I haven’t posted recently for a few reasons, including foot surgeries that reduce me to crawling upstairs for access to the Stilson photos but Martin Luther King Day requires an effort. Reading past MLK posts, one quote struck me. In relating our experience on the streets of D.C. streets at the first Obama inauguration, I described my mom, sister, and I crowding with others to listen on a radio to the president’s speech. He said it was time to “choose our history.” So many are trying to edit history and restrict what is taught these days but that was not what President Obama was talking about. He was imploring our country to become the more perfect nation our forefathers dreamed of, even as their own lives were imperfect in many ways. They couldn’t envision a world where other races and genders were equal, where ALL, not just all men, are created equal. The direction we’re headed in scares me. Limitations on voting, women’s rights, and other issues threatens to hurl us backwards into times of segregation and barriers, when I was a kid and beyond. Back to the days of my great-grandfather, Harry Stilson: Richmond streetcar motorman, amateur photographer and radical.

Some photos and stories I post are ‘reruns’ because I inherited photographs and papers from Harry but he didn’t realize that a century later I would share his life with the world. He didn’t document events as fully or with as many photos as I would have wanted. He didn’t explain or identify or even choose his subjects as I would have liked. I wish I had a picture of Maggie Walker, who he must have known, because his streetcar stopped near her bank and he was in her neighborhood daily but if he did, it didn’t survive. What survived is a tiny bit of his letters and writings and nearly 5,000 photographs but with them, we can piece together a man who marched to a different drummer in the early 1900s, one comfortable on the streets of Jackson Ward, Richmond’s African-American and Jewish neighborhood and even in the houses of the black folks he knew. In a way, Harry was choosing his own history.

Jackson Ward was also choosing its history. That’s where Richmond’s first black schools were created, where black businesses, such as Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Pennysaving Bank, were making history. Hartshorn College was the first African-American women’s school in the United States to award baccalaureate degrees and it stood where Maggie Walker Governor’s School is located today, at Lombardy and Leigh. Although students weren’t allowed to ride streetcars, Harry knew students and teachers and interacted with them in ways other middle-aged white men didn’t. In the Hartshorn group below, students posed with their tatting (like crocheting) and the other picture includes their teacher, Miss Julia Elwin. Hartshorn had white teachers but Virginia Union University, across the “trestle” from Hartshorn, made history by employing black professors. Harry didn’t identify any of his images as being at “Union” as its older alumni call it, but Percy Jones of New York, posed on the trestle with Virginia Union buildings in the background. Irma Dillard’s father was best friends with Percy and she identified him as well as her mother’s friends from Armstrong High School that Harry photographed often.

One Armstrong student, Maggie Lena Walker was an anomaly in her time. The daughter of a laundry woman and former slave, she taught school and was an officer in the Independent Order of St. Luke. That fraternal society offered insurance and provided social services not available to African Americans. She went on to be a successful business woman and the first African-American female bank president in America. Her St. Luke Pennysaving Bank, corner of First & Marshall Streets, is visible behind the streetcar in this Stilson image. That bank later became Consolidated Bank & Trust. Maggie Walker influenced other aspects of life, including creating the Richmond Council of Colored Women in 1912. Her home in Jackson Ward is part of the National Park Service and is open to the public. I always learn something new when I’m there and it’s well worth a visit.

The folks who attended Jackson Ward’s schools were choosing their history by reaching for a better life. They went on to be architects, business owners, preachers, and teachers. Often, their parents were illiterate and working as laborers and laundry women but those parents were determined that their children achieve more. They collected money to start schools when there were no public schools in Richmond (especially for black kids!) and they sacrificed for their children to be educated and able to vote. All of their children, including females. I remember one of my oral history sources calling Clay Street “Strivers’ Street” because the families living there were striving for a better life. Choosing their history.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, perhaps we can choose our history. Not editing the past and cleaning up the nation’s shames and sins but determining a path forward for all. Harry Stilson wrote a speech in 1909 about such a path. He submitted it to a magazine but it was rejected because its content wasn’t “acceptable.” He suggested “common schools and churches” (integration) and offered the idea that if students became “more familiar” with “those of a different tint,” that they would become “better citizens of this great nation, having more respect for each other and less strife.” I am thankful that Harry’s hand-written talk survived and that I can share it. It’s an example of how we can choose our history even when our ideas aren’t popular. Even when ridiculed or criticized. We can still choose our history but we have to choose it well.

