We’re missing our usual summer vacation trips and activities this year because of the pandemic so I thought I’d share a few Harry Stilson photographs from his vacations and trips. That way you can visualize the places you’re missing…oh, sorry! These pictures were taken in the early 1900s so places might look a little different but hey, it’s better than nothing. The first few aren’t really in summer but it’s Virginia Beach and they set the stage. Harry’s enjoyment of his two day vacation from streetcar work, documented by his sister, was well-deserved.

2 day vacation

Rolling deep

Some others of Virginia Beach include the boardwalk and another, “under the boardwalk” view. Harry liked to catch action so there’s one of a woman mid-air and what I assume is his labeling reference to the ladies in another.

Virginia Beach boardwalk under boardwalk

jumping in surf   good view of surf

Harry went to Cape Henry in 1920 and captured this view of lighthouse and men at work.

Cape Henry

His daughter  convinced him to go on a short trip to Natural Bridge and Endless Caverns. Here are a couple of shots of that trip. I’m always discovering things ‘a day late and a dollar short.’ On the back of a landscape photo from the Endless Caverns trip, Harry described the return trip to Richmond late at night. He mentioned stopping at “the store at Hancock and Clay” for a few items. That store was owned by my late friend, Morris Goldberg’s family. I never thought to ask Morris if Harry knew his parents or shopped at the family store. Now I know he did, at nearly 10 PM!

Natural Bridge entranceNatural bridge men


I suspect this picture was taken by my great-grandmother’s niece because they lived out west.  Cool but stupid. Those bears are too close for comfort.

bears too close

Not all summer activities we’re missing are far from home. Our current baseball season is in jeopardy because of COVID but this team at Idlewood Park can remind you of the joys of ball games. I realized that my great-uncle was on this team when I took another look at a team photo. No matter how many times I look at Harry’s pictures, I always notice something new.

ball team

Harry rented to tenants from England, a friendship that lasted well beyond the lease. I found letters from the Crawfords after they returned to Britain and Harry Stilson not only took a lot of pictures of Poppy, her husband, and son Victor, but developed film from their vacations, everywhere from Moore’s Lake to Valley Forge.

moore's lake 1930 blog  Poppy on car

Again, I’m not sure if this West Virginia scene was from Harry’s trip or someone else’s but here you go. Ansted, Hawk’s Nest Rock.

Hawks nest

Transportation is a big issue during these dangerous times. Safe to fly? Do we drive? In the ‘old days’, you just strapped your stuff onto the back of the car and hit the road. Not sure whose Wyoming-licensed car this is but it was with the Natural Bridge pictures. My point is this: we can’t go and do as usual this summer but we can get ideas from Harry Stilson. There are vistas to explore, places to go, ways to make this summer a memorable one that doesn’t include the pandemic. Be creative. Be safe. Wear masks, keep socially distanced, wash your hands, but don’t let the coronavirus steal your summer. If Harry could squeeze a few trips from his streetcar route schedule, you can find a way to have an adventure.

Wyoming trailer



In a pandemic where people are supposed to stay home, a lot of things have happened, haven’t they? I hesitated to write this entry because my intention is always to bring us together, to illustrate common interests and characteristics we share and it’s hard to ignore the divisiveness of current America. Where I stand politically isn’t hard to identify if you follow my blog or read my books. I try to listen to other points of view but sometimes there’s just one right perspective. George Floyd’s death can’t be “interpreted” as other than what it was: murder. I protested George Floyd’s murder on the streets of Richmond but I refused to chant certain statements. All police are not (insert profanity) and I won’t say “(profanity) the police” because law enforcement includes good and bad officers.  I support the right to feel and voice those feelings but it made me uncomfortable to hear that, especially with children protesting among us. Likewise, I can relate to  both sides of the issue of Richmond’s Confederate statues. I grew up seeing them and accepting them as part of our scenery which is why I can understand how hurtful they are to people of color. Have you ever been shocked to have someone tell you that one of your actions or words you said in innocence has hurt someone you care about? I think that’s how a lot of white America feels these days. I’ve been fortunate because I have African-American friends who will tell me honestly when I’ve misspoken or when someone else has. Many white people don’t have that benefit and I’m sure I’ve still said and done things that have been insulting or uncomfortable for others. I can never know what it’s like to be black in America. I’m a white 68-year-old woman. I’ve also felt a little ambivalence about the statues because my experience is a little unusual. I have photographs my great-grandfather took of those monuments a century ago because they were news, because he was present and they were part of the documentation of Harry Stilson’s world. Here’s what I mean…

Stonewall Jackson monument

I wondered why Harry took this photograph of the Stonewall Jackson statue dedication until Bob Krick, Chimborazo Museum historian, explained. Seems that when the dignitary who was unveiling the statue pulled the rope, it got tangled and the ceremony was delayed while someone climbed up and untangled ropes. Ironically, when the statue was being removed last week, there was another issue (involving horse hoofs and a kind of sawzall)  which caused a delay. And then there’s this…

