Archives for posts with tag: Harry Stilson

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.

083 soldier & mom

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

It’s been a long time since my last entry and I apologize. Sometimes real life interferes with my Richmond In Sight projects like this blog. Let me try to make it up to you with this. Fourth of July is upon us with all the traditional activities: fireworks, homemade ice cream, cook outs, and parades. Last week I attended a Richmond Pops Band concert and the M.C. introduced “76 Trombones” by explaining that every town wanted a brass band because of the popularity of John Philip Sousa and other composers. That inspired me to write this about Richmond’s bands back in the early 1900s because they were certainly a significant part of celebrations.

I know my great-grandfather loved music because I inherited his Victrola and record collection but his photographs and movies are visual evidence of his love for brass bands. Harry Stilson took lots of pictures of parades. His movies include a Monument Avenue parade that we believe is the 4th of July. I’ll share a few images along with a brief history lesson about how much Richmond loved its bands.

The John Marshall High School cadets were prominently displayed in Harry’s photos. As a little boy, Bill Long lived across from the 6th Street Armory where the cadets practiced at noon. The streets were closed for those practices. Can you imagine that happening today?


This picture of the John Marshall band was labeled “Idlewood Park” and is on Sheppard Street. Most of the houses in the background are still standing.


The Elks were famous for their bands. When Richmond’s “new” City Hall (now “Old City Hall”) was completed, festivities included the Atlanta Elks Band.


There were African-American Elks lodges, too, and many of my oral history sources recall the Elks’ band fondly. The drum major with his remarkable white shako plume was firmly embedded in the memory of every kid in Jackson Ward. There was always a Sunday afternoon parade and some of my most memorable Stilson pictures were snapped as “the band played on.” This is the Elks band on 17th Street and the steep hill behind them may not be there anymore because Fairfield Avenue/Oliver Hill/17th Street has changed so dramatically.


When Richmond’s black troops returned from France near the end of World War I, the Elks band was part of the parade and celebration.

071 Elks Armistice parade bk

Parades were big events, no matter the occasion. This crowd is on Leigh Street and Hartshorn College, where Maggie Walker Governor School is now located, was behind the spectators. We think the parade may have been Virginia Union cadets but this gives you an idea of how popular bands and parades were in the early 1900s.

Negro parade Lombardy & Leigh

This photograph is of a Macon, Georgia brass band and while we can read Thomas Hardeman on the drum, we can’t confirm whether it was a military or civilian band. Either way, you can imagine the John Philip Sousa music and the excitement of the crowd. The band is on Theatre Row (between 7th & 8th on Broad Street) and you can see the Lyric and Bijou Theatres in the background.

Macon Ga band

And finally, here is a clip from a Stilson 4th of July film. It’s Monument Avenue and a tiny bit of the fence around the Matthew Fontaine Maury statue is in the far right of the picture. It’s blurry because it’s taken from Harry’s movie but I like it because the drum major is followed by a little boy dressed as a drum major also leading the band.


There were even some great Stilson photographs of parades and bands before the music began. These are three of Richmond’s first African-American Girl Scouts before they even had their uniforms. We had one of the first black Girl Scout troops and I can only identify them as scouts because Harry described them as “Girl Scouts marking time before the parade.” Thanks for the heads up, Harry!

girls scouts bk

Just a glimpse into the bands and music that inspired Richmond spectators back when streetcars rumbled along our cobblestoned streets. Maybe you won’t be watching a 4th of July parade Monday but if you listen closely, you might hear an echo of yesterday’s brass bands.


In honor of Passover, I thought I’d share a few of Harry Stilson’s photographs of Jewish friends along the West Clay line in Jackson Ward. That iconic neighborhood was established by African Americans and Jewish immigrants, many of whom went on to build Richmond dynasties of commerce. My great-grandfather encountered and photographed some prominent Ward residents but more often he took pictures of Jewish storekeepers, housewives, rabbis and workers. The men  below are posing where Hartshorn Memorial College once stood. Maggie Walker Governor School is located on that site today.

0072 two Jewish men

Harry’s journal entries record visits and photo sales to common Jewish surnames and I’ve tried to track down descendants of those people, like the Shirrucks. Harry was friends with Mr. & Mrs. Shirruck, whose store was located at 17th & Fairfield. He took pictures of the interior of their store, the couple in a field, but one of my favorites shows Mr. & Mrs. Shirruck on the Fairfield streetcar. Harry’s spelling wasn’t always accurate so he might have misspelled their name so if you know any Shirrucks/Shurricks, I’d love to meet them and share  pictures of their kin.

0074 ShurrickStore02  0046 Shirrucks on car

Harry labeled this photograph (below) “Jewish Rabbi at Hermitage & Leigh” but it was more likely a shocket who supervised ritual slaughter at Kingan’s Abbatoir or another Richmond slaughterhouse.

0107 rabbi

The Shockets were frequent subjects of Stilson photos and Shocket’s Popular Corner appeared in several of Harry’s images. We couldn’t identify the location until Barky Haggins looked at this photo and said “I delivered newspapers to that store when I was a boy!” He explained that there’s a very good reason that I can’t find the block: it no longer exists. It was on Leigh Street where Allen Avenue now cuts through.  That block disappeared decades ago.

Passover blog

Sometimes it seems that Harry Stilson did get commissions for portraits that paid more than his usual 15 cents. Beth Ahabah Museum has always supported our project and the quest for descendants of Stilson subjects. Arthur Strauss is one example of a member of the Beth Ahabah congregation who showed up in Harry’s pictures. This picture was labeled “Arthur Strauss” with a note about a “book for you, my friend” but that’s all I know about the portrait and the Stilson/Strauss relationship.

