Harry Stilson was the poor man’s photographer and in the early 1900s, if you were black and lived in Richmond, there was a good chance you were poor. Money was scarce and didn’t stretch to luxuries like portraits. My great-grandfather took pictures of wealthy African Americans but for many of his subjects, photographs were rare purchases. His journal indicates that he charged black customers 5 cents less than his white ones so they usually paid 10 cents for a portrait.

While on his streetcar route in Jackson Ward, he caught hundreds of its residents in daily tasks. He also recorded places and institutions along the West Clay line that no longer exist. Maggie Walker’s St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was located at 2nd and Marshall Street and can be seen in this photograph behind the streetcar.

038 st luke's bank

So much black history was made in Richmond. Hartshorn Memorial College was the first African-American women’s college in the United States and it stood where Maggie Walker Governor School is located today at Lombardy & Leigh. Harry spent a lot of time there so his collection includes Hartshorn buildings, students, and teachers. Miss Julia Elwin was the teacher in this group photo. The teaching staff was white. Virginia Union (which Hartshorn merged with later) made history by hiring African-American teachers. Surviving Stilson photos of Virginia Union students include Mr. Jones posing on the trestle with Union in the background.

042 Hartshorn with Miss Elwyn bk

If the plethora of Hartshorn photographs didn’t confirm Harry’s affection for the school, his journal did. He took pictures of Miss Elwin in her flower garden and he mentioned Iva Carter and Maude E. Brown. I contacted Virginia Union to confirm that the two young women were students. They were, in the high school department of Hartshorn. Huh. Didn’t know it was high school as well as college! Here they are, Iva and Maude:0080 Hartshorn, two girls bk

I just have to include this Hartshorn photo. Harry Stilson’s tripod and equipment are standing at the fence but this picture was taken from the streetcar and is evidence of Harry’s sense of humor. It’s a girl’s dorm and if you look closely at the building’s downstairs corner, you’ll see a man climbing out of the window. Harris Stilson took pictures of historical significance and those of no significance to anyone…except the parents of that Hartshorn student!

052 Hartshorn,man climbing out - Copy

One of my favorite Stilson photographs is of three precious little girls which Harry documented as “girl scouts marking time waiting for the parade.” That would be the Elks parade, which occurred every Sunday and the Girl Scouts he recorded for us were among the first African-American Girl Scout troops in America. Their group was so new that they didn’t have uniforms yet. I shared this photograph with the Girl Scouts so they could include it in their history. Harry Stilson was the poor man’s photographer but his legacy is a treasure.


Next time we’ll see some of the folks Harry Stilson captured along his streetcar route. You can also check out our Richmond In Sight Facebook page and www.richmondinsight.com for more stories and pictures.