One of my favorite photos: Harry’s son, Don Stilson & friend in the back yard on Gilbert Street. Pigeon coop in background.

It almost always rains at Virginia State fair time. While a hurricane like Ian isn’t common, rainy fair visits are. I’m not sure if Harry Stilson only went to the fair on sunny days or if the weather was more merciful a century ago but his photographs reflect good weather so, on this rainy Ian-impacted day, let’s pretend it’s sunny and visit the Virginia State Fair, Richmond, Virginia, 1920s.

Some of the photographs I inherited and use in my Richmond In Sight programs and books weren’t taken by my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson, but by his son, Leon, who shared his father’s photography obsession. In addition to photographs, I have some amazing movies of the fair, which I include in my “movie night” programs. If your organization is in the Richmond area, my presentations and movie showings are free. Just get in touch and we’ll see what we can arrange.

Harry’s journal and letters are evidence that he attended the fair not only every year but multiple times each year. I have a cousin, Anne Soffee, who is just as passionate about the fair. She and Harry would have been great friends. When we were kids, we were required to visit the exhibits before we hit the rides so we’ll keep that rule. Curles Neck Dairy was located along Harry’s streetcar route and he took several shots of the farm’s cows. The Henrico Boys’ Club cattle weren’t left out of the picture, either. And hey, is that the VCU ram?

 Machinery always interested Harry and his movies reflected that. He has a fairly long segment of exhibits and demonstrations of tractors and other equipment. Maybe the grader was used to prepare the race track. I often wonder if any of the horses in his movies or photographs went on to equine fame.

And now the fun stuff…shows and rides. The high dive into a tiny tank of water is enough to make your stomach hurt and you have to wonder how these ladies swam in such a limited area but the crowd seemed to like it. Some of the rides are the same as those at the fair today and perhaps even the actual rides of Harry’s time (gulp!). Bill “Bojangles” Robinson came home to Richmond often and I wish I could see the dancing man below better. Pretty sure it’s not “Bojangles” but he wasn’t a big star yet and ya just never know.

I have so many more great images of the fair that Harry and his family witnessed. He captured several shows, bands (not sure why when his movies were silent), and one of my favorites: the performer in the last picture. My recent foot surgery prevented me from smelling the onions, peppers, and sausages, from checking out the animals and my brother & his daughters’ entries of photography and art, from overseeing the midway from the top of the ferris wheel or getting sticky from cotton candy or a candy apple this year. I’ll have to make do with a visit to the Virginia State Fair 1919-1923. Come one, come all…

Risking repetition of a 2016 post, I decided to write again about the 1918 Influenza and past health crises as the world finds hope in vaccines. Discussing vaccines recently with my granddaughters, they informed me that they wanted “the one that’s only one shot.”  I told them about getting my polio vaccination in the form of a sugar cube and they immediately decided that was how they wanted their COVID-19 vaccination. Who knows? They’re starting tests on kids and COVID vaccines now so sugar cubes or another less-dreaded inoculation than shots could be possible in the future.

Diphtheria was a dreaded disease that vaccinations virtually eliminated. I found this booklet entitled “Train Ticket to No-Diphtheria-Town on the Health Road” filled out with my aunt’s name. In 1913, the Schick skin test was developed but only came to the United States in 1923. It offered a simple mass immunization and I suppose the “Train Ticket” was designed to inspire participation in the immunization programs. Maybe we should advertise vaccinations as train tickets. A lot of people are behaving like spoiled kids about vaccines so a campaign on their level might work.  

My great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, documented what was called the Spanish Influenza in his journal. Usually he simply called it the influenza and rightfully so. As with our current pandemic, the name Spanish Influenza was politically motivated. The world was at war. No one knew where the virus originated but to prevent panic, warring countries restricted news of illnesses and death. Neutral Spain, however, was more transparent and became the target of misinformation that Spain was the epicenter with more cases than other countries. This was not true. Fifty million died of the 1918 Influenza worldwide, more than died in WWI battles.