French general use

This is the Robert E. Lee statue with a French general, I believe Marshall Ferdinand Foch, laying a wreath on his visit to Richmond after World War I. It’s worth noting that Robert E. Lee opposed the idea of a statue to him. It’s also significant that other events occurred at the monument in addition to the French general’s visit. It was the starting point for a women’s march that I participated in a few years ago as well as background in other parades. About those other parades…

confederate parade

This is what Harry labeled “Confederate Parade” on Monument Avenue. He photographed every parade he witnessed, in Richmond, Michigan, Yorktown. This parade was also included in his movies but not because of Harry’s Confederate pride. He was born in Michigan. To him, it was simply a parade. WWI  soldiers, cadets, and a band (Elks, I think) were in the parade, too. Richmond loved parades and never missed an opportunity to hold one. Even a “Confederate Parade,” promoting attitudes and times that our African-American residents could not forget because they were so  painful.

Confederate statues need to come down because they negatively impact many of our citizens but history isn’t eliminated by their removal. My Virginia history school books never mentioned many facts about black history (one reason I bought Black history cards for my grandkids) but that doesn’t erase those events from our past. I’ve always been in favor of adding context to the monuments. I was thrilled when Arthur Ashe’s statue was placed on Monument Avenue and have bragged on him often, reminding people that as a telephone installer, I worked on his aunt’s phone and she shared stories of him practicing on nearby Northside tennis courts. Our history includes both good and bad and should all be preserved. We can’t learn from the past if we are unaware of it.

Confederate statues were erected to promote white supremacy in the days of Jim Crow but there were other voices in the early 1900s offering other perspectives. One voice was that of Harry Stilson, documented in a 1907 speech he gave to a Michigan women’s literary club while visiting his home state. I’ve shared this before but it bears repeating. I’ve even printed it and carried it on protest signs over the years. I have Harry Stilson’s handwritten speech, entitled “Our Tinted Population.” I also have the rejection letter Harry received when he submitted the speech to a New York magazine in which he was told “We have no use for anything like this.” Well, we do have need of these words, now more than ever.

“We are black, brown, red, yellow and white. We are Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jew, spiritualist, atheist, or whatnot. If they be of different types, at variance in color, religion or nationality, or all three, I am constrained to believe, being optimistic, it is so much better for the world. I believe that the true test is one of character or moral worth, and that the best education is the one that develops that character without regard to color of skin or condition of society. I also think that the best way to remove that “pride of tint” is by honorable familiarity with the adverse color, religion or nationality. In no place can this honorable familiarity be better brought about than in our common schools and public churches. I would abolish all private schools…(so) that they should become more familiar with and less suspicious of those of different tint, and thus become better citizens of this great nation, having more respect for each other.”

0151 Tinted Population bk

The word “integration” may not have been in our vocabulary in 1907 but that’s what Harry Stilson was advocating. We assure ourselves that our nation is integrated now but, if that were truly the case, the racism of today wouldn’t be possible. It’s such a simple concept: become more familiar with people of other races and religions and you will have more respect for each other. Why is that so hard to implement?







I am my brother’s keeper. That has never been more true. We each hold the health, even the life, of everyone we encounter, in our hands. Literally. We can be oblivious and figure, hey, I feel fine, and proceed to touch a grandparent or friend recovering from chemo treatments, and then wonder later how that person got infected, hopefully, not at that person’s memorial service. OR we can be cognizant of social distancing by performing a heroic act of restraint because it is hard to not touch, to not hug, to not be the outgoing, friendly people most of us are. This is our new normal and, while we can’t choose who will contract the coronavirus, we can choose our response to this health threat so I, like scientists, am looking back to the Spanish Influenza of 1918 for insight into how the world handled a similar pandemic. Unlike most of you, I have a pretty good source of information: my great-grandfather’s journal. Harry Stilson was a Richmond streetcar motorman (driver) whose camera never left his side and I inherited the collection of nearly 5,000 photos, movies, and negatives that survived but I also have letters and his journal of 1918-1919. Along with research I did while writing From Richmond to France, his writing offers a pretty good idea of how Richmond coped with a baffling illness without benefit of advanced medical technology. They did, however, have a new tool of incredible value and documentation collected during the Spanish Influenza has been saving lives ever since. That tool was radiology. X-rays were new back then, discovered in 1895 by William Conrad Roentgen, and the use of X-rays was just developing. Conflicting arguments surrounded its value and experts questioned whether distinctive lung changes were from tuberculosis or the rapidly-spreading virus taking lives across the world. Sadly, the Spanish Influenza provided an excellent opportunity for x-rays to resolve that question, to prove their worth, and become the standard diagnostic tool radiology is today. Incidentally, x-rays are a critical part of this new emergency. CNN profiled an infectious disease doctor studying x-rays of coronavirus patients. Her team discovered a radical difference in the appearance of “normal” pneumonia and corona pneumonia. The new virus produces easily-distinguished “round” spots, a difference visible even to viewers like me. While x-rays aren’t economically or logistically feasible instead of testing, they are an emergency alternative in the absence of tests.

