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Flu season is here and garnering a lot of publicity. Today my daughter and I took her triplet 3 year olds for flu shots and then for ice cream afterwards. Last week I caved to my mom’s insistence (that’s putting it nicely) that I get a flu shot. News reports of overwhelmed hospitals and concerns over scarcity of staff, saline, and other medical needs are sobering. These events remind me of another flu season, in Harry Stilson’s time.

The Spanish Influenza of 1918 was one of the most virulent epidemics in recorded history, killing approximately 50 million people. According to the National Archives, more people died of the flu than were killed in World War I. Returning service men carried the virus as did civilians. Modern transportation provided greater opportunities for the spread of the pandemic and the compromised immune systems of soldiers, exhausted and malnourished, increased the severity of the virus.

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One of Richmond’s African-American soldiers who died of the flu while in France was Otis P. Robinson of Catherine Street, Jackson Ward and member of Sharon Baptist Church. He could possibly be in this photo below that Harry Stilson took of Jackson Ward recruits off to boot camp. His sister Carrie Harris filled out an Army survey and included a card from him. “Dear Sister, pray for me or pray to God in Heaven, is better than anything else I know. May God bless you and be with you until we meet again.”

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Others returned from France to learn that family members had succumbed to the flu. Ralph Goode’s mother, Leeolia, died while he was on the Princess Matoaca coming home. His son, Clyde, recalled: “He didn’t know it…he was on the ship coming back and found out when he got home.”

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              Burial at Sea from Stilson collection, provided by returning naval officer

It’s hard to imagine life during that epidemic. Primitive preventions like cloth masks were popular and quarantines were common. One story passed down through a Richmond family involved charity and Bliley Funeral Homes. Dolores Miller: “This happened during the flu epidemic in 1918.The way it was told to me, children were allowed to go down to 4 th  & Marshall and they were given eggs and bread (by Bliley Funeral Home). The flu had hit the city of Richmond and people were dying like flies and the funeral homes couldn’t keep up with burying people. My mother and her sisters were sent to Bliley’s to get eggs and bread. They were standing in line and the halls were lined with bodies that they had not been able to get to during the epidemic. One of the bodies close to them released gas and scared them badly. They always told me that this body sat up just like it was alive.”

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                                 Hearse (third vehicle) on Bowe Street, Jackson Ward

Harry Stilson’s journal reported deaths of streetcar men from Spanish Influenza. “Wed 8/7/18: W. C. Wright, my conductor, became sick and getting worse. I asked to have him relieved but it was 3.30 before Outland 212, came, and I had gotten Wright into Power House to wait for Ambulance which had been called to take him home.”  The next day Harry wrote: “Told that Conductor William Clarence Wright died last night after 7 PM at the house of his sister at 1505 Garland Ave, Barton Heights.” The devastating disease killed within hours and attempts to curtail the virus were futile. Another journal entry on October 25, 1918 reported “Spanish Influenza the end of Willie McCloud last night.”

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W.C. Wright, Harry’s streetcar conductor, caught napping

Quarantines restricted normal activities. Harry’s son, Leon, was stationed at Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, and mentioned that he was unable to make purchases prior to shipping out for France “because of the quarantine.” Children jumped rope chanting “I had a little bird, its name was Enza. I opened the window, and in-flew-Enza.”

Ruth Hawkins grave

Ruth's grave

Today we have flu shots, antibiotics, medical advances inconceivable to Richmonders fighting the Spanish Influenza in 1918 but experts are questioning our capacity to deal with an epidemic. Budget cuts have created a situation of  reduced resources and ill-prepared agencies that sends a shiver down my spine. We know so much more today but we may be ignorant about preparing for a crippling epidemic like that of 1918. Perhaps we should consider and learn from Harry Stilson’s generation’s experience. Harry’s quaint expression “Spanish Influenza the end of Willie McCloud” and the children’s rhyme that Harry’s grandson recited to me may seem outdated and from the past but the flu isn’t. Shouldn’t we prepare so that we don’t open the window and in-flew-Enza?

 

 

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

My great-grandfather, streetcar man and photographer Harry Stilson, didn’t take as many Christmas pictures as you would expect. Or, if he did, they didn’t survive. I’ve shared most of these before but maybe you didn’t see them  or don’t mind seeing them again. If that’s the case, about Christmas trees…

Xmas tree blog

Christmas trees were usually cedar, it seems. I have no idea who the folks below are but the piano is a player piano and the tree is circled by a white fence.

Christmas family

Those fences must have been popular because there’s also one around the base of the family tree on Grayland Avenue, between Cary Street & the Downtown Expressway. The children are Harry’s grandkids, Howard and Norma Lynch and neighbor, Ralph Carr. Many of the ornaments adorning those long-ago Christmas trees hang on my tree every year.

nkl hdl rc  house ornament  Stilson Christmas ornaments

 

 

In those days, gifts weren’t lavish. An orange, one toy (often recycled) and that was about it. My father and his friend Ralph Carr displayed all their vehicles in this Christmas Day photo but there is no way to tell which was the new prized possession that year. I think the building may be in the ‘village’ beneath the tree above.