Returning soldiers spread the illness but sometimes our soldiers arrived home to find that loved ones had died from influenza while they fought in France. Such was the case of Ralph Goode. His son Clyde recalled:  “He didn’t know it…he was on the ship coming back and found out when he got home. “ Among the soldiers who died of influenza in France was Richmonder Otis P. Robinson of Jackson Ward. He wrote his sister Carrie Harris: “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 til we meet again.” Circumstances like these echo the isolation of COVID patients today, dying without loved ones near.

A poignant illustration of this is illustrated in the set of burial at sea photographs Harry developed for a naval officer he met in Norfolk while on vacation. I researched A.V. Boykins who died of pneumonia which could have been caused by influenza. The timing and circumstances match.

Influenza dominated life in Richmond and I shared stories of that in my book, From Richmond to France. Times were hard and Dolores Miller reported that Bliley’s Funeral Home gave bread and eggs to families struggling to feed their children. One day her Elam relatives went for provisions. They described halls lined with bodies in an overwhelmed funeral home. As the children walked between corpses, they swore “one of the bodies sat up just like it was alive.” That was the story passed down through the family, at least. One fact is certainly true. Burying the dead was a massive job.

Dolores’ family was mentioned in Harry’s journal often because the Elams rented a house that he owned next door. He captured them in photographs and wrote that an Elam daughter had survived the influenza. Others didn’t make it.  Harry noted: “Fri 10/25/18 Spanish Influenza the end of Willie McCloud last night.” I assumed (wrongly) that this was a Richmond man Harry knew. Instead, William McCloud was a black cook who died in Norfolk of “Pneumonic type Spanish Influenza” and was buried in the “col cemetery” in Norfolk so he must have been a relative or friend of one of Harry’s African-American acquaintances. Harry’s streetcar route in Jackson Ward offered him a glimpse into black lives rarely experienced by a middle-aged white man in the early 1900s. I often go down a rabbit hole following a name in Harry’s papers. Tracking names in Harry Stilson’s journals and on photographs sometimes leads to unusual discoveries, like the fact that my friend Dolores’ family lived next door to my family, but many, like this example of Willie McCloud, end with more questions than answers. How did Harry know Willie?

One example of how prevalent the flu was and how it seeped into all facets of life is this little verse my father repeated to me: “I had a little bird, his name was Enza. I opened the window and IN-FLU-ENZA!” No one knew how the virus spread but assumed it was air-borne so this ditty may have been a warning. Masks were worn and, back then, it wasn’t a political statement but comprehension that your life (and others’) could depend on the protection of a mask.

A vaccine didn’t end the 1918 Influenza. We’ve learned from that historic pandemic how to prevent viral spread if we just use common sense and we’re so much more fortunate today. We have vaccines and knowledge. Harry Stilson never mentioned how he responded to the threat posed by his work as a streetcar motorman. He suffered respiratory illnesses so the fact that he survived despite constant interactions with the public indicates that he took precautions. We can do the same. Like Richmonders in 1918-1919, wear a mask. Keep socially distant. We’re far better off than they were: we can get a vaccine. Do it. Let’s be at least as responsible as Richmonders a century ago.

Norma’s Diphtheria Train vaccination record

Harry Stilson captured Richmond’s African-American residents at work: a man carrying bricks on his head, a woman with laundry basket balanced on her head, men in Gunn Lumber Yard. All these and more were ordinary people on the streets of Jackson Ward and other parts of Richmond in a time when those activities weren’t exceptional or photo-worthy of commemorating. However, my great-grandfather did commemorate those working folks, often naming them and telling their stories. Around Richard Willis’ photograph, Harry wrote his name, the fact that he had “Fresh fish and oysters” and his comment “I didn’t know any other way to carry them.” To end Black History Month, here are just a few of the black people who worked to feed the city, to maintain its streets, and to supply its residents with clean clothes. We’ve honored essential workers who have kept us fed and functional during the Pandemic so let’s celebrate essential workers of the early 1900s.