The panic, uncertainly, and even anger that the coronavirus has created in us all isn’t a new experience. Even “fake news” claims aren’t a recent phenomenon as you can see in this early 1900s newspaper article I found in the family “archives.”

fake news

No, I don’t believe this five-year-old had a baby but I do believe what I learned about the Spanish Flu. It killed over 50 million around the world. More died from the flu than were killed in battle and it affected life in Richmond just like the virus today. Because no one knew how it was transmitted, rumors flew, no pun intended. The virus was actually of avian origin. I’m not sure if that was known back then but children jumped rope to this: “I had a little bird. His name was Enzo. I opened the window and IN-FLU-ENZA!” Little was known about how it spread so cities experimented with various practices with uneven results. Where isolation, quarantine and limited crowd gatherings were enforced, the number of cases and deaths were considerably lower. 2020, take note.

Another similarity between 1918 and 2020 is the urgent problem of food insecurity.  In my book, From Richmond to France, I related Dolores Miller’s story about her family’s experience in Richmond during the influenza.  Dolores Miller: “This happened during the flu epidemic in 1918. I guess a lot of people had nothing material-wise and perhaps a lot of families that lived in the city were going hungry. Joseph W. Bliley tried to take care of many of the poor families in Richmond. The way it was told to me, every week children were allowed to go down to 4th & Marshall and they were given eggs and bread according to the size of their families. The flu had hit the city of Richmond and people were dying like flies and the funeral homes couldn’t keep up with burying people. My mother and her sisters were sent to Bliley’s to get eggs and bread. They were standing in line and the halls were lined with bodies that they had not been able to get to during the epidemic. One of the bodies close to them released gas and scared them badly. They always told me that this body sat up just like it was alive. That’s one of the stories handed down in the family.”

I don’t know about bodies sitting up but food was scarce, money tight, just like today. Schools provide breakfast and lunch to students who wouldn’t be fed otherwise and we can’t ignore those kids. Charities and schools are scrambling to feed these vulnerable children and others during school closings. Cosings are difficult for families to maneuver but they’re essential. Dolores Miller never knew that her Elam relatives and the Stilsons were neighbors but, because of my Richmond In Sight work, she does now. Harry mentioned that Annie Elam was sick with the Spanish Influenza but she recovered. Just like most of the infected will today. Unlike Annie, Dolores’ grandmother did not recover. This virus business was serious in 1918 and it is in 2020.

043 woman on platform

                                                  Annie Elam, 1918 flu survivor, at Main Street Station mid 1920s

WWI’s returning service men carried the virus as did civilians. Modern transportation provided greater opportunities for  spread of the pandemic and the compromised immune systems of soldiers, exhausted and malnourished, increased the severity of the virus. One of Richmond’s African-American soldiers who died of the flu while in France was Otis P. Robinson of Catherine Street, Jackson Ward and member of Sharon Baptist Church. His sister Carrie Harris filled out an Army survey and included a card from him. “Dear Sister, pray for me or pray to God in Heaven, is better than anything else I know. May God bless you and be with you until we meet again.” Others returned from France to learn that family members had succumbed to the flu. Clyde Goode’s grandmother, Leeolia, died while her son, Ralph Goode was on the Princess Matoaca coming home from the war. Ralph’s son, Clyde, recalled: “He didn’t know it…he was on the ship coming back and found out when he got home.” In Richmond, Harry reported deaths of streetcar men from Spanish Influenza.  His journal entry on October 25, 1918 reported “Spanish Influenza the end of Willie McCloud last night.” He also wrote “Wed 8/7/18: W. C. Wright, my conductor, became sick and getting worse. I asked to have him relieved but it was 3.30 before Outland 212, came, and I had gotten Wright into Power House to wait for Ambulance which had been called to take him home.”  The next day Harry wrote: “Told that Conductor William Clarence Wright died last night after 7 PM at the house of his sister at 1505 Garland Ave, Barton Heights.” Mr. Wright’s death certificate stated “heat stroke” as cause of death but heat stroke symptoms are high fever, sweating, difficulty breathing, all symptoms of influenza. Based on timing and symptoms, I speculate that Harry’s conductor died of the flu. Streetcar men were exposed to people daily. Think about the passing of tokens or coins, the hand offered to help a passenger onboard. Meanwhile, quarantines restricted activities and Harry’s son, Leon, stationed at Camp Lee (now Fort Lee) mentioned that he was unable to make purchases prior to shipping out to France “because of the quarantine.” Camp Lee’s hospital treated flu patients as did other army facilities as the epidemic spread.

