Archives for posts with tag: Black history month

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.

girls scouts bk

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.

twins, Jackson Ward reszed


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.


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.


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.


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?




Some people perceive Black History Month as a time to remember injustices and it is. It truly is. It’s also a celebration of perseverance, of courage, faith, and humor. Each of us has many facets and talents and to reduce a person’s life to one piece of that life is to slight them. Richmond’s son, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is a good example. His name evokes stunning dance steps, often with a dimpled Shirley Temple, and, while that was part of his legacy, there is so much more. Bill Robinson came home to Richmond often and once, he saw two children almost hit by a car in Jackson Ward. He asked about the lack of a street light at that intersection. When told that the city wouldn’t spend the money in a colored neighborhood, he paid for that street light himself. That’s why his statue stands at that particular intersection at Adams & Leigh. It was sculpted by Jack Witt and erected by the Astoria Beneficial Club in 1973. How do I know that story? Wesley Carter, an Astorian who died at the age of 104, made the trip to deliver the statue to Richmond and he shared his story. Both of these men, Bill Robinson and Wesley Carter, were dedicated to their home town and its people. Richmond has so many people like that.

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Wesley Carter & Kitty, Astoria Beneficial Club      Bojangles Statue

Dr. Carter was a teacher and mentor of countless young people and an institution at Virginia Union University. I met him through his cousin, Barky Haggins. Visiting or calling Barky’s Spiritual Store at 1st & Broad is unlike any other “business.” You’re welcomed into Mr. Barky’s store and his heart and that’s a really big heart. I won’t embarrass him with details but I have heard stories of incredibly generous acts from several Richmond folks and I can vouch for the lift I receive every time I hear his voice or am pulled into a big hug. One characteristic shared by Wesley and Barky is the ability to see humor in events that could as easily inspire tears. Talking about hardships like being the last kid in the bath water in a kitchen tub or walking miles to deliver school work, Wesley would just cackle. He’d shake his head at the absurdity of it all and laugh. That’s an admirable trait.


                                 Far background, left, is the Norton Street house Barky Haggins grew up in

Both Wesley and Barky reminisced about “2 Street”. That’s 2nd Street in Jackson Ward, the “Deuce,”  where the good times rolled. The Hippodrome was part of that but the whole street was a party. I found a glass negative labeled “Alonzo ‘Spider’ Waller” in Harry Stilson’s photographs and it just looks like it belongs on 2 Street, doesn’t it?


Alonzo “Spider” Waller

Waller is a well-known name in Richmond. Did you know that Waller & Co. Jewelers is a four-generation family business, established in 1900? That they make a signature watch? A Waller watch is a cherished possession. But my Waller, Alonzo, isn’t from that Waller family. At the Genealogy Roadshow at the Hippodrome, I met a woman who knew someone who was related to him and she promised to give her my card. I’d love to know Alonzo’s story and to share his picture with his family. Sadly, I never heard from Alonzo’s relative but I remain hopeful. Don’t you want to know more about Spider?

Richmond has stories to tell and Richmond In Sight wants to tell them. Celebrating Black History Month is a start but we need to celebrate people and stories like these all year long. Check back for more stories and images and don’t forget that we have a Facebook page. Richmond Views is the blog for Richmond In Sight and RIS is sharing the pictures of Richmond in the early 1900s everywhere we can. If your organization has programs, get in touch. I give presentations ‘most anywhere I’m invited and Black History Month is a great time to see what our African-American Richmonders were doing when Harry Stilson’s streetcar ran on the West Clay line.


I promised to tell you about the Astoria Beneficial Club so here’s a short lesson in co-operation and giving back to the community. In 1901, if you were African American, there were few options when enormous financial disasters struck. Insurance for blacks was almost non-existent so ‘beneficial clubs’ were formed. Co-ops, sort of. Members paid into the club and when they had medical expenses or funeral expenses, funds were provided. Of course, others donated as well. I have my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson’s note in his journal “.25 to bury colored man” but organizations like the Astorians were common then. Unlike most, the Astoria Beneficial Society is still providing necessary services in Richmond.

I was blessed to have a very special Astorian as my friend. Dr. Wesley Carter was friend, mentor, and cheerleader to me in my work to preserve, restore, and share the Stilson photography collection. I met Wesley when he was 104 years old but it was hard to prove his age. He lived alone, drove, went to Virginia Union weekly. As the oldest living alumnus of Union, he was revered and accorded special status. He was given that same respect by fellow Astorians so, when he received his free ticket to their annual award meeting, he offered to take me as his “date.” Naturally, I accepted. The picture below is Wesley, the man I called “the best PR man around and the best date I ever had.”

002 Wesley Carter Astorian02

At that dinner, awards were presented to people who do outstanding things in our community, educators, advocates, etc. That’s not new with the Astorians. Their history includes scholarships, donations to local causes, and more. The Bill “Bojangles” Robinson statue is due to their determination to celebrate a Richmond hero and Wesley Carter went to Ohio with the sculptor to bring it here. Did you know why it stands where it does? Bojangles Robinson saw a child nearly hit by a car at that intersection and inquired as to why such a dangerous situation existed. Told that the city wouldn’t pay for a stoplight there, in Jackson Ward, a predominantly-black neighborhood, Robinson donated the funds to provide one. Today, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap dances near the intersection of Chamberlayne and Leigh.

During the Civil Rights movement, the Astoria Beneficial Club promoted employment of African Americans by the city, equal pay for Public School teachers, voter registration and rights, and jobs in the Richmond Police Department.

Education has always been a focus of the Astoria Beneficial Club which has given scholarships to deserving black students from its inception. Today, they inspire students to achieve their potential. At that dinner, an award was given to then-school superintendent Dr. Yvonne Brandon who praised them for going into schools that few visit. She stated that the mentor program offered by the Astorians literally changes lives.

Changing lives. Pushing limits. Giving back. To quote from their program for the 110th Anniversary & Awards Celebration, they are “Celebrating a Richm Past: Making a Difference in the Future.” One hundred and fifteen years after they were established, they are still a powerful force for good in Richmond.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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!

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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 for more stories and pictures.