Archives for posts with tag: World War I

It’s a Sunday in Black History Month. Good time to share a few of Harry Stilson’s photographs of churches and church folks. Across the street from Maggie Walker Governor’s School at the corner of Moore Street & Elizabeth stands a church. Its predecessor was First Union Baptist Church and the original building, visible in several of Harry’s images, burned down and was replaced with the existing structure. First Union is special to me because it’s integral to my Richmond In Sight journey. Here’s the story…

0030 First Union Church

When my father died, I inherited about 200 photographs his grandfather had taken. I had seen a few of the pictures before but was amazed by the variety and scope of subjects and locations. Later, when my aunt’s Alzheimer’s forced her to move in with me, I discovered thousands more negatives, prints, even Harry’s movie camera in her basement but that first glimpse into my great-grandfather’s collection offered the following mystery.

Preacher Thomas

On the back of one photograph, Harry had written “I made some $10 of these pictures of Preacher Thomas, colored, lying in state in his little church.” It was dated and I felt sure someone could identify Preacher Thomas so I took the picture around Richmond, to churches, Virginia Union, businesses. I failed to positively identify him but by then I was hooked. I wanted to know more about the people and places in Harry Stilson’s photographs. That search was the seed for Richmond In Sight. It was two years later that the mystery was solved. I found an envelope of negatives with “Union Church” written on it and when I reversed the negative, the church didn’t look like the structure in what is now Carver. I went online and found that the original building had burned down. Then I read that First Union’s pastor, the Reverend William Thomas, died in 1922, the date on Harry’s picture. I called the church, was connected with Preacher Thomas’ granddaughters and formed a friendship. I still believe that the kids in this picture with First Union in the background are part of the very large Thomas family. We’ve redone the pictures, making them clearer so I need to revisit Queen & Margaret. They might recognize these kids in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes as aunts and uncles.

0028 kids in front of First Union

I believe that Harry Stilson took pictures that incorporated Jackson Ward churches in the background but I haven’t identified them yet. He must have because there are lots of churches in the area and Harry’s African-American photo subjects were proud of their churches’ rich history but many of Harry’s 5,000 images are unlabeled and identifying backgrounds is labor-and-time-intensive. Since I can’t show you Ebenezer or Sixth Mount Zion, let’s pretend these folks are dressed up in their Sunday best and on their way to those or other Jackson Ward churches.

005 sisters 0009 African American older man,cigar bk  0066 Taylor & kids

One church, Moore Street Church on Leigh Street, is prominent in several photographs of Richmond’s African-American troops returning from WWI. Here you see flags flying from every house and Moore Street Church on the left. The houses beside the church are no longer there but Moore Street Church is still a vibrant and significant part of the community. Jackson Ward of Harry Stilson’s day was a proud and powerful example of what a black community can do. In celebrating Black History Month, we should remember the role of churches in America. The same faith that built the churches of Jackson Ward and kept them vibrant for over a century sustains its people and inspires them. Courage, perseverance, and determination have brought us here and we’ve just begun.

0067 Moore St church bk

Leigh Street, Moore Street Church on left in rear, African-American soldiers in far distance on parade as they returned from France


Sometimes for fun I look at Harry Stilson’s journal entries to see what he was doing or taking pictures of a century ago. It’s not exactly today but on January 20, 1918, he took this picture of his son, Leon, in uniform at Hartshorn Memorial College, the site of Maggie Walker Governor School today. Harry wrote “Leon in uniform at Myrtle and Leigh” and behind Leon is a Hartshorn building. Leon died in France the following fall and my latest book, From Richmond to France, chronicles Leon’s experiences in boot camp at Camp Lee, now Fort Lee, and overseas as well as stories of other Richmonders in the Great War. 0017 (2)
There’s a war artifacts road show at the War Memorial this morning and I thought I’d take a few things and go. Perhaps I will meet someone there whose group wants a presentation of pictures and stories from Richmond’s WWI experience. It’s been surprisingly difficult to connect with groups who are interested in this centennial year. Considering the impact it had on our country and the world, I find it hard to understand that. When I read the letters of a young man away from home and going to fight in a war of horrific battles and then look at pictures of the young men who did that alongside Leon, it breaks my heart. I shouldn’t be alone in that, should I?

I don’t have time to pull artifacts pictures if I’m getting downtown on time but maybe later. This is the vase my great-grandmother was given by the mayor of Verdun when she went to France as a Gold Star Mother to see Leon’s grave. It was fashioned from a brass shell.

verdun vase

If you’re interested, here’s the link to the road show:

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.

