Author: Brent Tarter

founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography
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William H. Jordan (1860 or 1861–d. after 1889)

William H. Jordan, member of the House of Delegates (1885–1887), was born probably into slavery in Petersburg, the son of a carpenter or builder. He studied law and in 1887 was permitted to practice in the Petersburg court. By 1888 he may have been the owner or manager of a dry goods and merchandise partnership. He became active in politics and was a staunch follower of fellow Petersburg native William Mahone, who founded the bi-racial Readjuster Party. In 1885 Mahone was influential in Jordan’s contentious Readjuster nomination for and election to a two-year term in representing Petersburg in the House of Delegates. During his term he introduced a bill to incorporate the Colored Agricultural and Industrial Association of Virginia, of which he was an original member of the board of directors and its general manager. In the 1888 congressional election he campaigned against John Mercer Langston, an African American Republican, and for Richard Watson Arnold, the white Republican whom Mahone endorsed. Jordan appears to have left Petersburg after 1889 and possibly worked in the north as a lawyer and railway mail clerk.

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Robert Gilbert Griffin (March 1847–February 9, 1927)

Robert Gilbert Griffin, member of the House of Delegates (1883–1885), was born in 1847 in Yorktown, the son of an enslaved woman and a prosperous white man. Griffin’s father acknowledged Griffin as his son and made arrangements in his will to free him and his family. When his father died in 1859 his estranged white family blocked these provisions. Griffin spent much of his adult life attempting unsuccessfully to claim his inheritance. In the early 1860s he moved to Philadelphia where he enlisted in the United States Colored Troops. He married in 1871 and returned to Yorktown where he became involved in politics. His Republican Party work earned him appointment as the town’s postmaster. In 1883 Griffin won election to a two-year term in the House of Delegates representing the district that included the counties of York, Warwick, James City, and Elizabeth City and the city of Williamsburg. After his political service ended and an unsuccessful run for sheriff, Griffin bought and sold property, harvested oysters, and farmed. He died Washington, D.C., in 1927 and was buried in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.

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John Walter Boyd Matthews (1840–July 11, 1879)

John Walter Boyd Matthews, member of the House of Delegates (1871–1873), was born free in 1840 in Petersburg. His mother named him after the white planter who bequeathed land and enslaved workers to her and was her father. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) he worked as a barber and in May 1870 he had a job in the city’s customs house. In 1871 he won election to a two-year term in the House of Delegates representing Petersburg. Active in the legislature, Matthews introduced bills, made motions, and spoke more than most Black delegates. Aggressive, if not successful, his failed propositions included abolishing chain gangs for prisoners, raising taxes on alcoholic beverages, and pushing for laws to enforce the state constitution that guaranteed equal rights to all citizens. Matthews was a founding officer of the Petersburg Grant and Wilson Club and served as deputy collector at the City Point customs house. In 1875 he attended a state convention in Richmond that addressed the political and economic discrimination faced by African Americans in Virginia. Mathews died of a stroke at his home in Petersburg on July 11, 1879.

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Robert G. W. Jones (July 10, 1826–by March 15, 1900)

Robert G. W. Jones, member of the House of Delegates (1869–1871), was reportedly born free in Henrico County in 1826 but lived most of his life in Charles City County. On July 6, 1869, he easily defeated a Confederate veteran to win election to the House of Delegates representing Charles City County. He voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, as Congress required before it seated senators and representatives from the state. He considered running for reelection in 1871, but a new district had been created and he was shut out of the race. At various times Jones owned property in the county and identified himself as a farmer in census records. He served as one of the trustees of the Union Baptist Church formed during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Winning election as a justice of the peace for the county’s Harrison district in 1883, 1885, 1887, and 1889, he also served as acting coroner on at least one occasion. Jones died on an unrecorded date between August 19, 1899, when representatives of the Lincoln National Building and Loan Association filed suit against him, and March 15, 1900, when an administrator was appointed to oversee his estate.

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John B. Miller Jr. (fl. 1859−1875)

John B. Miller Jr., member of the House of Delegates (1869–1871), was born free in the early 1840s, probably in Henrico County, the son of a cooper and his wife. By 1860 he worked as a barber and owned property deeded to him by his father. In May 1867 he likely lived in Richmond and was named to the interracial jury pool of the United States Circuit Court which, had it been held, would have tried former Confederate president Jefferson Davis. In July 1869 Miller won election to a two-year term in the House of Delegates representing Goochland County. Miller voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which Congress required before it seated senators and representatives from Virginia. He attempted without success to have the House invite African American ministers to open sessions with prayers. He introduced unsuccessful bills addressing fair work measures and racial discrimination. After his legislative career, Miller worked again as a barber, but he and his wife faced financial difficulties, and in 1875 he was charged, and acquitted, with financial fraud. The date and place of his death are unknown, although a February 1896 newspaper article on members of the 1867 interracial jury described him as being deceased.