Someone, probably my grandmother, hand-tinted this photograph of a laundry woman carrying her baskets of clean laundry. Harry noted in his journal that he took “Snapshot at a young colored woman standing on bank near end of W. Leigh with a basket of clean clothes on ground” which I haven’t found but I wonder if perhaps this was another version of her.

This cobblestone work was in the 1700 block of Leigh Street. I know this because the two one-story houses in the background are still there. Mr. Barky Haggins identified that spot in several of Harry’s pictures and sure enough, when Harry said he took pictures at “1738 Leigh Street,” he did.

Harry’s son, my great-uncle Leon Stilson, worked at Gunn Lumber Yard for a while. I have his reference from them when he was looking for another job. Leon also had a camera and he may have taken these instead of Harry.  Either way, W S Gunn & Company was at Marshall & Kinney in Jackson Ward.  

I’ve shared this image a few times but it’s one of my favorites. I call it “Cook with an Attitude” and it could be the “Sue Coleman colored head cook at Bowe & Calhoun” as Harry described her.

Richmond’s abbatoires (slaughter houses) were a significant part of its economy. I’ve been told many stories about working at Kingan’s, from the son of the manager in one of Harry’s photographs to the nieces of a worker who walked them over boards to avoid the mud on visits. Not sure why a slaughterhouse would be a fun visit but those ladies told me that working at Kingan’s was a really big deal, steady pay.

Steady pay or not, these are some of the people who kept Richmond running a century ago. Black history month shouldn’t be relegated to a single month. We needed these folks every day of every year back when Harry Stilson was motorman on the streetcar and we need the same kind of hard workers to get us through the Pandemic. Essential workers, 1918 and 2021. They’re, well, essential.

As promised, this post describes what we call K-12 schools, although that loosely defines Richmond education in Harry Stilson’s time. Much of the following is from my book, On the West Clay Line: Jackson Ward, Carver and Newtowne West, which combines my great-grandfather’s photography with stories collected from people who grew up in those neighborhoods. Jackson Ward was built by African Americans and Jewish immigrants and offers a historically rich culture. If you’re curious, my books are available on the Richmond in Sight website, www.richmondinsight.com.

Family on Moore Street, First Union Church in background, Hartshorn Memorial College in far distance behind children

Most of Jackson Ward’s earlier African-American residents were uneducated. Free or slave, literacy was a rare gift in the 1800s and education a strong priority among the parents of black children. Education was so precious that sacrifices were made willingly so that teachers and facilities were available for future generations. There was no public education in Richmond before the early 1900s for either race. It was common practice to hold classes in private residences with casual arrangements of ages and schedules. Not good enough, said parents in Jackson Ward, so fundraising and political arm-twisting began at various levels.

” Miss Rubin Lee Moore” was written on this photo, Mrs. Hilda Warden identified her as a “childhood friend” who lived on Clay

Their efforts resulted in the construction of Booker T. Washington School at 21 East Leigh Street, the oldest public school building in Richmond. It was established as a black high school in the 1890’s. Armstrong High School, designed by Charles Russell (119 W. Leigh) was the only Richmond high school built specifically for African Americans until the late 1930’s and currently houses the Richmond Public Schools Adult Career Development Center.

In my last post, I introduced you to Irma Dillard, whose mother told her about Mr. Stilson and how he watched out for her friends, high school kids at Armstrong High School. Recalling her mother’s stories, Irma Dillard explained, “Originally there was a one room Newtowne School on Moore Street. And it was one room, a public school. She went to Moore School. It was not Carver. Moore School is the very old building back of Carver, literally abandoned now. I don’t know if it’s still standing.” It was, last time I drove down to look for it.

Irma Rainey (later Dillard), Robinette Anderson, Goldbug Wilson and other Armstrong students

It appears that Harry Stilson was close to a lot of the kids in Jackson Ward. On the back of one photo he wrote “A colored friend behind school” and the location has been tentatively identified as Moore Street School. Behind the curtsying girl is an outhouse. Gender-separated toilet facilities weren’t an issue back then. Everyone used the same outhouse.