Camp Lee hospital postcard

This post is not my usual Richmond In Sight style but hopefully it’s a reminder to be vigilant in protecting ourselves, our families, our friends, and all the people we encounter as we move through this world. We just need to adapt. My “day job” is real estate broker and I’m still doing real estate. I listed and sold a property this past week and handled a few issues for clients at their properties. I got keys copied, dropped off paperwork, did all the usual real estate stuff but I did it with the least physical contact possible. This virus won’t last not forever. I pray that warmer weather WILL cause the illness to dwindle, that reduced interactions and social distancing will help us get through this. Richmond survived the Spanish Influenza of 1918. We and the rest of the world will survive COVID-19 but let’s survive it despite panic and fears, with grace and consideration for others. We shouldn’t hoard, profit from disasters, disregard the safety of others because we think we’re healthy or “that’s something other people get.”  We’re good people. Let’s call our elderly, our handicapped, our more vulnerable friends and family and offer help in a responsible way. Show them love by protecting them. Leave supplies on their doorstep (wipe or use sanitizer on whatever you touch) or keep your distance and wipe what you touch. We all are our brother’s keepers. Let’s act like it. Be safe.




Richmond streetcar motorman Harry Stilson had an unusual relationship with African-American residents of Jackson Ward.  In the segregated world of the early 1900s, he seems to have slipped through the cracks, visiting black homes, photographing black people. His job was driving the streetcar but his passion was photography and his photo business simple: people flagged down the streetcar, asked Mr. Stilson to take their pictures, which he did, developing them at night and delivering the photographs the next day. I inherited the surviving images Harry Stilson took, nearly 5,000 of them, mostly unlabeled, and have spent the last several years trying to learn the identities and stories of the people along my great-grandfather’s streetcar route.

0017 Chair girl seated bk 0092 Cook with attitude bk 0112 tobacco jw Buck driving bk

His journal describes visits to Sam Sparrow’s house on Elizabeth Street, next to what is now Maggie Walker Governor School. Sparrow, a railroad porter, got Harry to photograph his house so he could show relatives in Philadelphia where he lived. That house no longer exists so I can’t identify it in the Stilson collection, if it survived, but Harry labeled this  picture as Sam, his wife, Mary, and their friend, Mary Taylor.

0058 Sparrow & taylor

Harry’s journal is a rabbit’s hole I fall into every time I open it. March 1, 1919’s entry includes the information that he received 5 cents from a “colored boy for C.P.Lathrop truck”, which I guess means that he sold a boy a picture. He charged white people more than black ones and this sale was half of the normal cost for his African-American customers. He wrote that he got 25 cents from Ben Rose (col “Red”) WHAT DOES THAT MEAN??? And that he gave 25 cents “to help bury a colored man.” Good to know he donated to that. In those days, insurance wasn’t available to African Americans so people belonged to societies which paid out for deaths or medical bills. Otherwise, you depended on the kindness of the community to bury your dead. I check U.S. Census records to find the folks mentioned in his notes but rarely find them. Part of the problem is that census takers misspelled names (Harry once was listed as Stetson instead of Stilson, his son David instead of Donald, etc.) Sloppy handwriting is another culprit. He mentioned the “visiting nurse” below. Wish he’d named her…

0129 Black nurse

The cobblestone work below is on the 1700 block of W. Leigh. The two one-story houses in the background are still there.

0004 cobblestones Leigh St

He sold pictures to Jack Dubore, 621 Kinney Street, September 15th, 1918. The Census lists him as a mulatto, a fireman for the railroad so I could speculate that this is him but it’s just a guess.

032 train men at tower

Harry’s pictures illustrate the work he saw in slaughterhouses, on construction sites,  with peddlers and laundry wagons. Little boys with goat carts delivering laundry were a frequent subject.

0003 get my goat

                           “You get my goat.” Harry sent this as a post card to his sister.

Thompson concrete workers

                                                  Cement work at E.L. Thompson store

0050 Kingan's workers                                           Kingan’s Abbatoire (Slaughterhouse) workers

I apologize for this very late, very rushed post but I do have a “real” job as real estate broker and between that and sick grandkids, I ran out of time. Look at Harry’s pictures and imagine the lives he shared on the streets of Richmond. They were the people he referred to in his 1907 speech titled “Our Tinted Population,” part of which is quoted below. Over a century later, I wonder why his common sense ideas are still so hard for us to accept.

