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


Memorial Day. It’s unlike other holidays because we aren’t really celebrating but remembering the men and women who died so that we, and those in other lands, can live freely so it’s not really a celebration but a time of reflection. My latest book, From Richmond to France, focuses on Richmond’s “soldier boys” boys who fought in World War I, and the aftermath of that war including Gold Star Pilgrimages to France where mothers and widows visited their loved ones’ graves. We don’t seem to share the national grief that was felt in earlier times and that’s sad. Perhaps we’ve seen so much of war’s devastation that it no longer impacts us. That’s tragic. I heard a report on NPR about soldiers’ suicides and how painful it is for families who feel that their sons, husbands, or fathers have been overlooked as heroes and it hurt my heart. We ask so much of our military and that includes their families and friends.  It’s a small thing for them to ask that we remember lives lost and families destroyed, that we stop and imagine that kind of loss in our own lives, at least once a year.

077 MPS at LHS grave


It’s easy for me to visualize losing a son in war because my great-uncle, Leon Stilson, died in France at the end of WWI and I’ve read his letters. I know that he longed to buy a farm and leave his job as streetcar conductor on the cobblestoned streets of Richmond. He had plans, was awkward and shy, speculated about finding someone to share his life with, and was a considerate son who mailed his mother an embroidered handkerchief shortly before his death. I’ve come to know Leon, a soldier who died a century ago and I know how his death affected his family.


In a time before internet, before instant communications, our family received a rare gift: an eyewitness account of how Leon was shot, written by the man beside him, George Ivey of Petersburg. That man’s father, Thomas Ivey, sought out Leon’s family as requested by his son. George was anxious to know if Leon made it home.  Reading how Leon managed to provide sniper location and distance information after he was shot eight times, how that saved his fellow soldiers, how George shared his coat when Leon was cold, is painful. Reading the hope in that letter that Leon had survived his wounds is heartbreaking. A century after Leon died on French soil, hearing a mother describe her son’s return from Iraq, her thankfulness that he had survived, and then her agony when he later killed himself is soul-destroying.

Perhaps praying that someday Memorial Day will be held in memory of soldiers from long ago and not to remember young men and women who grew up with our children is unrealistic. My son’s close friend died serving as an MP and the loss of that young man with his potential to do so much in life still pains me.


I’d like to think that someday we’ll learn to live without wars or conflict. Until we do, and even then, we should stop and thank those who gave the greatest sacrifice of all for us, people they never knew but that they were willing to die for. It’s such a small thing to remember those men and women. If we can’t do it every day of the year, we can at least do it one day of the year.

Leon Stilson on leave


Anne Lewis  Easter bonnets ELFS

Easter bonnets. These days we parody them like these pictures of my aunt Anne at the family Easter egg hunt and my triplet grandbabies but back in Harry Stilson’s time, fashion was taken very seriously. I found an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch on April 12, 1925 that reported that the first man wearing a straw hat was seen at 1St & Franklin and summer attire had officially begun.  Harry’s tenants, the Crawfords, posed on Grayland Avenue and yes, straw hats were still in season in September.

poppy trip

Women wore hats (and white gloves) whenever they were in public. This hat department photo of Harry’s could have been an advertisement shot. Without notes or labels, that’s just a guess.

045 Peggy Gay hats

I believe the man posing here is in the Salvation Army band. The lady beside him is fashionably attired, I suppose. What a coat!


Bathing attire at Shields Lake was less revealing than today’s bikinis but still considered scandalous in some circles. I have a journal entry where Harry mentions showing his African-American friends, Mary Sparrow and Mary Taylor, bathing pictures which inspired bawdy comments. That visit was just one where I marvel at Harry’s audacity. For a middle-aged white man to be comfortable in a black household was uncommon but to visit and discuss bathing attire with ladies of any color was quite unheard of.

Swimming couple Shields Lake

I pity kids in those days. Their clothing was uncomfortable and not conducive to playing. Below is “Mrs. Stone’s son” with Harry’s shadow in the photo. Little boys wore dresses and I always laugh when I see this picture of my father and his sister Norma, the least girly kid ever. She grew up to be a bridge engineer and I don’t remember her in dresses. Ever. Certainly not like this!