“A colored friend behind school”

Irma Dillard’s mother’s friend, Wesley Carter, lived in the 1400 block of Moore Street so he also attended Moore Street School. “…and then Carver, then Armstrong High School.” Wesley Carter was an alumnus of an unusual school program in Richmond, “open air” or “fresh air” classes. Ella Flowers described open air members as “those who were thin and they thought they had tuberculosis.” Others mentioned respiratory illnesses or malnutrition but those students sat in classrooms with the windows open year round because it was believed to be beneficial to their health. Children wore coats as they shivered at their desks. Wesley Carter complained, “Let me tell you something about Moore Street School. They didn’t call it rheumatic fever back then but I had some fever and I stayed in a wheelchaiar all summer because I was very weak so they put me in what you call open air class. With windows wide open. Cold!”

We might want to reconsider those fresh air classes. Wesley Carter died at nearly 105 and other Jackson Ward “open air kids” whose oral histories I collected lived into their late 90s.

There were other schools besides Moore Street School. Ellalee Flowers’ sister, Laverne Fountain, recalled: “I started at Navy Hill. Then Booker T. I thought I was going from there to Armstrong but they’d built (Maggie) Walker the year before…I had to walk from 8th Street up to Walker but I got home in a hurry because those Newtowne kids chased us home every day. We didn’t have backpacks, we had our books like this (demonstrating holding books) “…but there was a classmate whose father was a minister so he had a car. We had to walk up to where Armstrong was and if they were still there, we could all pile in just like piling into a phone booth.”

Ruby Walker named her schools: “Elba, Moore, Armstrong. Elba was 1000 W. Marshall Street, across from the T&E Laundry.” In those days, Armstrong was in the building where Benjamin Graves School is now, across the street from the Armory, now the Black History Museum. According to my oral history sources, students walked over to the Armory for gym.

Many of those students from Armstrong and Maggie Walker, like Wesley Carter, later attended Virginia Union or Virginia State University. They fulfilled the dreams of the parents who sacrificed to build schools and provide teachers so that their children could be educated. Think of how parents long for schools to be opened as we endure the Pandemic. That’s the kind of desire that spurred African American parents of Jackson Ward to donate precious funds and efforts to create environments where their children could learn. That’s the kind of determination that we celebrate during Black History Month and always.

Black History Month is a good time to remember the significant role in education that Richmond has played. Virginia Union University (“Union” to its older alumni) is probably familiar to you but did you know that Richmond was home to the first African American women’s college to award baccalaureate degrees in the United States? As my grandmother would say “tis so.” Hartshorn Memorial College, funded by Joseph C. Hartshorn to honor his wife Rachel, was established in 1883, holding classes in the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church on Leigh Street until the campus was complete. I once gave a program in that same basement, sharing Hartshorn pictures. Hartshorn was located at Lombardy & Leigh, where Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School now stands. My great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, had a streetcar route with a stop at Hartshorn, considered Newtowne West back then, I suppose. Today most people refer to area simply as Jackson Ward. The Carver neighborhood wasn’t called that until George W. Carver School was built in 1951, and, while the name Newtowne is rarely used, talk with any elderly residents of the area and you’ll hear very specific descriptions of where places were. This map is from my book, On the West Clay Line. No time to find the map so I just took a picture with my phone but it might clarify neighborhoods. The point is this: Harry was at Hartshorn, Harry never went anywhere without his camera, and Harry took a lot of photos of the ladies and buildings of Hartshorn. Those magnificent structures were demolished but, thanks to Harry, we can revisit a piece of educational history.

Stilson’s streetcar conductor, Mr. Epperson, at Hartshorn College during WWI

Richmond didn’t offer much in public education back then, for whites or blacks. My next blog entry will explore education for younger black kids in Richmond but Hartshorn actually offered both college and high school. Harry’s journal entry naming two girls was a surprising discovery. I found a photo of two girls and a journal entry with two names, Maude E. Brown and Iva Carter. I called Virginia Union to see if they were students and was told, yes, high school students.

