Archives for category: History


The Virginia State Fair’s here! My great-grandfather, streetcar driver & photographer Harry Stilson, loved the Virginia State Fair. He went several times each year and took lots of pictures. His surviving movies include entertainers, rides, and parades and I share those in Richmond In Sight “movie night” presentations. Back in Harry’s day, the State Fair grounds were located on ‘the Boulevard,’ where the Diamond is today. Some of my oral history sources describe sneaking into the fair through loose fence posts and others just recall its wonders with the same affection Harry exhibited in his photographs and movies.

baby beef curles neck Henrico Boys Club

When we were kids, my mom made us go through the animal exhibits before we could hit the rides. Harry spent a lot of time in those barns, documenting winners as well as animals belonging to people he knew. His son had bought Red Hill Farm on Route 5, near Curles Neck Dairy so Harry included their animals in his collection but the Henrico Boys’ Club entries were worth a picture, too.  Deer exhibit? No weirder than Harry’s movie of a pet deer in the barnyard.

state fair deer cow and boy

Harry’s movies include rides still popular at today’s fair, causing me to wonder if the same equipment is in use nearly a century later. NOT a comforting thought if you’re in line for the Caterpillar ride or ferris wheel.

ferris wheel plane ride  horse racing closer

Horse racing was a staple at the fair. I wish I knew if any of the horses Harry captured on film were famous. I was able to identify the horse act in Stilson photographs by going to the library for a Richmond Times Dispatch Fair calendar but I lost it. Thank goodness for Ray Bonis who found one online! The equestrian act was Holland & Dockrill, “World-famous Equestrians” but some of the acts required research (or guessing) to figure out who’s who. If I’m wrong, who would know all these years later?  Here’s my best shot…

horse balancing act

Holland & Dockrill Equestrian Act

balancing men pyramid

                  International 9: World’s Champion Tumblers


Not P.C…Ishikawa 4 Marvelous Jap Equilibrists



      Lunette Sisters: Whirling Aerial Geisha

Girls Aerial Dental Novelty Act

This is one of my favorite Stilson pictures. I even have a version of the photo that my grandmother hand-tinted for her dad. In his movies are sideshow performers, African-American performers, and more.

fair performer Ford exhibit 2 water show

My son and I are going to the State Fair tomorrow and, while the venue is different and the acts totally unlike those of Harry’s day, the atmosphere is the same. The smells, sounds, sights…all just like the ones that delighted Harry Stilson a century ago. Cotton candy and fried everything…who could ask for more?


Memorial Day is perhaps more significant to families who have lost someone in service to our country. I was astonished to find that many Americans were not aware of the term “Gold Star Family” or “Gold Star Mothers” because I have always known what those terms meant. My great-uncle Leon Stilson died of wounds received in the Argonne Forest during World War I and I have letters to document the heartbreak of such a loss, including letters returned after his death, stamped Deceased. My great-grandmother, Mary Stilson, went to France on a Gold Star Pilgrimage in 1932 to see her son’s grave and I included some of her photographs and memorabilia in my last book, From Richmond to France.  I’ve shared some of these pictures in Memorial Day blogs before but it’s worth repeated and this year I have a twist to the story as you will see later.


One of the saddest things about Leon’s death was how long it was before his family was informed of his death. In World War I, letters took months to be delivered and the letters returned to my great-grandmother after he died are heartbreaking. On October 2, 1918 Mary Stilson wrote “My dear boy Leon, I am so discouraged over writing you I didn’t try it last week.  I can’t understand why you don’t receive my letters.” She was referring to the fact that his field letters reported that he had not received mail “for a long time” even though she had written faithfully. That must have been so painful for a mother to read. Today our soldiers can text or email to let loved ones know they’re OK so it’s difficult to imagine not knowing anything about your son, your husband, your brother, for weeks or even months. Reading news about battles, losses of life, defeats or victories, and not knowing if the person you’re praying for and thinking of all the time was in that battle or not must have been emotionally exhausting.

Field page 2

107 telegram

This is the twist I mentioned. Last fall Jim Harton wrote that he was going on a Centennial WWI trip to France and would try to find Leon’s grave for me. He did more than find it. He sent a picture of himself standing by the grave just as my great-grandmother had done a century earlier. Fresh flowers, as had been on graves when Gold Star Mothers visited the American Cemetery in 1932, were provided by Jim’s tour guide, an unexpected and kind gesture. To me, that symbol of remembrance by not only a friend from high school but also a stranger is what Memorial Day is all about. It’s about those of us who have benefited from the ultimate sacrifices of young men and women in service to our country saying “I remember. I am grateful.” This Memorial Day, perhaps you will take a moment to stop and think about the losses that guarantee our freedom: so many lost years of living, of laughter, love, and hope that so many soldiers and sailors missed because he or she felt compelled to protect us.  Leon’s picture in uniform is on my wall, making it easier to remember him and what our family lost when he died but I know that on Memorial Day, I will also stop and think “I remember. I am grateful.”