“We are black, brown, red, yellow and white. We are Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jew, spiritualist, atheist, or whatnot. If they be of different types, at variance in color, religion or nationality, or all three, I am constrained to believe, being optimistic, it is so much better for the world. I believe that the true test is one of character or moral worth, and that the best education is the one that develops that character without regard to color of skin or condition of society. I also think that the best way to remove that “pride of tint” is by honorable familiarity with the adverse color, religion or nationality. In no place can this honorable familiarity be better brought about than in our common schools and public churches. I would abolish all private schools…(so) that they should become more familiar with and less suspicious of those of different tint, and thus become better citizens of this great nation, having more respect for each other.”

0151 Tinted Population bk



The Virginia State Fair’s here! My great-grandfather, streetcar driver & photographer Harry Stilson, loved the Virginia State Fair. He went several times each year and took lots of pictures. His surviving movies include entertainers, rides, and parades and I share those in Richmond In Sight “movie night” presentations. Back in Harry’s day, the State Fair grounds were located on ‘the Boulevard,’ where the Diamond is today. Some of my oral history sources describe sneaking into the fair through loose fence posts and others just recall its wonders with the same affection Harry exhibited in his photographs and movies.

baby beef curles neck Henrico Boys Club

When we were kids, my mom made us go through the animal exhibits before we could hit the rides. Harry spent a lot of time in those barns, documenting winners as well as animals belonging to people he knew. His son had bought Red Hill Farm on Route 5, near Curles Neck Dairy so Harry included their animals in his collection but the Henrico Boys’ Club entries were worth a picture, too.  Deer exhibit? No weirder than Harry’s movie of a pet deer in the barnyard.

state fair deer cow and boy

Harry’s movies include rides still popular at today’s fair, causing me to wonder if the same equipment is in use nearly a century later. NOT a comforting thought if you’re in line for the Caterpillar ride or ferris wheel.

ferris wheel plane ride  horse racing closer

Horse racing was a staple at the fair. I wish I knew if any of the horses Harry captured on film were famous. I was able to identify the horse act in Stilson photographs by going to the library for a Richmond Times Dispatch Fair calendar but I lost it. Thank goodness for Ray Bonis who found one online! The equestrian act was Holland & Dockrill, “World-famous Equestrians” but some of the acts required research (or guessing) to figure out who’s who. If I’m wrong, who would know all these years later?  Here’s my best shot…

horse balancing act

Holland & Dockrill Equestrian Act

balancing men pyramid

                  International 9: World’s Champion Tumblers


Not P.C…Ishikawa 4 Marvelous Jap Equilibrists



      Lunette Sisters: Whirling Aerial Geisha

Girls Aerial Dental Novelty Act

This is one of my favorite Stilson pictures. I even have a version of the photo that my grandmother hand-tinted for her dad. In his movies are sideshow performers, African-American performers, and more.

fair performer Ford exhibit 2 water show

My son and I are going to the State Fair tomorrow and, while the venue is different and the acts totally unlike those of Harry’s day, the atmosphere is the same. The smells, sounds, sights…all just like the ones that delighted Harry Stilson a century ago. Cotton candy and fried everything…who could ask for more?


Memorial Day is perhaps more significant to families who have lost someone in service to our country. I was astonished to find that many Americans were not aware of the term “Gold Star Family” or “Gold Star Mothers” because I have always known what those terms meant. My great-uncle Leon Stilson died of wounds received in the Argonne Forest during World War I and I have letters to document the heartbreak of such a loss, including letters returned after his death, stamped Deceased. My great-grandmother, Mary Stilson, went to France on a Gold Star Pilgrimage in 1932 to see her son’s grave and I included some of her photographs and memorabilia in my last book, From Richmond to France.  I’ve shared some of these pictures in Memorial Day blogs before but it’s worth repeated and this year I have a twist to the story as you will see later.


One of the saddest things about Leon’s death was how long it was before his family was informed of his death. In World War I, letters took months to be delivered and the letters returned to my great-grandmother after he died are heartbreaking. On October 2, 1918 Mary Stilson wrote “My dear boy Leon, I am so discouraged over writing you I didn’t try it last week.  I can’t understand why you don’t receive my letters.” She was referring to the fact that his field letters reported that he had not received mail “for a long time” even though she had written faithfully. That must have been so painful for a mother to read. Today our soldiers can text or email to let loved ones know they’re OK so it’s difficult to imagine not knowing anything about your son, your husband, your brother, for weeks or even months. Reading news about battles, losses of life, defeats or victories, and not knowing if the person you’re praying for and thinking of all the time was in that battle or not must have been emotionally exhausting.

