Archives for posts with tag: streetcars

Segregation in the early 1900s was pervasive. In Richmond, Jackson Ward was the premier African-American community but it was comprised of Jewish immigrants as well. According to “Miss Ruby” Turner, a well-known activist for race relations, even in Jackson Ward people divided by race. Miss Ruby was quoted in my book, On the West Clay Line describing how each neighborhood had black families, then what she called a “Jew store” with the owners living above it and “Jew families” living beside the store. Please understand that Miss Ruby’s language was not derogatory. She declared “Jews…they are my friends. Where did we learn what we know about God? From whom did we learn it? From the Jews!” A visit with Miss Ruby was always a lesson in tolerance and diversity. She went on to say “People who carry this hatred (of other religions & races)…they may look good on the outside but they’re miserable.” She also pointed out that segregation existed even within the black community. “The people on the other side of Lombardy were “the other” colored folks. We colored folks were a little bit above the “other colored folks.” Also the people that lived down Second Street way and Brook Avenue…we were more segregated than y’all were. That’s the way it was.” Trust Miss Ruby to point out that not only color but also money and education created separation and bitterness back then just as it does in America today.

However, segregation has always been selective in Richmond. Irving Haggins remembered that his playmate, Gilbert Grossman, was a white Jewish boy who was not allowed to play with any other black kids. Mr. Haggins laughed when he said “I guess, to him, we seemed like the most prominent ones in the neighborhood.” Harry Stilson’s opinion of segregation was expressed in his speech of 1907 when he suggested integrated schools and churches to promote diversity. I don’t think either term “integration” or “diversity” was common back then but that’s what Harry advocated and his actions spoke louder than words. One of my favorite Stilson photographs is of Harry’s son, Don, and his friend.0153 Don & Denny.jpg

A hot issue was segregation on streetcars. In 1904, before Harry Stilson came to Richmond and became a streetcar driver, the General Assembly passed the “Act Concerning Public Transportation” which allowed segregation on streetcars. The Virginia Passenger & Power Company decided to enforce that law which led to a boycott of streetcars by African-Americans. John Mitchell, Jr. and Maggie Walker, both prominent leaders in Richmond’s black community, supported that resistance action. There had been friction between Richmond’s African-American streetcar passengers and conductors for some time. Conductors were assigned the job of separating black from white on streetcars and as the car ran its route, the racial makeup of the car changed. That allowed conductors to move black passengers farther back, sometimes several times during one trip.

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One fact worth remembering is this: streetcar fares were expensive and the black passengers who had paid for the ride deserved that seat. Miss Ruby: “Streetcar fare was seven cents and the bus was eight cents and my mother, instead of using the streetcar or bus, she’d use that money for food. And we’d walk.” The streetcar boycott, like later bus boycotts, was effective but over time, it lost momentum and, by the time Harry went to work as a streetcar motorman, black passengers sat in the back and whites in the front as evidenced by this African-American woman, the only passenger on the car.

streetcar woman

I’ve noticed that Harry often captured black and white people together in daily activities. These unknown boys in Jackson Ward are one example and another is the two icemen in front of Harry’s home on Grayland Avenue. I have no proof that he was trying to make a point in those photographs; after all, I inherited about 5,000 of his images, but they support his contention that “familiarity” would create “better citizens having more respect for each other and less strife.”

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We don’t segregate on public transportation any longer. Harry would be pleased. But I don’t think he’d be happy with the racial tensions of America in 2018. None of us should. Black History is celebrated for one month. Why not all year? Harry called for more respect and less strife a century ago. Isn’t it time that his words were fulfilled? And all God’s children said “Amen.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.”

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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?

 

 

I spend a lot of time identifying people and places in my great-grandfather’s photos. I also wonder about the children Harry Stilson captured in his images and what their lives were like, what they grew up to be. Black History Month looks back at where we have been but it also looks forward to where we are going, a concern to many. Harry’s streetcar rumbled along the cobblestoned streets of Jackson Ward with his camera tucked beside his seat. I know this because Morris Goldberg told me so and he knew my great-grandfather when Morris was a kid of nine or so.

Morris Goldberg

Mr. Goldberg at Hancock & Clay, site of Goldberg’s Store

I first met Morris after hearing a voice in a crowd say “I knew a streetcar man named Stilson. He let me drive the streetcar.” Those two sentences define Harry in a way. While his surviving 5,000 photographs and movies capture events, places, workers, and more, they include hundreds, maybe thousands, of pictures of children. He took their photographs and sold them to support his photography hobby but many were because they caught his eye and his fancy. I only know these little cuties are girl scouts because Harry described them as “girl scouts marking time waiting for parade.” Richmond had one of the first African-American Girl Scout troops in America and these girls didn’t even have their uniforms yet.

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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.