077 MPS at LHS grave    Jim at Leon's grave


As CNN’s Don Lemon noted tonight, this has been a sad Black History Month. It’s painful to see examples of racism in our leaders and public figures. Frustration and discouragement are reasonable responses but maybe we can look to our past to focus on people who rose above racial expectations. I’d like to submit a contrast to those images of disrespect. Harry Stilson photographed people along his streetcar route in Jackson Ward as they went about their daily lives and pride radiated from the faces in those pictures. Let me introduce you to a few of those folks.

Henrico Cafe

I have tried to find out more about the people my great-grandfather simply labeled “Mrs. & Mrs. Brooks, Henrico Cafe.” I believe they are the owners and the two men with them are customers but I haven’t been able to identify the location of the Henrico Café or find its owners in census records without first names. The city of Richmond annexed part of Henrico in downtown so the restaurant’s name isn’t a clue. Their faces are compelling, aren’t they?   The pride in their demeanor convinces me that they owned the business and felt justifiably proud of what they had created. Nearly a century ago, in Richmond, Virginia, African Americans owned businesses in Jackson Ward and elsewhere and was reason to hold your head high.

Stokes Girl

“Little Stokes Girl on Leigh Street” was how my great-grandfather described this child. Again, without a first name, identifying Harry Stilson’s subjects is difficult but by going through names on Leigh Street in the 1920 U.S. Census, I found the family of Turner & Adele Stokes whose daughter Thelma was six in 1920. Could she be the “little Stokes girl?” I like her ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. I can see her growing up to resist the limitations of Jim Crow law.


This man could be a taxi driver or chauffeur. Harry wrote “colored chauffeur” in his journal to identify photographs he’d taken but without a date on the picture, it could be any number of drivers. George B. Waller was a chauffeur who lived on Leigh Street and Harry’s journal notes: “George B. Waller of wife” so I know he took pictures of members of the Waller family. Whether this is Mr. Waller or another driver, it documents one of Richmond’s proud entrepreneurs.

Education was unbelievably important to our African-American communities. Literacy was an accomplishment in those hard times. To finish high school was a real luxury so a college education was an impossible dream for most black Richmonders. However, Hartshorn College, the first African-American women’s college to give baccalaureate degrees in the United States, was on Harry’s streetcar route, at Lombardy and Leigh, where Maggie Walker Governor School stands today and to be enrolled at Hartshorn was worth a photograph. Or several. Harry obliged by taking several photographs of students and their teacher, Miss Julia Elwin. He also recorded events and parades at the school.  In my presentations, I am surprised that many people are unaware of Hartshorn College or its significance. The school combined with Virginia Union so the name Hartshorn disappeared from the institution but the legacy lives on. We were the first to have black women earn a baccalaureate degree. How cool is that?

Hartshorn girls

I salute these Richmonders. They stand as encouragement for us to do better. We are better than what we see in America today. In a recent post, I wrote about my great-grandfather’s 1907 speech, “The Pride of Tint” where he advocated integration and respect for people of other races and religions. I often wonder what he thought as he recorded the people he encountered on his streetcar run. Was documenting their accomplishments his goal? Did he have any idea that his photographs would provide a glimpse into life in the early 1900s? That he was also creating images his great-granddaughter would share a century later to celebrate Black History Month? To celebrate the pride of Richmond’s black neighborhoods? A well-deserved pride. These people studied, worked, strived for a better life, for an equal place at the table. Look at their faces. We can’t let them down.  We can do better than this. We can be better than this.


In my last entry, I promised to tell you about the figure in the background of Janey Charity’s photograph.  I believe she was Irma Rainey, one of several Armstrong High School students captured in many of Harry Stilson’s photographs. Today teenagers record their lives with selfies but back then, cameras were uncommon possessions and many families never had pictures taken. However, there was Harry Stilson, streetcar motorman (driver) and amateur photographer. He always had a camera beside him on his route and was happy to oblige the teenagers he met in Jackson Ward and elsewhere. To illustrate how significant Harry was in these kids’ lives, Harry died in 1934 but I have met two people who recalled my great-grandfather from their childhood. How amazing is that?

0142 Robinette, Irma & gang bk Irma seated, good.jpg

One of those people I’ve told you about before. I was sharing pictures at the Weinstein  Center. Among the babble of twenty old men discussing images, I heard a voice say “I knew a streetcar man named Stilson. He let me drive the streetcar.” Can you imagine my shock? Morris Goldberg was a nine or ten year old kid who hung around with Harry Stilson on his streetcar route in Jackson Ward. He can recall my great-grandfather’s lunch box and what he ate, how many times he was robbed, and how Harry let him ‘drive’ the streetcar.