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Bike parade! I doubt any of these were new gifts but an audience of neighbors  inspired the kids to mount up and hit the sidewalk on December 26, 1927.

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We are currently trying to separate damaged negatives that are stuck together. If the attempt is successful, there may be more holiday images to share in the future. Whatever we salvage will be added to the 5,000 or so Stilson photographs we have now and I’d consider that a wonderful Christmas present.

 

 

Veteran’s Day evolved from Armistice Day which commemorated the declaration of peace in World War I at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” George Fleming told me that as a boy bells would ring out at that time every year and America would stop to remember. This morning I could almost hear the echo of those bells through the decades. Harry Stilson recorded Richmond’s wartime experiences in his photographs which I share through our non-profit, Richmond In Sight, in books, presentations and our online site, www.richmondinsight.com. My latest book, From Richmond to France, takes us back to when Richmond’s “soldier boys” went off to war. Through photos, stories, and letters, we are transported to a century ago when Harry’s son, Leon, went to Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, and then to France. Leon’s letters convey the experience of so many boys who had never left home before.

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Leon Stilson (second from rt) in Shockoe Bottom leaving for Camp Lee,

America’s military prior to our entrance into the war consisted of 135,000 men and the war demanded millions. Leon’s letters home relate the army’s disorganization and lack of basic equipment and supplies. He wrote: “I did not ask to go (home on leave) this week as we have no uniforms as yet and my clothes are dirty. We hope to get uniforms this week. Were measured for overcoats this morning but will not be allowed to wear them till we have the rest of our outfit. I think that they are serving out overcoats so as to somewhat take the place of blankets so that we will not freeze at night.” This weekend in Richmond, we had a hard freeze so the idea of barracks with no heat, a straw-filled mattress covered by one blanket and an overcoat provides a vivid picture of hardships faced by young recruits. Equipment eventually was produced, training completed, and those boys shipped out for France.

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Leon Stilson in overcoat, Hartshorn  College, Jackson Ward

The families left behind by those in France were part of the war effort. My book describes difficulties as women were left to manage farms and businesses, without manpower or money. War bond drives supported the troops and Harry recorded those events. 0019

Today’s technology makes it hard to imagine not hearing if your loved one was dead or alive for months but a field service note card could take several weeks to arrive in the States and letters often were never delivered at all. Leon Stilson died of wounds on October 7th, 1918 and his father didn’t receive the official telegram until November 28th, over a month after Armistice was declared. Amazingly, the father of a Petersburg soldier who was with Leon when he was shot contacted Harry, a correspondence developed and I have an eyewitness account of my great-uncle’s mortal wounding a century ago. It’s heart-breaking to read, especially when thousands of families experienced the same loss of a son, husband, father.

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After the peace treaty was signed, troops started returning home but most of Richmond’s soldiers returned months later, in June 1919. Harry documented those returns and parades as well as subsequent Armistice Day events over the years. Because my great-grandmother was a Gold Star Mother, she traveled to France in 1932 to see her son’s grave. Naturally, Harry taught her to take photographs which he developed, offering us a glimpse into Paris and other parts of France seldom seen. Those pictures, post cards, memorabilia, and letters are also included in From Richmond to France.

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Gold Star Mothers (Mary Stilson second from left) watch laying of wreath in Paris

 

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As part of Richmond In Sight’s Veteran’s Day observance, I am giving a program of Harry Stilson’s photographs and stories related by Richmond’s soldiers and sailors as well as their families tomorrow, Sunday, November 12th at 4:00 PM at Mount Hermon Baptist Church, 18100 Genito Road, Moseley, VA. It’s open to the public and I will have books for purchase and signing. You can contact me if you need more information through the RIS site www.richmondinsight.com or by emailing me at kittysnow@comcast.net. I’m available for programs on this subject and others if your group or organization has programs so check with me. On this Veteran’s Day, say a prayer for all those serving in our armed forces and thank those you encounter who served in the past or serve now. Today is Veteran’s Day but it should be remembered with reverence and gratitude every day of the year.

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This blog is a companion to my Richmond In Sight work. We created that non-profit to preserve, restore, and share the nearly 5,000 surviving images that my great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, took of Richmond and elsewhere in the early 1900s. The sharing part is accomplished by presentations, books, and our online presence so my fourth book continues that effort. Previous ones focused on neighborhoods, with On the West Clay Line (Jackson Ward, Carver, Newtowne, & Navy Hill) and Up & Down Church Hill concentrating on Church Hill and Shockoe but the new book is different. One reader called and said “It grabbed me and pulled me into those boys’ lives. I felt like Leon Stilson was right beside me.” From Richmond to France contains story and images of young men who went to war but it’s not a military history. It’s told in the words of my great-uncle Leon, other soldiers and sailors, and their relatives. It’s more about adjusting to Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, coping with homesickness, straw mattresses, and learning to survive in battle than it is about battles.   

