Archives for posts with tag: photography

Red-lining wasn’t a term on my radar until I became a Realtor in 1986. It’s the practice of drawing map lines on minority neighborhoods to designate “risky” loan areas for lenders. I grew up in Richmond very much aware of segregation in housing but not the word “red-lining.” When my great-grandfather, Harry Stilson, ran a Richmond streetcar route from 1909 until his death in 1934, neighborhoods were segregated…sort of.

Denny or Henry

                                                 Don’s neighbor holding the Stilson cat

Jackson Ward was comprised mostly of African-Americans and Jewish immigrants and there was separation within the neighborhoods but you might have a pocket of three or four Jewish families, then black, then Jewish again. For a while, Harry lived in the Byrd Park area on Gilbert Street and they must have had black neighbors because my great-uncle Don was photographed beside his African-American friend and one envelope of negatives described “Don and his colored friends from the neighborhood playing in the yard.” City neighborhoods were segregated but often block by block or even house by house. My oral history sources confirmed that in their stories. Aleck Mollen’s father, a Jewish storeowner in Shockoe Bottom, lived above the family store and rented the basement to a black family. Mr. Mollen said “They lived there and they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. We just all lived there.” One of my white sources recalled that his family was so poor that they envied the black kids whose families owned their homes.

136 Shurricks Store

                        Jewish storekeepers Mr. & Mrs. Shurrick’s store, 17th & Fairfield

Lenders weren’t concerned about making (or not making) loans to African-Americans in particular areas because they didn’t give mortgages to any black folks. In those days, there were few borrowing options available to African-Americans and insurance was rarely offered to blacks.

093 belmont

Social organizations such as the Independent Order of St. Luke and the Astoria Beneficial Society filled that gap. Members paid dues and were eligible for burial insurance or medical bill assistance. Harry noted a donation in his journal: “3/2/19 To help bury a colored man .25” so the practice of pitching in extended beyond social societies.

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Hearse (third vehicle down) at tobacco factory, Bowe Street, presumably belonging  to                                          African-American funeral home across street

Maggie L. Walker was instrumental in offering mortgages and encouraging home ownership to African-Americans in Richmond through her St. Luke Penny Saving Bank but owning a home was difficult for minorities and to have Census records state that your home was “O” (owned) instead of “R” (rented) was a matter of extreme pride. Harry Stilson’s friend Samuel F. Sparrow and his wife Mary C. Sparrow owned their house at 602 Elizabeth Street. Harry took house pictures for them to share on a trip to Philadelphia. I wish I could identify that home but it’s an unlabeled house in a collection of hundreds of unidentified locations and 602 Elizabeth Street no longer exists. Across the street from Maggie L. Walker Governor School, Elizabeth Street is just a block long these days and the Sparrow home only exists in Harry’s journal and perhaps in a Stilson photograph. I find satisfaction in reading in the 1920 U.S. Census that a railroad porter and his wife were homeowners and knowing that my great-grandfather was a visitor in their home on several occasions.

0058 Sparrow & taylor

                                                   Sam & Mary Sparrow & Mary Taylor

As a real estate broker and as an American, it appalls me to hear that African-Americans still face discrimination in lending. Studies document vast discrepancies in the number of approved loans of households whose only differences were color. It was wrong in Harry’s time and it’s even more unacceptable in his great-granddaughter’s time.  Knowing how hard Sam & Mary Sparrow worked to own their home, it breaks my heart to think that families today can’t do the same. Harry Stilson wouldn’t approve of red-lining and we shouldn’t allow it either.


Hartshorn Memorial College was the first African-American women’s school to award baccalaureate degrees and it was located in Richmond, where Maggie Walker Governor’s School now stands. There was a streetcar stop at the school and Harry Stilson’s car lingered there so he could take photographs of students, staff, and buildings.

Hartshorn and Elwin.resized - Copy

The 1920 U.S. Census lists Miss Julia Elwin, teacher, shown above, as living at 1600 W. Leigh, so she lived on campus. Hartshorn’s teachers were white with the exception of  the wife of a Virginia Union professor but that was common in those days. Virginia Union was the first school in the country to have African-American teachers and Harry took pictures of them, too. Unfortunately, he didn’t label the pictures of Dr. Riggler and Dr. Jones so I can’t identify them. In the photo below, students are “tatting” but, while Hartshorn taught domestic skills, it concentrated on academics and the teachers who graduated pursued careers in Richmond and elsewhere.

Hartshorn tatting

Hartshorn lineup

Harry’s journal had a cryptic note: “Maude E. Brown & Iva Clarke” among Hartshorn photos so I called Virginia Union where their archivist confirmed that those were those of students…of high school. I had not realized that Hartshorn was also a high school until then. Iva’s great-niece is still in Richmond. Someone recognized the name and asked her friend “Is she your great-aunt?” More proof of my conviction that Richmond’s not six degrees of separation but maybe two.

maude brown iva clarke

I wonder if Miss Julia was supervising girls in the dorm December 6, 1920. In the photo below, Harry’s tripod is at the fence and you might not be able to see this but a man is crawling out of the first floor corner window of this dorm.  Harry took pictures of significant events as well as insignificant events like this one. It was only important to the parents of the girl in that corner room!