Stone boy   nkl hdl hats sepia





Harry even documented fashionable lounge wear for men. His neighbor, Jack Proctor, appeared in many photographs but this one of him in his jammies is a rare view of intimate clothing. Jack married the daughter of the Stilsons’ neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Elam. Ironically, decades later, I discovered that my friend Dolores Miller is kin to the Elams. She shared a story for my WWI book, From Richmond to France, and it sounded so familiar. It was familiar. Harry related the same story in his journal in 1918. Now the Elams’ descendants can giggle over great-uncle Jack’s PJs.

jack proctor robe

This Grayland Avenue photo of Harry and his daughter, Anita (my grandmother) indicates the formality of those days. I believe this was a reunion when Anita and her husband came to Richmond but, unlike today’s hugs, a handshake sufficed. I suppose that in a society that wore suits to the beach and heels to garden, a PDA or any demonstration of affection was simply out of the question. It just wasn’t done.

HHS and Anita  vera and baby beach

Right: Harry’s sister Vera, with women he sold photos to on a two-day vacation to Virginia Beach.

Red-lining wasn’t a term on my radar until I became a Realtor in 1986. It’s the practice of drawing map lines on minority neighborhoods to designate “risky” loan areas for lenders. I grew up in Richmond very much aware of segregation in housing but not the word “red-lining.” When my great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, ran a Richmond streetcar route from 1909 until his death in 1934, neighborhoods were segregated…sort of.

Denny or Henry

                                                 Don’s neighbor holding the Stilson cat

Jackson Ward was comprised mostly of African-Americans and Jewish immigrants and there was separation within the neighborhoods but you might have a pocket of three or four Jewish families, then black, then Jewish again. For a while, Harry lived in the Byrd Park area on Gilbert Street and they must have had black neighbors because my great-uncle Don was photographed beside his African-American friend and one envelope of negatives described “Don and his colored friends from the neighborhood playing in the yard.” City neighborhoods were segregated but often block by block or even house by house. My oral history sources confirmed that in their stories. Aleck Mollen’s father, a Jewish storeowner in Shockoe Bottom, lived above the family store and rented the basement to a black family. Mr. Mollen said “They lived there and they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. We just all lived there.” One of my white sources recalled that his family was so poor that they envied the black kids whose families owned their homes.

136 Shurricks Store

                        Jewish storekeepers Mr. & Mrs. Shurrick’s store, 17th & Fairfield

Lenders weren’t concerned about making (or not making) loans to African-Americans in particular areas because they didn’t give mortgages to any black folks. In those days, there were few borrowing options available to African-Americans and insurance was rarely offered to blacks.

093 belmont

Social organizations such as the Independent Order of St. Luke and the Astoria Beneficial Society filled that gap. Members paid dues and were eligible for burial insurance or medical bill assistance. Harry noted a donation in his journal: “3/2/19 To help bury a colored man .25” so the practice of pitching in extended beyond social societies.

0055 hearse

Hearse (third vehicle down) at tobacco factory, Bowe Street, presumably belonging  to                                          African-American funeral home across street

Maggie L. Walker was instrumental in offering mortgages and encouraging home ownership to African-Americans in Richmond through her St. Luke Penny Saving Bank but owning a home was difficult for minorities and to have Census records state that your home was “O” (owned) instead of “R” (rented) was a matter of extreme pride. Harry Stilson’s friend Samuel F. Sparrow and his wife Mary C. Sparrow owned their house at 602 Elizabeth Street. Harry took house pictures for them to share on a trip to Philadelphia. I wish I could identify that home but it’s an unlabeled house in a collection of hundreds of unidentified locations and 602 Elizabeth Street no longer exists. Across the street from Maggie L. Walker Governor School, Elizabeth Street is just a block long these days and the Sparrow home only exists in Harry’s journal and perhaps in a Stilson photograph. I find satisfaction in reading in the 1920 U.S. Census that a railroad porter and his wife were homeowners and knowing that my great-grandfather was a visitor in their home on several occasions.

0058 Sparrow & taylor

                                                   Sam & Mary Sparrow & Mary Taylor

As a real estate broker and as an American, it appalls me to hear that African-Americans still face discrimination in lending. Studies document vast discrepancies in the number of approved loans of households whose only differences were color. It was wrong in Harry’s time and it’s even more unacceptable in his great-granddaughter’s time.  Knowing how hard Sam & Mary Sparrow worked to own their home, it breaks my heart to think that families today can’t do the same. Harry Stilson wouldn’t approve of red-lining and we shouldn’t allow it either.