Another recollection of Harry Stilson was from the child of one of Harry’s kids on his route. Irma Rainey’s daughter, Irma Dillard, contacted the Richmond Times Dispatch saying that she was raised on stories of Mr. Stilson watching out for her mother and friends. Like an early “neighborhood watch,” he’d let the girls off the car at night, wait, then holler “Y’all home?” They’d answer affirmatively and he’d move on. I met Irma Dillard and shared pictures of her mother and other Armstrong High School friends that she had never seen before. The girl in glasses in the pictures above is Irma Rainey.

One set of photographs was taken on the trestle that connected Virginia Union to Jackson Ward. Goldbug Wilson is perched on a trestle railing (below). Irma Dillard identified Percy Jones as a Union student and her father’s friend from New York. He showed up in other pictures as well like the one below of Brown’s Drug Store where he posed with Goldbug.  Virginia Union buildings are behind Percy in the middle photo below.

Robinette 068 Percy VUU 052 Goldbug Browns Pharmacy

Robinette Anderson and Goldbug Wilson were Irma Rainey’s girlfriends. I wouldn’t know their names had Irma Dillard not recognized her mother’s pals. Look closely at the lineup of girls below. Does the second girl from the left look like Janey Charity?

0019 Jany Charity 096 Irma line

See why the work I do is addictive? One thing leads to another but there are people around who can instantly identify Harry’s subjects and provide their stories. Black History month shouldn’t be confined to one month. Do you know families who’ve been in Richmond for a long time? Ask if I can show them photographs and collect their oral histories. Those stories are priceless and every day we’re losing the people who can share them. The Armstrong kids in Harry Stilson’s photographs went on to become teachers like Irma Rainey Dillard or businessmen, and to have children who became attorneys like Irma Rainey Dillard’s daughter, Irma Dillard, community leaders, and other impressive folks who built a legacy for us all.  I want to share those stories. Can you help me?

095 Irma, Robinette

Harry Stilson, Richmond streetcar driver and photographer in the early 1900s, lived in a segregated world. What people often do not realize is that “segregated” is a relative term. In Richmond’s Jackson Ward, Jewish immigrants lived beside African-American families and some churches had mixed congregations, although seating was usually separate. Harry Stilson, however, seemed to move between black and white worlds in an uncommon way. His journal records visits to Sam and Mary Sparrow’s home at 602 Elizabeth Street (across from Maggie Walker Governor’s School) and other interactions with Richmond’s African American community. He took photographs of the Sparrow house for them to share with relatives in Philadelphia and joked with Mrs. Sparrow and her friend Mrs. Taylor about bathing attire. He and his conductor, Mr. Epperson, went to Bessie Shiflett’s home to retrieve his “picture knife” when she “returned it not.” And he took portraits for black customers as well as hundreds of photographs of Richmond’s black community at work and play. These images offer a glimpse into lives not well-documented and provide insight into Harry Stilson’s attitude on race.

0058 Sparrow & taylor                                                  Sam & Mary Sparrow & Mary Taylor

Harry showed respect to African Americans in various ways. He labeled a child’s picture “Miss Rubin Lea Moore” and his journal often listed his black customers by title even as he identified them as “colored” which I assume was to help in sorting all his work. He mentioned photographing African-American doctors but with thousands of images,  there’s no way to match a photograph with Dr. Jones and Dr. Rigler.  One common theme in Stilson’s collection is that of black and white together. Photographs like this of two boys in a carriage, one white, one black, likely in Jackson Ward. Was he making a point? I don’t know.

094 awhite & black kid in carriage 090 icemen

Probably my favorite picture of all is that of his son, Don, with a friend in the backyard on Gilbert Street. I’ve tried to identify Don’s friend by notes on envelopes of negatives but census records leave gaps. Notes mention Dippy Bennett, Bozy, Denny Robinson but this kid could be anyone. I’d love to trace that little boy because I have several photos of him playing with my great-uncle and the family cat.

0153 Don & DennyDenny or Henry

I’ve shared Harry Stilson’s speech given in 1907 before but it bears repeating. He was invited to speak to the Ladies Literary Club in Michigan and I have the handwritten speech he gave, entitled “Our Tinted Population.” I also have the rejection letter Harry received when he submitted the speech as an article in a New York magazine in which he was told “We have no use for anything like this.” Well, we do have need of these words, now more than ever.

0151 Tinted Population bk

“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.”

0009 African American older man,cigar bk 005 sisters 0060 Bessie Watson, colored

The word “integration” may not have been in our vocabulary in 1907 but that’s what Harry Stilson was advocating. We assure ourselves that our nation is integrated now but, if that were truly the case, the racism of today wouldn’t be possible. It’s such a simple concept: become more familiar with people of other races and religions and you will have more respect for each other. Why is it so hard to implement?

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