Maude E. Brown & Iva Carter, high school students at Hartshorn

Several of my oral history sources had relatives that attended Hartshorn College. School rules were strict: no streetcar rides, no dating, no sweets. Temperance was supported, corsets were discouraged. I’m OK with no drinking or corsets but no sweets? The curriculum was geared to academics but health and homemaking skills were also taught, as evidenced by this photo of Miss Elwin’s class and their tatting, a form of lace-making.  Hartshorn’s innovative “model classroom program” was similar to today’s student teaching programs.   

Hartshorn students working on their tatting

Harry’s journal frustrates me because he mentions so many intriguing photos that either didn’t survive or are unidentifiable to me. On May 31, 1918, he wrote that he took photos of “Dr. and Mrs. Rigler in front of Hartshorn.” That would be Geoffrey W. Rigler, president of Hartshorn and the archivist at VUU sent me his photo hoping I could identify Harry’s picture. I doubt Dr. Rigler would look kindly on the man climbing out of the girls’ first floor dorm room that Harry captured on film. You can’t see it without a high resolution view but he’s there so the no dating rule was obviously broken at least once.  

First floor left corner…man climbing out of dorm window. Harry’s tripod is at fence line

The teaching staff was white, like Miss Julia Elwin. Harry took several photos of her, with her classes and in her rose garden. I am still trying to locate the garden pictures but I did find her in the 1920 U.S. Census. Julia Maria Elwin, born in Maine, teaching at 1600 Leigh Street. Yup, that would be her.   

Miss Julia Elwin seated with her students, Hartshorn College, 1920

The “Union” in Virginia Union University’s name is appropriate because the school is literally a union of nine schools, including Hartshorn, which merged with the larger facility in 1932. In its infancy, Virginia Union offered a unified educational system with an unusual feature: its power plant generated its own power and water supply and the adjacent Agricultural Training School housed pigs, chickens, cows, and horses. Students were expected to maintain the plant and tend the farm which supplied the University and supplied income. They worked construction as well. Virginia granite, cut and laid by students, created an impressive Romanesque Revival campus with an unusual agricultural component. Virginia Union is credited with hiring the first black staff and instructors in a Southern institution, among them architect, Charles Russell.  This wagon may have carried stock to or from Virginia Union.

Bull in wagon in front of Hartshorn College

One amazing part of my Richmond In Sight adventure is how often Harry’s photographic subjects have relatives still here who can share stories about the people in Stilson photographs, nearly a century later. An article in the Richmond Times Dispatch led me to Irma Dillard and I surprised her with pictures of her mother, Irma Rainey Dillard, and friends that Harry took. Irma Dillard identified them including her dad’s friend, Percy Jones, from New York, posing on the trestle between Hartshorn and Union.  

Percy Jones on trestle, Virginia Union University behind him

Those students are gone now but their children often followed them into higher education and better lives. Many of Virginia Union’s alumni can point to generations of Union students and one of my very favorite people was Wesley Carter, who held the title “Oldest Virginia Union alumnus” for years. He took classes there and attended events til the end of his life. He had a special seat in most buildings including the cafeteria where he ate often and students knew not to take his seat. When I expressed surprise that, at 103, he communicated through email, he proudly informed me: “I took computer classes at Union.  They give me free classes, you know.” As well they should. Anyone eager to continue his education into his 90s and beyond deserves free classes. Dr. Carter was engaged with learning and sharing that knowledge until the end of his life, just two months shy of 105. And when he died, his memorial service was held at his beloved Union. What a testament to the power of education and the determination of Richmond’s African-Americans to learn.

Wesley Carter introducing Kitty Snow at an Astoria Beneficial Club dinner

I’m not sure what to write on this holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King. My heart is broken after the events of January 6th and, while optimism is a core characteristic of mine, I’m having a hard time feeling hopeful. I’ve shared posts about how my family has volunteered in political activities for both parties and shown memorabilia from past campaigns and elections and parts of Harry Stilson’s speech of 1907, titled “Pride of Tint” where he advocated integration of schools, churches and other aspects of life as the path to what he called “familiarity” between races and faiths which he believed would inspire respect and would lead to a better America. In light of the attack on the Capitol, it seems that we are far from the respect that my great-grandfather dreamed of.