Segregation in the early 1900s was pervasive. In Richmond, Jackson Ward was the premier African-American community but it was comprised of Jewish immigrants as well. According to “Miss Ruby” Turner, a well-known activist for race relations, even in Jackson Ward people divided by race. Miss Ruby was quoted in my book, On the West Clay Line describing how each neighborhood had black families, then what she called a “Jew store” with the owners living above it and “Jew families” living beside the store. Please understand that Miss Ruby’s language was not derogatory. She declared “Jews…they are my friends. Where did we learn what we know about God? From whom did we learn it? From the Jews!” A visit with Miss Ruby was always a lesson in tolerance and diversity. She went on to say “People who carry this hatred (of other religions & races)…they may look good on the outside but they’re miserable.” She also pointed out that segregation existed even within the black community. “The people on the other side of Lombardy were “the other” colored folks. We colored folks were a little bit above the “other colored folks.” Also the people that lived down Second Street way and Brook Avenue…we were more segregated than y’all were. That’s the way it was.” Trust Miss Ruby to point out that not only color but also money and education created separation and bitterness back then just as it does in America today.

However, segregation has always been selective in Richmond. Irving Haggins remembered that his playmate, Gilbert Grossman, was a white Jewish boy who was not allowed to play with any other black kids. Mr. Haggins laughed when he said “I guess, to him, we seemed like the most prominent ones in the neighborhood.” Harry Stilson’s opinion of segregation was expressed in his speech of 1907 when he suggested integrated schools and churches to promote diversity. I don’t think either term “integration” or “diversity” was common back then but that’s what Harry advocated and his actions spoke louder than words. One of my favorite Stilson photographs is of Harry’s son, Don, and his friend.0153 Don & Denny.jpg

A hot issue was segregation on streetcars. In 1904, before Harry Stilson came to Richmond and became a streetcar driver, the General Assembly passed the “Act Concerning Public Transportation” which allowed segregation on streetcars. The Virginia Passenger & Power Company decided to enforce that law which led to a boycott of streetcars by African-Americans. John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie Walker, both prominent leaders in Richmond’s black community, supported that resistance action. There had been friction between Richmond’s African-American streetcar passengers and conductors for some time. Conductors were assigned the job of separating black from white on streetcars and as the car ran its route, the racial makeup of the car changed. That allowed conductors to move black passengers farther back, sometimes several times during one trip.

0157 black men streetcar

One fact worth remembering is this: streetcar fares were expensive and the black passengers who had paid for the ride deserved that seat. Miss Ruby: “Streetcar fare was seven cents and the bus was eight cents and my mother, instead of using the streetcar or bus, she’d use that money for food. And we’d walk.” The streetcar boycott, like later bus boycotts, was effective but over time, it lost momentum and, by the time Harry went to work as a streetcar motorman, black passengers sat in the back and whites in the front as evidenced by this African-American woman, the only passenger on the car.

streetcar woman

I’ve noticed that Harry often captured black and white people together in daily activities. These unknown boys in Jackson Ward are one example and another is the two icemen in front of Harry’s home on Grayland Avenue. I have no proof that he was trying to make a point in those photographs; after all, I inherited about 5,000 of his images, but they support his contention that “familiarity” would create “better citizens having more respect for each other and less strife.”

0020 white & black kid in carriage   Ice men

We don’t segregate on public transportation any longer. Harry would be pleased. But I don’t think he’d be happy with the racial tensions of America in 2018. None of us should. Black History is celebrated for one month. Why not all year? Harry called for more respect and less strife a century ago. Isn’t it time that his words were fulfilled? And all God’s children said “Amen.”

003 Main St,black man


It’s a Sunday in Black History Month. Good time to share a few of Harry Stilson’s photographs of churches and church folks. Across the street from Maggie Walker Governor’s School at the corner of Moore Street & Elizabeth stands a church. Its predecessor was First Union Baptist Church and the original building, visible in several of Harry’s images, burned down and was replaced with the existing structure. First Union is special to me because it’s integral to my Richmond In Sight journey. Here’s the story…

0030 First Union Church

When my father died, I inherited about 200 photographs his grandfather had taken. I had seen a few of the pictures before but was amazed by the variety and scope of subjects and locations. Later, when my aunt’s Alzheimer’s forced her to move in with me, I discovered thousands more negatives, prints, even Harry’s movie camera in her basement but that first glimpse into my great-grandfather’s collection offered the following mystery.

Preacher Thomas

On the back of one photograph, Harry had written “I made some $10 of these pictures of Preacher Thomas, colored, lying in state in his little church.” It was dated and I felt sure someone could identify Preacher Thomas so I took the picture around Richmond, to churches, Virginia Union, businesses. I failed to positively identify him but by then I was hooked. I wanted to know more about the people and places in Harry Stilson’s photographs. That search was the seed for Richmond In Sight. It was two years later that the mystery was solved. I found an envelope of negatives with “Union Church” written on it and when I reversed the negative, the church didn’t look like the structure in what is now Carver. I went online and found that the original building had burned down. Then I read that First Union’s pastor, the Reverend William Thomas, died in 1922, the date on Harry’s picture. I called the church, was connected with Preacher Thomas’ granddaughters and formed a friendship. I still believe that the kids in this picture with First Union in the background are part of the very large Thomas family. We’ve redone the pictures, making them clearer so I need to revisit Queen & Margaret. They might recognize these kids in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes as aunts and uncles.