Hartshorn for blog

Hartshorn’s ‘brother school,’ Virginia Union, offered an unusual feature in its infancy: a working farm, power plant and water supply. Its adjacent Industrial Training School housed pigs, cows, and chickens and vegetable gardens and students were expected to maintain the plant and farm, which supplied the school as well as generating income. The wagon below, in front of Hartshorn, was probably in route to Virginia Union just across the trestle where Union student Percy Jones stood. This was a rare Stilson photo of  Virginia Union, possibly because it was not on his streetcar route.

wagon Bull

068 Percy VUU

Hartshorn was torn down around 1932 when the school merged with Virginia Union. It  sickens me to think of the destruction of those glorious buildings. During World War I, this dorm was decorated with patriotic flags and Harry took a picture of his conductor in front of it.  According to Wikipedia, Hartshorn students were not allowed to ride streetcars but that didn’t prevent my great-grandfather from participating in the lives of the girls of Hartshorn. He documented their faces and the face of African-American education in Richmond, a part of Black History Month that we should know and honor.

streetcar man hartshorn

Hartshorn and Elwin for blog


A significant part of Richmond In Sight’s work is identifying the people and places in Harry Stilson’s photography collection. With approximately 5,000 images, most unlabeled, this is no small job but I’m determined to locate not only landmarks, buildings, and events, but also descendants of folks that Harry captured in his photos. Sharing a picture of a grandparent or great-uncle is a joy and amazingly, it happens more than a few times in my work.

When the Richmond Times Dispatch did an article on my work years ago, a woman emailed the paper that she was raised on stories of her mother’s streetcar man, Mr. Stilson, who watched out for her mother and friends. At night, he would stop the streetcar, wait for her mother and Robinette Anderson to walk to their house, and then yell “Are you home yet?” They’d answer “Yes, sir” and his streetcar would move on. I met with Irma Dillard and shared pictures that she had never seen before of her mother, Irma Rainey, and friends from Armstrong High School. Irma is the girl with the glasses, far right. Her daughter identified Goldbug Wilson, Robinette Anderson, Percy Jones and others. This, the first of my detective successes, was by no means the only one.

118 Irma line

There are, however, some people that I have searched extensively for but failed. This little girl, named “Miss Rubin Lee Moore” by Harry on the back of her picture, has always touched my heart. I’ve looked in census records and death records but she’s not there. Sometimes Harry misspelled names or made mistakes but I am certain that this child was named Rubin Moore because of this: I met with an elderly woman for oral history but discovered that Alzheimer’s had stolen her memory. Mrs. Warden didn’t know where or when she was born but I thought I’d share the 20 pictures I’d brought, thinking she’d enjoy them anyway. When Rubin appeared, she said “I know this child. She was a childhood playmate of mine.” I asked if she remembered her name and she responded “Rubin Lee Moore. Her parents were Sadie and Earnest Lee Moore and they went to Hampton Institute with my parents.” It still gives me chills. Actually, Earnest Lee also went to Virginia Union. His name is on the plaque of Union students who were in WWI. You’d think I could find a grandchild or nephew or someone but there are a lot of Moores around here. I believe Rubin Lee died as a child because the 1940 Census shows her mother, Sadie, as a widow, and her siblings as teenagers but there is no mention of Rubin Lee. Death notices? Can’t find one. So…this child haunts me still.


Harry took a series of photographs of the Watson family. This hand-tinted picture of“Bessie Watson’s child” should be shared with her family but I can’t locate them either.

0060 Bessie Watson, colored

Remember Irma and Robinette? They had a friend named Jany Charity and I was sure I’d find her descendants in the Charity families of Richmond. I talked to some Charitys, even found that my kids’ dermatologist, Dr. Royal, was related to the Charity family but no one remembered a Jany. Then I discovered Tamara Copeland’s blog, Daughters of the Dream. We have a lot in common. She said Jany Charity might be a relative so the search is still on. Tamara and I have at least one other tie. My daughter and her husband lived on Edgewood Avenue, the Northside street where Tamara grew up.  See why I wrote in my first book “Richmond…not six degrees of separation, maybe two?” That social network of Richmond just might find Jany for me. Oh, and if you look closely in the background, you’ll see a figure coming up the hill towards Jany. I think that’s our pal Irma Rainey, Irma Dillard’s mama.

0019 Jany Charity

In case the point of all this hasn’t struck you, I’ll hammer it home. If your family has been in the Richmond area since the early 1900s, check in with me. Give me names and if you want to email a picture, great. Oh, and there’s this: Richard Lee Bland shared a photograph he’d bought. He recognized it as a Stilson. Same white writing on it as those photos in my book. Harry sold photographs to support his photography and I am confident that family albums contain his images. I’m always on the lookout for Harry’s pictures and you might be able to help me. That two degrees of separation works in my favor, you know.

Black History Month isn’t just about famous folks. It’s about Irma Rainey Dillard, a Richmond teacher remembered by so many people I meet, whose daughter became an attorney. It’s about Earnest Lee Moore, who went to Hampton Institute and Virginia Union, and served his country in World War I. It’s about the unidentified Richmonders in Harry Stilson’s collection that turned his great-granddaughter into Nancy Drew. That famous teenaged sleuth had friends to help her. So do I. Help me put names and stories to the people in Harry Stilson’s photographs. They are all part of our collective history.

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.

0094 laundry wagon

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.”

0151 Tinted Population bk

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.”

139 Don & Denny

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.


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.


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, 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.

cassons broad

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.”


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 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