Archives for posts with tag: Harry Stilson

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.”

0127 recruits

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?




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.”

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.”

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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.”

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, 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.


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.


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



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 or by emailing me at 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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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.


Christmas decorating has changed dramatically in the last few years. Think of how much more there is…more kinds of lights, decorations, computer-generated house lighting displays, lasers, all of that. If you’re a Christmas junkie like I am, it’s great but it’s also neat to see how people celebrated Christmas in the early 1900s and, thanks to my great-grandfather’s photographs, we can do that. One indication of how the season was observed is the number of pictures of the Stilson/Lynch family at Christmas that survived: a handful. It wasn’t as long or involved a holiday as is celebrated today. Some photos of unknown families are included in the collection and could have been friends, family, or customers. We’ll probably never know although I’ve learned not to say “never” in the Great Harry Stilson Adventure. When I do, the next day someone contacts me to identify the place or person I was sure would remain a mystery. Like these folks:


I’ve shown these pictures before but they’re still worth a look. When I shared them before, I asked if you recognized anyone. Your aunt Maude, perhaps? That’s how we identify stuff…Richmond In Sight’s detectives include all of Richmond and beyond. You’re part of the Great Adventure, whether you expect to be or not.

What I love about Harry Stilson’s photographs are the connections: to not only the Richmond of today but to our family. It’s cool to see buildings and places from a century ago and know we pass them (or visit them) today. It’s also really cool to examine a Christmas tree my family decorated and know that some of those same ornaments hang from the branches of my tree. I’ve been questioned about the wisdom of exposing these fragile antiques to harm but they survived thus far and I like the continuity. So here’s the present-day version. If you look at Harry’s photographs, you might spot some of the same ornaments on his family Christmas tree.

The plan is to share a few more holiday images in the next few days. As you may have noticed if you follow this blog, sometimes my best plans go awry. Real estate business, triplet grandbabies, presentations, book writing, and more can interfere with my intentions but stay tuned. I’ll try to do better. I really do need to get on Santa’s “nice” list. Time’s running out…

Gold Star families have been in the news recently. You may not have heard that term before so here’s a bit of Gold Star history as seen through a personal lens, that of my own family. Richmond Views shares images and stories from the Richmond of my great-grandfather’s lifetime. Harry Stilson drove a streetcar and his camera rode beside him every day. His photographs are an amazing collection of ordinary and extraordinary events and people. My books and presentations share those priceless images but some of the photographs included were actually taken by Harry’s son, Leon. Both of the Stilson sons followed their father into streetcar work but Leon’s career ended when he was called to military service in WWI. Harry & Leon pose in their streetcar uniforms below.HHS and Leon streetcar uniform My upcoming book, From Richmond to France, focuses on the young men who left Richmond to fight in the World War but it’s also about Gold Star Mothers, including my great-grandmother, Mary Stilson. Her son, Leon, did not come home from France. Leon departure                                              Richmond recruits heading off to boot camp

Blue Star families have a relative serving in the military. The term Gold Star families refers to those who have lost a son or husband in battle and comes from the tradition of hanging a gold star in a window or on a door to indicate a loss. The organization Gold Star Mothers was created as a support system for women devastated by the death of a son and Mary Stilson was active in the Richmond chapter. After WWI, there was a movement lobbying  Congress to arrange passage for women to visit their sons’ graves. My great-grandmother made a Gold Star Mother Pilgrimage to France on the President Harding. Ironically, her trip included a stay in New York at the Hotel Commodore, now a Trump Hotel.



Harry taught his wife to take photographs (her first attempt is noted on an envelope of negatives) and she kept EVERYTHING, from passport to ship menus, from a bag of French soil to the vase presented to her by the mayor of Verdun where Leon is buried. A shell converted to a vase, it now sits on my shelf, just one reminder among hundreds of the sons who died for our freedom. 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I and  we need reminding of that war’s sacrifices by so many young men, both black and white.