0028 kids in front of First Union

I believe that Harry Stilson took pictures that incorporated Jackson Ward churches in the background but I haven’t identified them yet. He must have because there are lots of churches in the area and Harry’s African-American photo subjects were proud of their churches’ rich history but many of Harry’s 5,000 images are unlabeled and identifying backgrounds is labor-and-time-intensive. Since I can’t show you Ebenezer or Sixth Mount Zion, let’s pretend these folks are dressed up in their Sunday best and on their way to those or other Jackson Ward churches.

005 sisters 0009 African American older man,cigar bk  0066 Taylor & kids

One church, Moore Street Church on Leigh Street, is prominent in several photographs of Richmond’s African-American troops returning from WWI. Here you see flags flying from every house and Moore Street Church on the left. The houses beside the church are no longer there but Moore Street Church is still a vibrant and significant part of the community. Jackson Ward of Harry Stilson’s day was a proud and powerful example of what a black community can do. In celebrating Black History Month, we should remember the role of churches in America. The same faith that built the churches of Jackson Ward and kept them vibrant for over a century sustains its people and inspires them. Courage, perseverance, and determination have brought us here and we’ve just begun.

0067 Moore St church bk

Leigh Street, Moore Street Church on left in rear, African-American soldiers in far distance on parade as they returned from France

Hartshorn Memorial College was the first African-American women’s school to award baccalaureate degrees and it was located in Richmond, where Maggie Walker Governor’s School now stands. There was a streetcar stop at the school and Harry Stilson’s car lingered there so he could take photographs of students, staff, and buildings.

Hartshorn and Elwin.resized - Copy

The 1920 U.S. Census lists Miss Julia Elwin, teacher, shown above, as living at 1600 W. Leigh, so she lived on campus. Hartshorn’s teachers were white with the exception of  the wife of a Virginia Union professor but that was common in those days. Virginia Union was the first school in the country to have African-American teachers and Harry took pictures of them, too. Unfortunately, he didn’t label the pictures of Dr. Riggler and Dr. Jones so I can’t identify them. In the photo below, students are “tatting” but, while Hartshorn taught domestic skills, it concentrated on academics and the teachers who graduated pursued careers in Richmond and elsewhere.

Hartshorn tatting

Hartshorn lineup

Harry’s journal had a cryptic note: “Maude E. Brown & Iva Clarke” among Hartshorn photos so I called Virginia Union where their archivist confirmed that those were those of students…of high school. I had not realized that Hartshorn was also a high school until then. Iva’s great-niece is still in Richmond. Someone recognized the name and asked her friend “Is she your great-aunt?” More proof of my conviction that Richmond’s not six degrees of separation but maybe two.

maude brown iva clarke

I wonder if Miss Julia was supervising girls in the dorm December 6, 1920. In the photo below, Harry’s tripod is at the fence and you might not be able to see this but a man is crawling out of the first floor corner window of this dorm.  Harry took pictures of significant events as well as insignificant events like this one. It was only important to the parents of the girl in that corner room!

Hartshorn for blog

Hartshorn’s ‘brother school,’ Virginia Union, offered an unusual feature in its infancy: a working farm, power plant and water supply. Its adjacent Industrial Training School housed pigs, cows, and chickens and vegetable gardens and students were expected to maintain the plant and farm, which supplied the school as well as generating income. The wagon below, in front of Hartshorn, was probably in route to Virginia Union just across the trestle where Union student Percy Jones stood. This was a rare Stilson photo of  Virginia Union, possibly because it was not on his streetcar route.

wagon Bull

068 Percy VUU

Hartshorn was torn down around 1932 when the school merged with Virginia Union. It  sickens me to think of the destruction of those glorious buildings. During World War I, this dorm was decorated with patriotic flags and Harry took a picture of his conductor in front of it.  According to Wikipedia, Hartshorn students were not allowed to ride streetcars but that didn’t prevent my great-grandfather from participating in the lives of the girls of Hartshorn. He documented their faces and the face of African-American education in Richmond, a part of Black History Month that we should know and honor.

streetcar man hartshorn

Hartshorn and Elwin for blog