My eyes land on one of the thousands of Stilson items I inherited: a small jewelry box of the Capitol, a souvenir from decades, perhaps even a century ago.  Someone in my family cherished it and rightfully so. That symbol of democracy is sacred and it was desecrated by domestic terrorists, demanding death to our vice president, lawmakers, police officers, incited to violence by the very person who should embody our ideals. Images of that mob of thousands was a striking reminder of past events that brought multitudes to those streets, among them the March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and the first Obama inauguration. The first was a peaceful protest, the second a celebration of history being made. Inaugerations are normally exciting. The streets of Washington should be preparing to celebrate the endurance of our “American experiment,” the peaceful transition of one administration to another. It’s a declaration that America has voted and that vote is honored. Until January 6th. The contrast is stunning and heartbreaking.

I was almost twelve when I listened to Dr. King’s vision for equality on the radio but I was in D.C., on the street, along with my mom and sister when Barak Obama called for a “new era of responsibility.” Thank goodness for radios because again I heard historic words on a radio. We listened to his speech on a woman’s transistor radio, crowded closely to hear. My white-haired mom and an elderly black man, a young man from Australia, the rest of us various ages and races. All focused on the promise of a more perfect union as we were reminded why we were there and what we were charged with. President Obama’s charge to the nation is even more relevant today:

“On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.  On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.  We remain a young nation.  But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.  The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation:  the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”  

One phrase strikes me as particularly profound, that the time has come to “choose our better history.” Lord knows our country’s image has suffered incredible damage by recent actions and words but we can choose our better history. We can hold those guilty of insurrection and tarnishing our sacred symbol of democracy accountable. We can say “enough.” We can come together to protect each other, to respect each other, to fufill the dream that Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned for America. Instead of a city under siege, the streets of Washington should be teeming with people with dreams, hopes, ideas. Like the small Capitol jewelry box, the “American experiment” can be preserved and cherished for the future. Barriers can come down, streets opened to share what democracy looks like. Instead of a call for change, “This is what democracy looks like!” can be and endorsement. Celebrations on the streets of our Capital will return. We’ll choose our better history and create a more perfect union.  I know we can.


My family has always been active politically. I found a McKinley/Hobart campaign pin in my great-grandmother’s button jar so perhaps my paternal side of the family was always Republican, unlike my mom’s side (which is MY side politically!). On the eve of this critical election, I thought I’d pull out some  political mementos from my Stilson archives but my time was limited. I was making calls for Joe Biden again today.  So…here’s a quick abbreviated glance at some political history as experienced by Harry Stilson and his descendants.

I’ve shared some of Harry’s writings regarding his opinions on racial inequality. His 1907 speech advocating integration, for one thing. He made that speech to the Ladies’ Literary Club in his hometown in Michigan on a trip back from Virginia, where he and his family had recently moved. As a middle-aged white man on his streetcar route in Jackson Ward, his journal notes about visiting black families, donating to a black man’s funeral expenses, taking pictures of African-American kids, his son’s photo with his black friend, all indicate a pretty progressive stance. He felt that familiarity would create respect and that respect for other races and religions would make a better America.  I’m an independent who mostly votes for Democrats and I tend to think of Republicans as very conservative so the items that suggest he voted Republican surprised me given his radical ideas but parties change over time. They must, because Harry’s granddaughter, a very strong feminist, was immersed in the Republican Party most of her life. As the second female bridge engineer in Virginia and a munitions designer at the Pentagon in WWII, her attention to detail and perfect handwriting lent itself to her volunteer schedule sheets below. Strikingly different from today when I go online, click on a link and the people to call and their numbers appears on my screen after the text or email confirming I’ll be making calls.

In Harry Stilson’s journal, he noted “Tues 8/6/18 took 6 pictures last one of myself voting to abolish Administrative Boards.” I have searched online for images of voting booths in Virginia back then to see if I could identify this mysterious photo. Nothing. I searched for “Administrative Board Richmond VA” and the only thing I find is articles about the 1918 Spanish Influenza and the Board actions regarding health restrictions. Boy, I hope Harry wasn’t the Trump equivalent of 1918, rejecting lockdowns and mask wearing! I posted the photo below on Facebook asking if anyone can shed light on what Harry’s in front of: voting booth? Dressing room? WHAT? Maybe you can help me out here.