From Richmond book cover

2017 is the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I. Many of us know little about that time or that war but it was more than a turning point for our country. Before then, America’s military numbered about 135,000…total. We weren’t considered a force to contend with, military or otherwise.  The Great War changed that. We expanded to millions of soldiers and became a world leader. Our presence in France changed the world’s perception of the U.S. but there were other significant effects of America going to war overseas.

mess hall

Wealthy Americans took world tours and traveled to Europe but the majority of ‘soldier boys’ that fought in France had never left the country before. Many had never left their city borders. The impact on their lives can’t be overestimated. They experienced the horrors of war but they were also exposed to other cultures, languages, and architecture that existed centuries before our nation was born. The song “How You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm (after they’ve seen Paree)” was popular for a reason. It echoed the sentiments of parents throughout rural America. Their sons came home looking at life through a different lens.

Sam Beasley

American soldiers’ interaction with Europe influenced our nation’s health as well. Returning soldiers and others carried the Spanish Influenza home with them. According to the National Archives, more people died of the flu than were killed in the war. One example of the scope and randomness of that pandemic comes from Clyde Goode whose father served in an engineering company . Ralph Goode survived the war, then returned home to discover that his mother died of the flu while he was en route from France. The epidemic was so prevalent that references to influenza even appeared in my great-grandfather’s journal. Harry described deaths of fellow streetcar men and the survival of a neighbor from the influenza during the war. Death was as near as next door or as distant as an ocean away.

burial at sea

Despite reluctance by veterans to describe battle conditions, details did emerge. Horrific battles with unbelievable carnage left survivors damaged in various ways. Men came home without limbs and with nightmares. One man told me his uncle came home with a wooden hand. Lives changed for those men and for the families who waited for their return.

This isn’t a depressing book of war woes, though. The stories are funny and a glimpse into the innocence of our world in 1917. Leon was introduced to gambling and dancing, to “smokers.” He wrote “This company had a smoker last Tuesday night. I don’t think the word applies very well. We had 5 or 6 wrestling matches and 4 or 5 boxing matches. After that was over and in between, bouts of plenty of music, a piano, banjo, violin, and singing. Then we went downstairs to the mess hall to eat all the ice cream and cake we wanted. Then the cigars and cigarettes were passed out and the men given permission to smoke in the mess hall which is against the rules at all other times. The lights were put out at eleven o’clock and everybody went to bed.”

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He explains passes:  “I did not ask to go this week as we have no uniforms as yet and my clothes are dirty. “ He also writes about what happens when young men are away from home and get that pass: “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.”

From Richmond to France is also about Armistice, the aftermath of war, and the healing that came later. When a Gold Star Family made news last summer, many Americans were unfamiliar with the term but it was familiar to everyone in the Great War and afterwards. A unique piece of history included Gold Star Mother Pilgrimages. Congress authorized a program in which mothers and widows traveled to France to see their loved ones’ graves so Paris in 1932 is also part of my book.

Eiffel tower

If you read this blog, you’ll appreciate the books based on Harry Stilson’s images and oral histories of Richmonders. I tell people that they aren’t my books. I just assemble them. They’re the stories and the images of our city’s past and they direct our future by lessons within the pages. This story’s time has come.  Contact me directly or go to www.richmondinsight.com to purchase From Richmond to France. Support our efforts to share Harry’s images and be “grabbed” at the same time. I promise that it is a story you won’t soon forget.

5 ton tractor

 

On this Fourth of July, how about a collage of images of traditional events celebrating our Declaration of Independence from England?  Because I’m heading out to a family celebration later and have to get the homemade ice cream frozen, I don’t have time to look for photos dated July 4th in my great-grandfather’s collection (it’s 5,000 images, after all!) but we’ll start with a photo of the graveyard of St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry gave his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. If you have never seen a re-enactment of that speech, you need to correct that this summer. Go to http://www.historicstjohnschurch.com/events for schedules.

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The next pictures are of a Monument Avenue 4th of July parade. Harry also took movies of this event which show cadets, soldiers, and others. There’s also a Confederate entry in the parade. Last July 4th I wrote my blog about bands so you might want to scroll back to that for those pictures. Parades, music, fireworks.  All part of our national celebration.

