Celebrating Martin Luther King Day this year seems even more significant than usual. In this divisive time, I hope today is more than a day off work. For me, it brings a flood of memories: I was in Sing Out South, Central Virginia’s first integrated young people’s group. We were denied service in restaurants because of our black cast members. Our director, Inez Thurston, had eight crosses burned in her yard. I remember the cold fear in my heart as we ran on stage where we’d sing “What Color is God’s Skin?” while the KKK met in the basement below. I will always be proud of what Sing Out South did to promote racial relationships in the 60s.

I also remember encountering a Klan parade in Heathsville as a child.  Daddy had to explain what it was. My mom recalls the men “being so big. They were just so scary.” We drove through that display of hatred and I recall the silence inside our vehicle. Five kids and not a sound. My mother’s face said it all. I was blessed to be raised in a family that opposed segregation without really discussing it. When I asked if my Sing Out friend Cynthia “Ducky” Moore could spend the weekend, Mom said sure. It was years later that I realized my black friend in our white church on Sunday morning might have caused my parents trouble. They never said a word.  Thank God I had parents like that.

0094 laundry wagon

That kind of thinking isn’t new in my family line. A century ago, my great-grandfather Harry Stilson’s streetcar route was Jackson Ward, a predominantly black neighborhood and his camera rode beside him. He lifted it thousands of times on Richmond’s streets and those photographs are a precious legacy of the people he knew. His notations on some of the surviving pictures and his journal entries confirm what the images show. He knew those people. He visited their homes. He liked those folks. Not behavior common between a middle-aged white guy and black Richmonders in the early 1900s. The people on his streetcar route were friends. His journal documented that. After his son was killed in France during World War I, Harry first ventured from his home to visit Galeski Photo and Miss Day who sold him photographic supplies. Then he went to the Elizabeth Street home of a black railroad porter and his wife.  “Sat 12/7/18 I feel some better…took 2 times X of RF&P Station grounds…went on W Clay car and to Sam Sparrow’s.”

0058 Sparrow & taylor


Sam and Mary Sparrow lived across the street from where Maggie Walker Governor’s School stands today. Harry took pictures of them and Mary Taylor but he also visited  their home. His journal describes a visit with the two ladies in which he showed photographs and includes an off-color joke by Mrs. Taylor. “Tue 11/19/18 Took “proofs” to Mrs. Sparrow and Mrs. Taylor. Showed them “bathing suits”. Mrs. Sparrow said Mrs. Taylor wants you to take her_ _ _. Sparrow wants them taken again.”

He mentioned taking photos of their house for them to show relatives in Philadelphia and other photo shoots but they either didn’t survive or are not labeled. “Sun 11/17/18, Took pictures of Sam Sparrow’s house self and wife, John Taylor & wife all colored 602 Elizabeth St. Tried to make “Flash” also failed of picture. Forgot slide.” That part of Elizabeth is gone now so I can’t be sure which house was theirs in his extensive collection but Harry was a part of their lives. The Sparrows were friends.

So was this young woman. I believe she may be curtsying behind Moore Street School, although posing in front of an outhouse is odd, but what is significant is Harry’s description: “A colored friend behind the school.”

0077 girl curtsy

He was also friends with Bessie Watson and took a series of pictures of her family, including her daughter. This hand-tinted photograph of her daughter is stunning and I wish I could find that family to share it.

0060 Bessie Watson, colored


Confirming timelines in Harry’s life is tricky but this I know. He came to Richmond in 1909 after two years in Orange, Virginia so the images above are after 1909 but his ideas on race and religion were already determined. In 1907 he was invited back to his home town in Michigan to speak before the Ladie’s Literary Society. I have his hand-written speech from that presentation. In it, he declares:  “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

He was describing integration. Radical words in 1907, asserting that skin color or religion did not determine the person’s worth, but I am grateful that Harry held those convictions. Because he did, he was in the right place at the right time to record people and places on the West Clay line. We have made progress since Harry’s time but right now it doesn’t feel like it. Becoming better citizens of this great nation? Having more respect for each other? That sounds like Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech from decades ago, like a hope for the future instead of a reality today. How can that be?  Could we make another New Year’s resolution? To “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?” And all God’s children said, “Amen.”

139 Don & Denny

Above: one of my favorite pictures. Harry’s son, Don, and his friend, whose name may be Denny Robinson, by Harry’s pigeon coop. My great-grandmother had labeled the photo: “Two orphans.”