Politics and world events interested Harry. He attended War bond drives, his son Leon fought and died in France, his wife was a leader in the Virginia Gold Star Mothers and sailed to France on a Gold Star Pilgrimage, and Harry documented WWI from start to finish in film, both still and movies. The family attended the 150th celebration of Yorktown where Harry photographed President Hoover and his secret service on parade. His young grandson, my father, shook the President’s hand that day. Harry had even written to Washington while on a rampage after his wife left him, demanding that the government do something, I’m not sure what. That crazy spell only lasted a short while and then he proceeded to get on with life as a single father, streetcar motorman, and amateur photographer. After the war, his ex-wife returned to Richmond and they resumed life as if years and a divorce hadn’t occurred. Far as I can tell, they both voted until their deaths.

I have an entire storage box of political memorabilia, from posters to letters to pins. Letters to my aunt Norma Kathleen “Kit” Lynch thanking her for her volunteer efforts.  A card from Eddy Dalton when Kit was in the hospital with cancer. Pins from Ike to Reagan. Jewelry, cartoons, whatever.

Browsing through these items, it saddens me that the divisive environment politically prevents us from having differences of opinions without rancor. I didn’t agree with my father or my aunt but I respected their passion. I respected their right to disagree with me. I’ve knocked on doors over the years and, in this pandemic, I’ve bitten the bullet and made cold calls, which I won’t do for my business but I will do for the sake of our country. I don’t have much in the way of souvenirs but I’ll share my T-shirt from Hillary’s campaign and a photo I took when President Obama was in Richmond and my mom and I stood for hours barely with room to move (pre-pandemic, remember those days?), so excited to hear and see him. I guess it runs in the family. That passion for being involved, for speaking our minds, for volunteering. For VOTING. If you haven’t voted yet, go vote tomorrow.

My cousin, Anne Soffee, loves the Virginia State Fair so, in this COVID world of canceled events, she’s mourning the loss of this traditional part of fall. I realize that the last post I did was to remember the summer fun we’d normally be having but I promised her nostalgic pictures. The fair was Harry Stilson’s favorite event as well so here we go again: pretending we’re doing things we can’t do right now. The first photo was nearly a century ago to the day.

Some of my oral history sources recall sneaking through the fence at the fairgrounds on the Boulevard where the Diamond is today. Morris Goldberg never paid for streetcar rides but scavenged transfers discarded by riders and he confessed to slipping through a hole in the fence to go to the fair. He heckled a midway barker, demanding his money back if not satisfied (he didn’t have money to pay anyhow) and the irritated barker growled “Get out of here, kid.”  Harry Stilson paid for his tickets and he was often accompanied by his children, Leon, Anita, and Don. Some of the photographs were taken by Leon.

As kids, we were required to visit the animal exhibits before we could hit the rides. One state fair picture struck me as odd. Were deer that unusual?

T.W. Woods was a prominent Richmond seed company so this exhibit of “electric lights” was probably well-attended. I just like checking out the fruits and vegetables.

I’ve wondered if the rides of today’s state fairs are the same machinery as back then. We do still have the Caterpillar and the swings.

Harry and Leon’s horse racing photos were blurred but, hey, those horses were fast. Did any of these horses go on to fame?

This act is African-Americans. I’d love to think the man dancing is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson because he was a Richmonder and he did come home regularly, performing here often before he made it big but probably not. I haven’t found a way to research his schedule for October 1920.

In Harry’s movies, there is a clip of a black performing group which could be the act that my would be/could be Bojangles is with. There’s also a midway act that reminds me of a young Morris Goldberg. I’ve shared this performer before but she’s worth another look.

This horse act is Holland & Dockrill, World Famous Equestrians.

It’s hard to see but this captures the high diver as he leaves the platform. Harry also caught a saner performer diving into this barrel of water.

And because it’s our most fervent dream these days, I just had to include this picture. Maybe one day we can crowd like this at the Virginia State Fair, candy apple in hand, cotton candy sticky fingers, the sound of the midway in our ears and our hardest decision which ride to go on next.

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