045b sailor and family

One of Richmond’s African-American soldiers who died of the flu while in France was Otis P. Robinson of Catherine Street, Jackson Ward and member of Sharon Baptist Church. He could possibly be in this photo below that Harry Stilson took of Jackson Ward recruits off to boot camp. His sister Carrie Harris filled out an Army survey and included a card from him. “Dear Sister, pray for me or pray to God in Heaven, is better than anything else I know. May God bless you and be with you until we meet again.”

0127 recruits

Others returned from France to learn that family members had succumbed to the flu. Ralph Goode’s mother, Leeolia, died while he was on the Princess Matoaca coming home. His son, Clyde, recalled: “He didn’t know it…he was on the ship coming back and found out when he got home.”

048 burial at sea

              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.”

155 hearse

                                 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.”

094 W C Wright

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?



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


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.

077 MPS at LHS grave

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.


Memorial Day was established to remember the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country and for each of us. Our family’s soldiers and sailors all came home from war with one exception. My great-uncle Leon Stilson died in the “Great War,” World War I, from a sniper’s bullet. In the Stilson collection are hundreds of photos of Harris Stilson’s older son but I also have Leon’s letters from boot camp (Camp Lee, now Fort Lee), postcards,  and photographs that he sent home for his father to develop.

Camp Lee hospital postcard

His letters after he left for France are especially poignant. His mother’s letters that arrived after his death were eventually returned to her. Decades later, I found them and they made me cry.

Leon Stilson on leave

Letters and photographs, not only of Leon but of so many young Richmond men going off to France, many of whom had never left home before,  inspired my fourth book, available this fall.  War affects families and cities as well as countries. Postcards filled with the details of combat training, homesickness, and words designed to relieve his mother’s worry, highlight the heartbreak accompanying each young person going off to war. Every brave, scared, lonely young man sent messages home echoing Leon’s words.

Richmond soldiers to Camp Lee

Harry Stilson took hundreds of photographs of soldiers, sailors, Armistice parades, air ships, and anti-aircraft guns. He documented the Broad Street Station return of his son’s unit at war’s end. The persistence of a grieving father led Harry to a family in Petersburg, Virginia,  whose son did return from France and who witnessed the fatal wounding of Leon Stilson. Letters from Mr. Thomas Ivey and his son George described how one man died in simple, heart-wrenching words. I believe those letters and documents illustrate how war impacts us all.

George Ivey letter

In 1932,  Mary Perry Stilson sailed to France on a Gold Star Mother pilgrimage to see where her son is buried among 17,800 graves at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Paris scenes, 1932 maps, ship menus, even her passport and Gold Star Mother Identification, all were lovingly preserved. When I started working on the Stilson collection of images, the enormous number of wartime photographs struck me. So did that pilgrimage of all those mothers who traveled so far to stand by a grave identical to thousands of others and remember their little boys.




I think one young man’s story becomes symbolic of many stories. Richmond’s dead are listed on a commemorative stone at Byrd Park under an American flag. The Carillon was dedicated as a memorial because these deaths were personal. Our city lost these boys, too.

098 memorial, leon and colored

We lost all the possibilities of all those young people, all the amazing lives they could have lived. I’m not into military history and don’t intend my book as such. It will be a personal look at who went to war, images of one city’s response to a worldwide conflict. I want to share letters, postcards, notes, and anecdotes about Richmond’s boys: farmers, mechanics, students, streetcar conductors. Sons, husbands, fathers. Those who came home and those who did not.

075b LeonLeon Stilson at Hartshorn College (now site of Maggie Walker Governor School) on his last leave before sailing for France
Each family grieves in its own way. Memorials can be as impressive as the Carillon or as quiet as a yellowed packet of letters. Those expressions of grief echo through decades and we should be respectful of them.

Gold star ID
Harry must have sent money to George T. Ivey, the young soldier who was with Leon. In George’s letter to my great-grandfather, he said “I suppose you desire to give expression to your appreciation of what I did for your boy, who fought by my side. The little that I was able to do for him was done gladly and cheerfully, but I would have done the same for any other, for I would have been neither a soldier nor a man if I had failed. I did what I could, and regret that I could do no more. I was near him until ordered away by my superior. I think of him nearly every day, and sincerely regret that such should have been his fate. My last service for him was to wrap him in my rain coat, as he complained of the cold; then I had to leave.“ George Ivey thought about Leon Stilson nearly every day. Don’t we owe the men and women who gave their futures, their everything, for us at least one day a year of remembering and gratitude?