Arthur Strauss for Bonnie

No idea who this young man below is but his portrait is striking. The same background appears in other photographs in the Stilson collection but it’s a mystery as to where, how, and whether the backdrop belonged to Harry or a studio.

0150 boy in chair

This last picture wasn’t taken by my great-grandfather but Harry did know the subject. Forgive the repetition if you’ve heard this story before but it sounds like Hollywood fiction. Aleck Mollen invited me to the Weinstein Jewish Community Center to meet possible oral history sources. People crowded around looking at pictures and I heard a voice say: “I knew a streetcar man named Stilson. He let me drive the streetcar.” Morris Goldberg knew my great-grandfather, a man who died in 1934. I still marvel that this really happened. In 2012, I met the kid who “drove” Harry Stilson’s streetcar and have been blessed by his friendship ever since. On one of our field trips, I took this picture of Morris in front of his childhood home, which was also the family business, Goldberg’s Store, at Hancock & Clay. Morris hasn’t forgotten one minute of his years on the streets of Jackson Ward and his story-telling skills are a delight. He considers himself from Jackson Ward because the distinction between the Ward and Carver came later, after Carver School was built. My pal Morris has supplied me with incredible stories and descriptions of life when he was a boy and most of them have found their way into my books. Of course, he always has more to tell me so readers will be delighted by Morris Goldberg’s take on life along the West Clay line for years to come.


There are many photographs of the Jewish residents in Jackson Ward, Carver, Newtowne, and Navy Hill that I could share. Hopefully this glimpse of life when streetcars rumbled along Richmond’s streets and little boys were fascinated by them will capture your imagination. If you’re intrigued by images and stories from the West Clay line, my book On the West Clay Line is perfect for you. Go to to purchase books, see more of life through Harry Stilson’s lens, or to schedule a presentation of his images and stories. Invite me to bring Harry along to your group, synagogue, church, or organization. I’d love to share more images of people who celebrated Passovers in Richmond in the early 1900s.














Epidemics, medical advances, drugs, all affected Richmond lives in the early 1900s. Today the zika virus and ebola evoke fear but in Harry Stilson’s time, Spanish influenza stuck terror in hearts. 1918 was an especially deadly year and Richmond wasn’t exempt from tragedy. My great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, as a streetcar motorman, was exposed to passengers with all sorts of diseases as were his fellow “car men.” He kept a journal and one entry offered a poignant illustration of the friendships between streetcar men: “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 his entry read: “Thurs 8/8/18 Told that Conductor William Clarence Wright died last night after 7 PM at the house of his sister at 1505 Garland Ave Barton Heights.” A few months later, he noted: “Fri 10/25/18 Spanish Influenza the end of Willie McCloud last night.”

Diphtheria was another dreaded disease. I found this booklet entitled “Train Ticket to No-Diphtheria-Town on the Health Road” filled out with my aunt’s name. In 1913, the Schick skin test was developed but only came to the United States in 1923. It offered a simple mass immunization and I suppose the “Train Ticket” was designed to inspire participation in the immunization programs.

diptherianorma  diptheria2  diptheria3  diptheria4  diptheria next last

Medical practices were different back then. My grandmother was bitten by a snake as a little girl. Doctors were summoned from Richmond or Midlothian to treat Bon Air patients so her father called the doctor. Hours passed. Finally, at sundown, Dr. Hazen rode up on his horse and said, “If that snake was poisonous, she’d be dead” and headed home again.

069 Doctor

Visiting nurses and midwives handled most medical emergencies. Harry simply labeled this photo “Visiting colored nurse” with no explanation of who, where, or why he took her picture. 003 Black health nurse

Even back then, the Medical College of Virginia was respected for its advanced treatments. Several photographs of “Mr. & Mrs. Lynch” clarified that they were not related to Harry’s son-in-law, Lee Lynch. The couple came from North Carolina for treatment and rented an apartment from Harry Stilson. Several notations on photographs refer to Mrs. Lynch having “little chance of surviving” whatever illness she suffered from.Hospital stays exposed patients to germs and bugs. Dr. Charles Williams was a patient at MCV as a boy and witnessed the use of blow torches to exterminate bugs in his hospital room. lynch

Harry’s sister was married to a doctor and some of his equipment, including a porcelain urinal, survived the decades to wind up in my house. Without disinfectants, I doubt any of the equipment was very sanitary. urinal

And then there were the usual accidents…broken bones and such. Bet they didn’t offer this guy his choice in neon-colored casts.

man in castHarry Stilson’s bouts with his “lungs” were less worrisome than they could have been. He reported missing work and then, “feeling some better”, going to see his friend, Sam Sparrow, in Jackson Ward. Sparrow, an African-American railroad porter, had reason to be irritated at Harry if he realized that Harry, still sick, might have caused what Sparrow told Harry: “Tue 12/17/18, Sparrow reported his wife sick Saturday night soon after I left.” People didn’t know how germs were transferred. Without sick day pay, missing work was a financial hardship so folks like Harry “Went back to work “all in” at quitting time” and probably passed his germs on to his coworkers as they had done to him.

The descriptions and terms are quaint, as when Harry wrote that his conductor was ill: “2/9/19 Epperson off, throat and lung sore.” All in all, I’m glad to live in times when inoculations are routine, sanitizers are available in most public places, and urinals come in disposable plastic.