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When Richmond was determined to build a monument to those killed in what they called the Great War, the Gold Star mothers were right there. The Carillon was dedicated in October 1932 and the Stilsons were there. I believe Harry took the picture used in the Gold Star fundraiser pins sold at the dedication. My father helped his grandmother with sales. Next time you are at Dogwood Dell, look for the Gold Star emblem on the Carillon. I’ll share more of its history at my Veteran’s Day presentation at the Carillon next fall.

076 Dedication of Carrillon                                                         Carillon Dedication, October 1932

The loss of a son or daughter, husband or brother, in war is heart-wrenching and not soon healed. Harry worked through his grief by meeting returning soldiers, photographing them, asking questions. He found a Petersburg man who was with Leon when he was shot and corresponded with him and his father. I have those letters and they’re hard to read even now. I never knew Leon. He died nearly a century ago but my heart hurts to read how that young Petersburg man covered Leon with his own greatcoat when Leon said he was cold. Harry’s healing came from learning details and documenting the return of other men’s sons. Leon’s mother turned to other mothers who had lost sons and found comfort in their shared experience. Peace was found only after traveling across an ocean to stand by her son’s grave. Gold Star Mothers embraced each other and offered each other comfort as they stood by stark graves on foreign ground.

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Mary Stilson by her son’s grave at Verdun, France

Today Gold Star Mothers still support families in the loss of a son, daughter, husband, wife, brother, sister. Their sacrifice is unthinkable. My heart aches to even hear them speak of their loved ones and I stand in awe of families who sacrifice their family’s future for America’s future. I hope to honor them in a small way with From Richmond to France. It’s customary to thank those in uniform for their service. Perhaps learning what a Gold Star family has suffered will lead to a new custom. Suppose we start saying to members of Gold Star families, “Thank you for your sacrifice.” A small gesture and perhaps a century overdue.


This isn’t my usual blog entry. If you enjoy reading Richmond Views, you may know that it is part of Richmond In Sight, which is non-profit and was created to preserve, restore, and share the photography collection of my great-grandfather, Harris Stilson. Harry was a Richmond streetcar motorman (driver) in the early 1900s whose camera never left his side. He was the poor man’s photographer, capturing images of ordinary events like cobblestone repairing and extraordinary events like the return of Richmond troops from France in World War I. People flagged down the streetcar, asked him to take their picture, which he did. He developed the photos and delivered them along the streetcar route.

Those images, some 5,000 of them, are the basis for my books, From A Richmond Streetcar, On the West Clay Line, Up & Down Church Hill, and my upcoming book, From Richmond to France. They are also shared in presentations at venues like historical associations, schools, churches, synagogues, retirement homes, anywhere I am invited. I do those without fee. Sometimes a donation is made to RIS but almost all of my work, from organizing, creating databases, preserving, restoring, writing blogs, social media sharing, presentations, researching, collecting oral histories, identifying people and places in the Stilson collection, writing and publishing books, participating in neighborhood events like Celebrate Jackson Ward, and so much more comes from my own pocket. That brings me to why I am writing today.

Richmond In Sight is a participant in Amazon’s program Amazon Smile. When you purchase from Amazon, you can designate RIS as your chosen organization and Amazon donates a fraction of the purchase price to RIS. We’re talking pennies but I’ll take anything I can get. Doing this work is my gift to Richmond but it’s a very expensive gift and my means are limited. If you purchase items through Amazon, please click on the link that sends a bit of your money to continuing Harry’s projects.

Here’s the really critical part: today is Prime Day, one of the biggest sales days for Amazon and Richmond In Sight can really benefit from your purchases. If you’re taking advantage of special prices today, make your money REALLY count.

Today is #PrimeDay! #StartWithaSmile and @Amazon donates to Richmond in Sight. Go to

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Hat shop or department, Peggy Gay Hats, undetermined location, Richmond, VA