Field page 2

107 telegram

This is the twist I mentioned. Last fall Jim Harton wrote that he was going on a Centennial WWI trip to France and would try to find Leon’s grave for me. He did more than find it. He sent a picture of himself standing by the grave just as my great-grandmother had done a century earlier. Fresh flowers, as had been on graves when Gold Star Mothers visited the American Cemetery in 1932, were provided by Jim’s tour guide, an unexpected and kind gesture. To me, that symbol of remembrance by not only a friend from high school but also a stranger is what Memorial Day is all about. It’s about those of us who have benefited from the ultimate sacrifices of young men and women in service to our country saying “I remember. I am grateful.” This Memorial Day, perhaps you will take a moment to stop and think about the losses that guarantee our freedom: so many lost years of living, of laughter, love, and hope that so many soldiers and sailors missed because he or she felt compelled to protect us.  Leon’s picture in uniform is on my wall, making it easier to remember him and what our family lost when he died but I know that on Memorial Day, I will also stop and think “I remember. I am grateful.”

077 MPS at LHS grave    Jim at Leon's grave


As CNN’s Don Lemon noted tonight, this has been a sad Black History Month. It’s painful to see examples of racism in our leaders and public figures. Frustration and discouragement are reasonable responses but maybe we can look to our past to focus on people who rose above racial expectations. I’d like to submit a contrast to those images of disrespect. Harry Stilson photographed people along his streetcar route in Jackson Ward as they went about their daily lives and pride radiated from the faces in those pictures. Let me introduce you to a few of those folks.

Henrico Cafe

I have tried to find out more about the people my great-grandfather simply labeled “Mrs. & Mrs. Brooks, Henrico Cafe.” I believe they are the owners and the two men with them are customers but I haven’t been able to identify the location of the Henrico Café or find its owners in census records without first names. The city of Richmond annexed part of Henrico in downtown so the restaurant’s name isn’t a clue. Their faces are compelling, aren’t they?   The pride in their demeanor convinces me that they owned the business and felt justifiably proud of what they had created. Nearly a century ago, in Richmond, Virginia, African Americans owned businesses in Jackson Ward and elsewhere and was reason to hold your head high.

Stokes Girl

“Little Stokes Girl on Leigh Street” was how my great-grandfather described this child. Again, without a first name, identifying Harry Stilson’s subjects is difficult but by going through names on Leigh Street in the 1920 U.S. Census, I found the family of Turner & Adele Stokes whose daughter Thelma was six in 1920. Could she be the “little Stokes girl?” I like her ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. I can see her growing up to resist the limitations of Jim Crow law.


This man could be a taxi driver or chauffeur. Harry wrote “colored chauffeur” in his journal to identify photographs he’d taken but without a date on the picture, it could be any number of drivers. George B. Waller was a chauffeur who lived on Leigh Street and Harry’s journal notes: “George B. Waller of wife” so I know he took pictures of members of the Waller family. Whether this is Mr. Waller or another driver, it documents one of Richmond’s proud entrepreneurs.

Education was unbelievably important to our African-American communities. Literacy was an accomplishment in those hard times. To finish high school was a real luxury so a college education was an impossible dream for most black Richmonders. However, Hartshorn College, the first African-American women’s college to give baccalaureate degrees in the United States, was on Harry’s streetcar route, at Lombardy and Leigh, where Maggie Walker Governor School stands today and to be enrolled at Hartshorn was worth a photograph. Or several. Harry obliged by taking several photographs of students and their teacher, Miss Julia Elwin. He also recorded events and parades at the school.  In my presentations, I am surprised that many people are unaware of Hartshorn College or its significance. The school combined with Virginia Union so the name Hartshorn disappeared from the institution but the legacy lives on. We were the first to have black women earn a baccalaureate degree. How cool is that?

Hartshorn girls

I salute these Richmonders. They stand as encouragement for us to do better. We are better than what we see in America today. In a recent post, I wrote about my great-grandfather’s 1907 speech, “The Pride of Tint” where he advocated integration and respect for people of other races and religions. I often wonder what he thought as he recorded the people he encountered on his streetcar run. Was documenting their accomplishments his goal? Did he have any idea that his photographs would provide a glimpse into life in the early 1900s? That he was also creating images his great-granddaughter would share a century later to celebrate Black History Month? To celebrate the pride of Richmond’s black neighborhoods? A well-deserved pride. These people studied, worked, strived for a better life, for an equal place at the table. Look at their faces. We can’t let them down.  We can do better than this. We can be better than this.


In my last entry, I promised to tell you about the figure in the background of Janey Charity’s photograph.  I believe she was Irma Rainey, one of several Armstrong High School students captured in many of Harry Stilson’s photographs. Today teenagers record their lives with selfies but back then, cameras were uncommon possessions and many families never had pictures taken. However, there was Harry Stilson, streetcar motorman (driver) and amateur photographer. He always had a camera beside him on his route and was happy to oblige the teenagers he met in Jackson Ward and elsewhere. To illustrate how significant Harry was in these kids’ lives, Harry died in 1934 but I have met two people who recalled my great-grandfather from their childhood. How amazing is that?