Monument ave band

Fourth of July means vacation for some and that means BEACH. It did even in Harry Stilson’s day. He took mini-vacations (all that his streetcar schedule allowed) to Virginia Beach, Buckroe, Newport News, Yorktown, and the Bay. That means, of course, that he took photos of the beach, too. First picture is Virginia Beach, second is beauty pageant at Virginia Beach (I also have movies of that), third is Yorktown ferry, and fourth is Virginia Beach Coast guard station. Last is what the beach looked like back then.

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yorktown ferry    coast guard

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If you couldn’t get to the beach, there was Shields Lake. Harry took pictures of divers as well as movies, which I share in presentations. If you have a pool that requires maintaining the chlorine, you throw in a few tablets. At Shields Lake, this man went around the lake dispensing chlorine from his boat. That allowed the swimmers to cool off in the humid Richmond summer days.

diving  chlorinating

Idlewood Park, now absorbed into the Downtown Expressway and Fountain Lake, was the place for ice-skating in winter and boating in summer. The buildings in the background are still there if you want to match then and now. Idlewood rowers

The Fourth also means baseball. Whether it’s a neighborhood kids’ team or the Squirrels at the Diamond, which will always be Parker Field to me, it’s as American as mom and apple pie. Here’s a team at Byrd Park. By the way, in Harry’s time, the Virginia State Fair was held on the grounds where the Diamond stands today. this team is at Idlewood Park/Byrd Park.

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When life in these United States feels like it’s careening ahead like the roller coaster at Virginia Beach behind Harry here, it’s comforting to recall that a century after Harry Stilson preserved these summer scenes, we’re still celebrating with the same activities.

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I spend a lot of time identifying people and places in my great-grandfather’s photos. I also wonder about the children Harry Stilson captured in his images and what their lives were like, what they grew up to be. Black History Month looks back at where we have been but it also looks forward to where we are going, a concern to many. Harry’s streetcar rumbled along the cobblestoned streets of Jackson Ward with his camera tucked beside his seat. I know this because Morris Goldberg told me so and he knew my great-grandfather when Morris was a kid of nine or so.

Morris Goldberg

Mr. Goldberg at Hancock & Clay, site of Goldberg’s Store

I first met Morris after hearing a voice in a crowd say “I knew a streetcar man named Stilson. He let me drive the streetcar.” Those two sentences define Harry in a way. While his surviving 5,000 photographs and movies capture events, places, workers, and more, they include hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures of children. He took their photographs and sold them to support his photography hobby but many were because they caught his eye and his fancy. I only know these little cuties are girl scouts because Harry described them as “girl scouts marking time waiting for parade.” Richmond had one of the first African-American Girl Scout troops in America and these girls didn’t even have their uniforms yet.

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He was intrigued by twins. I have dozens of pictures of twins, all ages and colors. I can only imagine his delight had he been able to photograph his great-great-great grandchildren…triplets. These twins appeared in several photos, including one with Harry’s own grandchildren, my father and aunt, which was on Marshall Street.

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Harry’s grandkids, Howard & Norma Kathleen Lynch & twins on Marshall Street

Kids in action tickled him. Kids with goat wagons of laundry, kids swimming or diving, teenagers goofing around.

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When the Richmond Times Dispatch wrote about my work, Irma Dillard contacted them to say she was raised on stories of Mr. Stilson watching out for her mom and friends in Jackson Ward. I shared pictures with her of her mother and friends that she had never known existed. Her mom is the girl with the white tights and glasses in the photo below. Her mother became a teacher and I’ve met lots of her former students, which is exciting. Seeing these kids and then knowing that they went on to acquire the education their parents often lacked, to teach and inspire future generations of Richmond kids humbles me.

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Some of Harry’s kids disappeared and have frustrated my efforts to locate descendants. I want to share pictures and collect oral history from their families. Children like “Miss Rubin Lee Moore” as Harry labeled her photo. I can’t find her in census records but an incredible thing happened while I was trying to interview an elderly lady. It was clear that her dementia was advanced. She couldn’t recall where or when she was born but I thought I’d show her the 20 photos I’d brought anyhow. As this image appeared, she said “I knew that child. She was a childhood playmate of mine.” I asked if she remembered her name and she said “Rubin Lee Moore. Her parents were Sadie and Ernest Lee Moore. Her parents went to Hampton Institute with my parents.” I was blown away.

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I know Ernest Lee Moore was an African-American soldier in World War I but I can find no record of Rubin Lee except for Harry’s picture and Mrs. Warden’s identification of a little girl from over 80 years ago. Finding kin nearly a century ago when the name is a common one like Moore is nearly impossible but I still try. These kids matter. Their lives matter. Just one reason I do this work, why I created a non-profit to (hopefully) provide financial assistance for these searches, this slice of Richmond history. I know that one of Harry’s “kids” grew up to teach generations of Richmond children, that her daughter is now an attorney. I want to know more about the rest of Harry’s kids. Don’t you?

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