Archives for posts with tag: black history

It’s a Sunday in Black History Month. Good time to share a few of Harry Stilson’s photographs of churches and church folks. Across the street from Maggie Walker Governor’s School at the corner of Moore Street & Elizabeth stands a church. Its predecessor was First Union Baptist Church and the original building, visible in several of Harry’s images, burned down and was replaced with the existing structure. First Union is special to me because it’s integral to my Richmond In Sight journey. Here’s the story…

0030 First Union Church

When my father died, I inherited about 200 photographs his grandfather had taken. I had seen a few of the pictures before but was amazed by the variety and scope of subjects and locations. Later, when my aunt’s Alzheimer’s forced her to move in with me, I discovered thousands more negatives, prints, even Harry’s movie camera in her basement but that first glimpse into my great-grandfather’s collection offered the following mystery.

Preacher Thomas

On the back of one photograph, Harry had written “I made some $10 of these pictures of Preacher Thomas, colored, lying in state in his little church.” It was dated and I felt sure someone could identify Preacher Thomas so I took the picture around Richmond, to churches, Virginia Union, businesses. I failed to positively identify him but by then I was hooked. I wanted to know more about the people and places in Harry Stilson’s photographs. That search was the seed for Richmond In Sight. It was two years later that the mystery was solved. I found an envelope of negatives with “Union Church” written on it and when I reversed the negative, the church didn’t look like the structure in what is now Carver. I went online and found that the original building had burned down. Then I read that First Union’s pastor, the Reverend William Thomas, died in 1922, the date on Harry’s picture. I called the church, was connected with Preacher Thomas’ granddaughters and formed a friendship. I still believe that the kids in this picture with First Union in the background are part of the very large Thomas family. We’ve redone the pictures, making them clearer so I need to revisit Queen & Margaret. They might recognize these kids in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes as aunts and uncles.

0028 kids in front of First Union

I believe that Harry Stilson took pictures that incorporated Jackson Ward churches in the background but I haven’t identified them yet. He must have because there are lots of churches in the area and Harry’s African-American photo subjects were proud of their churches’ rich history but many of Harry’s 5,000 images are unlabeled and identifying backgrounds is labor-and-time-intensive. Since I can’t show you Ebenezer or Sixth Mount Zion, let’s pretend these folks are dressed up in their Sunday best and on their way to those or other Jackson Ward churches.

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One church, Moore Street Church on Leigh Street, is prominent in several photographs of Richmond’s African-American troops returning from WWI. Here you see flags flying from every house and Moore Street Church on the left. The houses beside the church are no longer there but Moore Street Church is still a vibrant and significant part of the community. Jackson Ward of Harry Stilson’s day was a proud and powerful example of what a black community can do. In celebrating Black History Month, we should remember the role of churches in America. The same faith that built the churches of Jackson Ward and kept them vibrant for over a century sustains its people and inspires them. Courage, perseverance, and determination have brought us here and we’ve just begun.

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Leigh Street, Moore Street Church on left in rear, African-American soldiers in far distance on parade as they returned from France

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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.

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.

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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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