0142 Robinette, Irma & gang bk Irma seated, good.jpg

One of those people I’ve told you about before. I was sharing pictures at the Weinstein  Center. Among the babble of twenty old men discussing images, I heard a voice say “I knew a streetcar man named Stilson. He let me drive the streetcar.” Can you imagine my shock? Morris Goldberg was a nine or ten year old kid who hung around with Harry Stilson on his streetcar route in Jackson Ward. He can recall my great-grandfather’s lunch box and what he ate, how many times he was robbed, and how Harry let him ‘drive’ the streetcar.

Another recollection of Harry Stilson was from the child of one of Harry’s kids on his route. Irma Rainey’s daughter, Irma Dillard, contacted the Richmond Times Dispatch saying that she was raised on stories of Mr. Stilson watching out for her mother and friends. Like an early “neighborhood watch,” he’d let the girls off the car at night, wait, then holler “Y’all home?” They’d answer affirmatively and he’d move on. I met Irma Dillard and shared pictures of her mother and other Armstrong High School friends that she had never seen before. The girl in glasses in the pictures above is Irma Rainey.

One set of photographs was taken on the trestle that connected Virginia Union to Jackson Ward. Goldbug Wilson is perched on a trestle railing (below). Irma Dillard identified Percy Jones as a Union student and her father’s friend from New York. He showed up in other pictures as well like the one below of Brown’s Drug Store where he posed with Goldbug.  Virginia Union buildings are behind Percy in the middle photo below.

Robinette 068 Percy VUU 052 Goldbug Browns Pharmacy

Robinette Anderson and Goldbug Wilson were Irma Rainey’s girlfriends. I wouldn’t know their names had Irma Dillard not recognized her mother’s pals. Look closely at the lineup of girls below. Does the second girl from the left look like Janey Charity?

0019 Jany Charity 096 Irma line

See why the work I do is addictive? One thing leads to another but there are people around who can instantly identify Harry’s subjects and provide their stories. Black History month shouldn’t be confined to one month. Do you know families who’ve been in Richmond for a long time? Ask if I can show them photographs and collect their oral histories. Those stories are priceless and every day we’re losing the people who can share them. The Armstrong kids in Harry Stilson’s photographs went on to become teachers like Irma Rainey Dillard or businessmen, and to have children who became attorneys like Irma Rainey Dillard’s daughter, Irma Dillard, community leaders, and other impressive folks who built a legacy for us all.  I want to share those stories. Can you help me?

095 Irma, Robinette

Harry Stilson, Richmond streetcar driver and photographer in the early 1900s, lived in a segregated world. What people often do not realize is that “segregated” is a relative term. In Richmond’s Jackson Ward, Jewish immigrants lived beside African-American families and some churches had mixed congregations, although seating was usually separate. Harry Stilson, however, seemed to move between black and white worlds in an uncommon way. His journal records visits to Sam and Mary Sparrow’s home at 602 Elizabeth Street (across from Maggie Walker Governor’s School) and other interactions with Richmond’s African American community. He took photographs of the Sparrow house for them to share with relatives in Philadelphia and joked with Mrs. Sparrow and her friend Mrs. Taylor about bathing attire. He and his conductor, Mr. Epperson, went to Bessie Shiflett’s home to retrieve his “picture knife” when she “returned it not.” And he took portraits for black customers as well as hundreds of photographs of Richmond’s black community at work and play. These images offer a glimpse into lives not well-documented and provide insight into Harry Stilson’s attitude on race.

0058 Sparrow & taylor                                                  Sam & Mary Sparrow & Mary Taylor

Harry showed respect to African Americans in various ways. He labeled a child’s picture “Miss Rubin Lea Moore” and his journal often listed his black customers by title even as he identified them as “colored” which I assume was to help in sorting all his work. He mentioned photographing African-American doctors but with thousands of images,  there’s no way to match a photograph with Dr. Jones and Dr. Rigler.  One common theme in Stilson’s collection is that of black and white together. Photographs like this of two boys in a carriage, one white, one black, likely in Jackson Ward. Was he making a point? I don’t know.

094 awhite & black kid in carriage 090 icemen

Probably my favorite picture of all is that of his son, Don, with a friend in the backyard on Gilbert Street. I’ve tried to identify Don’s friend by notes on envelopes of negatives but census records leave gaps. Notes mention Dippy Bennett, Bozy, Denny Robinson but this kid could be anyone. I’d love to trace that little boy because I have several photos of him playing with my great-uncle and the family cat.

0153 Don & DennyDenny or Henry

I’ve shared Harry Stilson’s speech given in 1907 before but it bears repeating. He was invited to speak to the Ladies Literary Club in Michigan and I have the handwritten speech he gave, entitled “Our Tinted Population.” I also have the rejection letter Harry received when he submitted the speech as an article in a New York magazine in which he was told “We have no use for anything like this.” Well, we do have need of these words, now more than ever.

