Black History month recognizes not only the famous African-Americans whose roles we are familiar with but the un-famous people, people who worked to support their families, educate their children, and whose legacy is often unnoticed. For some of them, their lives were undocumented except in the photography collection of my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson. I call him the “poor man’s photographer” and that’s appropriate. People flagged down his streetcar and asked him to take their picture. He developed the images and delivered the finished photographs along his West Clay Line streetcar route. His records indicate that he usually charged African-Americans 5 cents less than whites but he was involved in Jackson Ward life far beyond the normal role of streetcar motorman.

0014 Ford and stink tree reszed

One journal entry notes that he gave 25 cents “to bury colored man,” one example of Harry’s participation in Jackson Ward life. To understand that donation, a bit of history is required. Insurance wasn’t available to African-Americans in those days so “social clubs” were an alternative. Members paid dues and funds were given for burial expenses and medical costs. One such club, The Astoria Beneficial Society, remains a significant organization in Richmond over a century later. I’ll address the Astorians in my next entry.

Harry’s subjects weren’t always paid customers. Actually, most were not. He raised his camera dozens of times daily to record activities around him like this cobblestone work. This is along the 1700 block of W. Leigh Street and the two one-level houses in the background are still there.

0004 cobblestones Leigh St.jpg

Bessie Watson’s family portraits were hand-tinted, a time-consuming task Harry often delegated to his wife or daughter. I’d love to find members of that family to share the images. 0059  Bessie Watson, colored.jpg

This is “the little Stokes girl, end of Leigh Street” and might have been one of the kids Harry knew.

0002 Stokes girl  in street.jpg

Young people, black and white, were attracted to Harry and he, in turn, watched out for them. When a Richmond Times Dispatch article was written about my work, Irma Dillard emailed to say that she was raised on stories of Mr. Stilson watching out for her mom, also named Irma, and Irma’s friends. Moore Street was the end of the route and it was Harry’s custom to let Irma and her friend Robinette Anderson off, then wait for them to get to their houses. He’d call out “Y’all home?” and they would holler back, then he would drive on. An early version of Neighborhood Watch, it seems. Here are Irma, Robinette, Goldbug Wilson and others. I met Irma’s daughter and gave her pictures of her mother she never knew existed. Just some kids messing around for Harry’s camera.

0075 Robinette Anderson, Irma Ramey, row

Next time, the Astoria Beneficial Club and the “best date I ever had.”