officiated. Many Richmond businessmen and most of the executives of the Southern Aid Society attended the funeral. The picture above shows the pallbearers entering the church with the casket, covered by a large United States flag. The deceased man was formerly a member of the famed Tenth Calvary unit of the United States Army. The pallbearers are W. A. Jordan, Sr., William E. Randolph, John M. Moore, John Hall, B. A. Cephas, and Thomas Johnson.” — New Journal and Guide, January 8, 1938

 

Richmond, Virginia: A sketch of the life of Valentine Griffin (1820-1894)

Distractions that lead to unexpected learning opportunities are curious things. 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 on March 16, 1894.

Richmond Planet, April 7, 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.

Richmond Planet, April 7, 1894

“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.

1854 Free Negro Tax List, Library of Virginia

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.

Free negro certificate for Reuben Griffin, 1848, Henrico County Court, 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.

1877 Beers map, Jefferson Ward, Richmond, Va. Library of Congress

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 carried in an 1895 edition of the Richmond Planet, described him thusly:

The Richmond Planet. Date unknown

“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.

Gravestone of Malachia H. Griffin, Evergreen Cemetery. April 6, 2013. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

Independent Order of Saint Luke building, Richmond, Virginia. January 22, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Personal Journey Through African-American Cemeteries – National Trust for Historic Preservation

Copyright Nadia Orton

At the gravesite of my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Orton, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry, at Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia.

I’ll never forget the exciting moment when I found the gravesite of Alexander Orton, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather. Born in 1842 in Virginia, he was a Civil War veteran and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.

Finding his last resting place was part of a genealogy project I’ve been pursuing for nine years now, keeping a long-standing promise made to an elder. Diagnosed with a serious chronic illness as a teenager, I needed a kidney transplant soon after college. My great-aunt gathered her entire church congregation to support my transplant fund, but held a lingering concern about our family legacy.

“Do not let our history die,” she told my father shortly before her passing in 2007. To honor her last wish, I vowed to make the most of my second chance and do my part in documenting our family history.

I’ve traced my father’s ancestry to 1630 in Virginia, and my mother’s to 1770 in North Carolina. Some of my ancestors were born free, while others were enslaved. Like Alexander, some enlisted in the Union Army to fight for freedom in the Civil War. They’d founded four African-American communities in Tidewater, Virginia, along with masonic lodges, banks, churches, and schools. They were oystermen, carpenters, farmers, teachers, Pullman porters, and teamsters at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. READ MORE

Recovering and Preserving African American Cemeteries – Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Pinewood Cemetery COPYRIGHT Nadia Orton

Pine Forest Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina

The reverence attached to cemeteries and burial grounds, which have long been considered sacred sites, is an example of enduring Africanisms and cultural tradition in the African American community. Burial grounds have always been regarded as places where ancestors could be properly honored and provided with the dignity, care, and respect in death that had often been denied them in life.

Interest in the study of my family tree has led me to over a dozen cemeteries throughout Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, and helped reconstruct a family legacy spanning over 400 years. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Genealogists and family historians have long recognized the benefit of cemeteries in the study of family history and an increasing popular interest in genealogy has led to an increased focus on them.  READ MORE