Archives for posts with tag: streetcars

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.

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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.

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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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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.

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                                 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?

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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.

 

Before Harry Stilson was a streetcar driver, he was a farmer. I have his journals from the late 1800s that include details, everything from seed purchases to his code for wind direction and weather. In 1907, Harry packed his household and animals into a freight car and moved from Michigan to Virginia. He and his son Leon rode in that freight car with the livestock. What a miserable trip that must have been.  My great-grandmother’s letter acknowledging his arrival expressed sympathy for the “poor animals” but disregarded the discomfort experienced by her husband and son. They rented a farm in Orange, Virginia in 1907 but farming here proved harder than expected. Michigan hogs died in the Virginia heat. Finances were dire, domestic life was tense, and two years later, Mary Stilson returned to Michigan to care for her mother while Harry moved to Richmond with their three children and applied for a job on the streetcars. Changing careers didn’t change the farmer in Harry, though. His photo collection contains hundreds of animal images and his letters to family discussed livestock and crops.  He kept chickens in the back yard of his Carytown home as did his neighbors, the Garbers. Below is “Best cock in show,”owned by a neighbor on Westhampton Avenue (now Cary Street)  and chickens in the poultry show at the “old Coliseum,” Lombardy & Broad, now condos.

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Someone in the family must have contemplated an additional income stream because I found this 1932 booklet “Making Money with Rabbits” which was published by R.C. Gulley & Co., 314 E. Main Street, Richmond, VA. It might have been his younger son because, while Don followed his father into streetcar work, he hated it and saved to buy a farm.making-money-rabbits

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He succeeded in his dream and purchased property on Route 5 in Charles City County. I have the hand-drawn, colored-pencil survey of Red Hill Farm from 1888 and the deed. Mostly, though, I cherish my memories of Red Hill. The house never had heat or indoor plumbing but I loved visiting, picking vegetables, even helping with sheep shearing. I also remember animals like Mabel, the blind horse who plowed following her partner, Ned. Even animals of earlier decades were preserved in film, like the Stilson hog below.

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The entire family was involved in Don’s investment and visited often. Don commuted to work in Richmond  after he bought Red Hill Farm which must have been difficult even without long farming hours before and after driving to town. Stilson movies include footage from farm visits and one scene is significant. Moving picture cameras were rare back then but what I have is perhaps unique. I found an October 1928 journal entry stating “Miss Day of Galeski Optical has loaned me free of charge a moving picture camera and projection” so I know where and when he got his camera.  The movie camera, complete with instructions, was discovered in my aunt’s basement. Upon inspection, a pretty boring picture of Don plowing was revealed to actually be Harry taking a movie and I even have the movie clip he was filming so my documentation of Stilson movies is amazingly complete. See why historians love Harry and Richmond In Sight material? You can’t beat provenance like that!

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I’m often frustrated by the fact that every animal, from dogs to cows, is named but people and places often aren’t, perhaps an indication of how significant animals were to everyday life in the early 1900s or maybe it’s simply a sign of how dysfunctional my family was. Either way, the Stilson legacy includes lots of four-legged photo subjects.

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Above: Hand-tinted cow “Daisy” at Red Hill Farm

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.

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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 http://smile.amazon.com/gp/charity/homepage.html?orig=%2Fgp%2Fbrowse.html%3Fnode%3D11448061011&ein=47-1678153

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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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.