0151 Tinted Population bk

“We are black, brown, red, yellow and white. We are Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jew, spiritualist, atheist, or whatnot. If they be of different types, at variance in color, religion or nationality, or all three, I am constrained to believe, being optimistic, it is so much better for the world. I believe that the true test is one of character or moral worth, and that the best education is the one that develops that character without regard to color of skin or condition of society. I also think that the best way to remove that “pride of tint” is by honorable familiarity with the adverse color, religion or nationality. In no place can this honorable familiarity be better brought about than in our common schools and public churches. I would abolish all private schools…(so) that they should become more familiar with and less suspicious of those of different tint, and thus become better citizens of this great nation, having more respect for each other.”

0009 African American older man,cigar bk 005 sisters 0060 Bessie Watson, colored

The word “integration” may not have been in our vocabulary in 1907 but that’s what Harry Stilson was advocating. We assure ourselves that our nation is integrated now but, if that were truly the case, the racism of today wouldn’t be possible. It’s such a simple concept: become more familiar with people of other races and religions and you will have more respect for each other. Why is it so hard to implement?

Yogi Berra’s famous quote of “It’s déjà vu all over again” seemed appropriate in Richmond, Virginia recently. A National Guard soldier from Fort Pickett in Nottoway was charged with driving an armored personnel carrier off base…way off base, to downtown Richmond, while on drugs. He was taken to a psychiatric hospital and then charged with driving under the influence of drugs, unauthorized use of a National Guard vehicle and evading police. How can this be a repeat of history? Easy.  We simply refer to the Harry Stilson collection of photos.

My great-uncle Leon Stilson was at Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, during World War I. His letters are part of my most recent book based on my great-grandfather’s photographs, From Richmond to France, and Leon relates a similar story of joy-riding back in 1918.

The Camp Lee recruits were young men away from home perhaps for the first time and sometimes they got in trouble. Leon reported that “A private took a corporal home with him to Richmond last Saturday and the corporal went out of a house where they had went to visit and took the private’s automobile which he did not know how to drive and proceeded to go crazy on Broad Street and ended up by smashing the car up against a tobacco factory. Now he is in jail with a $50.00 fine unpaid. I think the Captain is going to try to get him out tomorrow morning.”

I doubt that a $50 fine will be the extent of costs to Joshua Phillip Yabut, who lives in Harry Stilson’s own Jackson Ward. The photo below isn’t of that WWI soldier’s mishap on Broad Street a century ago but it’s just down the road. It was taken at Broad & Meadow.

South's accident

You certainly could see military vehicles on the streets of Richmond during World War I. Parades and bond drives were events to display America’s tanks and other vehicles. The 5 ton tractor below (left) is moving along Broad Street in front of First Baptist Church, 12th & Broad, now absorbed into VCU. The anti-aircraft gun is on “Ford’s lot,” where Ford’s Theater had once stood, across from the second First Baptist Church building at 10th & Broad, another VCU building. Next time you’re in that area, look for those buildings tucked into the massive school complex.

5 ton tractor 075 anti-aircraft

Automobiles were common on Richmond streets in the early 1900s but they were a luxury that many couldn’t afford so not knowing how to drive wasn’t rare. Actually, the whole procedure for learning to drive and getting one’s license was still evolving. Even when my mom got her license in the 1940s, it was a haphazard affair. She learned to drive in the family’s cow pasture at the age of 14. Bon Air was too rural to require more than simply stopping the car where you wanted. When she took her test, she was told “Now parallel park.”   She had no idea how to parallel park and hit both standing signs, front and back of the car.  She got her license anyway.

The year was cut off in Harry Stilson’s picture of these folks lined up to get driver’s licenses in front of the Washington monument at the Capitol. It seemed noteworthy to my great-grandfather so I thought it might be the first year licenses were required.  I spent 45 minutes trying to find someone who could tell me what year that would have been but gave up. It was before 1920, that’s all I know.

DMV license line

Harry Stilson took a lot of pictures of automobiles and drivers. Cars were status symbols and proof of financial  accomplishment. This may be Mrs. Senf, owner of Senf’s Store at Norton & Clay. Harry noted in his journal that he had taken her photo in her new automobile.

woman driver

These days licenses are required for trailers but back then, there were no rules. When Mary Perry Stilson’s niece came to visit, they were usually on tour. Opal’s family performed around the country and needed space for their instruments so they towed  equipment behind the car. This last image is their departure from the Stilson home on Grayland Avenue.  When you see various  trailers on the road today, remember that once upon a time, you could hitch anything to a car that you had no license to drive and learn to drive by simply…driving.

opal's trailer