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William P. Lucas (ca. 1843–May 30, 1887)

William P. Lucas, member of the House of Delegates (1873–1875), was born into slavery about 1843 in Prince William County. Prepared by his mother’s enslaver to be a house servant, he was taught the alphabet. When the American Civil War (1861–1865) ended, he lived in Orange County, where he had been in service to a Confederate surgeon who operated a hospital. Lucas attended a Freedmen’s Bureau school in the county and became a teacher. He became involved in Republican Party politics and won election in 1873 to a two-year term in the House of Delegates representing Louisa County. Lucas married three times; his first marriage ended in divorce and his second upon the death of his wife, a teacher. He had seven children who lived to adulthood. In 1875 he helped arrange and attended a convention of about 100 African American delegates that met to address economic and political discrimination in Virginia. Lucas purchased a farm in 1874 and in 1881 worked as a postal clerk for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. He died in Louisa County on May 30, 1887.

 

 

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Henry C. Hill (ca. 1815–September 7, 1905)

Henry C. Hill, member of the House of Delegates (1873–1875), was born free about 1815 in Amelia County. He married Ann Jane Haskins about 1850. The two had twelve children, at least eight of whom survived to adulthood. In the early 1870s he became active in local politics and a leader among African American Republicans in Amelia County. After an unsuccessful 1871 candidate for the Republican nomination for the House of Delegates, in 1873 he won a two-year term representing Amelia County. Not particularly active during his legislative service, he did not run for a second term. Between 1870 and 1895, he served several terms as a justice of the peace and was also a trustee of his Baptist church. He bought and sold land in the 1880s and 1890s. Hill died on September 7, 1905, most likely in Amelia County, and is probably buried in the Bethia Baptist Church cemetery, where some of his children and his wife were later buried.

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Alexander G. Lee (d. by October 10, 1901)

Alexander G. Lee, believed to have been born enslaved, of mixed race ancestry, in Portsmouth in the 1830s or early 1840s was a member of the House of Delegates (1877–1879). He lived in Hampton shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861–1865), married, and worked as an oysterman, laborer, and boatman. In 1873 he ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates. Lee ran again in 1877 and won a two-year term representing the counties of Elizabeth City and Warwick. He unsuccessfully tried to pass a resolution to instruct the judge of Elizabeth City County to select jurors regardless of race. After his single term Lee stayed active in local politics. He obtained a federal patronage appointment as a lighthouse keeper, a position he kept until the mid-1880s. He ran again for the House of Delegates in 1887, was defeated, and spent the rest of his life working for the army’s corps of engineers at Fort Monroe. He died, most likely in Hampton, by October 10, 1901.

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William Nash Stevens (1847–April 18, 1891)

William Nash Stevens, member of the House of Delegates (1869–1871) and of the Senate of Virginia (1871–1879), was born free in 1847 in Petersburg. Educated at home by his mother, after the American Civil War (1861–1865) he worked as a clerk for the army and later moved to Sussex County to teach school. He won election in July 1869 to a two-year term in the House of Delegates representing Sussex County. Jones proposed an unsuccessful amendment that school trustees be appointed regardless of their race. In November 1871 he won election to a four-year term in the Senate of Virginia, representing the counties of Dinwiddie, Greensville, and Sussex. Reelected in 1875, he did not immediately seek a third Senate term but ran in November 1881 and was again elected. He introduced a successful bill to construct buildings for the Central Lunatic Asylum, the first public mental hospital for African American patients, at its new location near Petersburg. In 1882 Stevens sought unsuccessfully the nomination for the United States House of Representatives. He later took a job in the pension office in Washington, D.C., and resigned from the Senate of Virginia. About 1886 Stevens returned to Petersburg and qualified to practice law. He died on April 18, 1891, and is buried in Petersburg’s People’s Memorial Cemetery.

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James P. Goodwyn (d. after April 1910)

James P. Goodwyn (sometimes Goodwin) represented Petersburg in the House of Delegates from 1874 to 1875. Born in the 1830s, reportedly in Petersburg and probably into slavery, Goodwyn was elected as a Republican in 1873 and appointed to a seat on the important Committee on Privileges and Elections. During his tenure he sought, among other things, to invite ministers of Richmond churches, regardless of color, to open the house with prayer; to refer to the Committee on Propositions and Grievances the section covering African Americans in the superintendent of public instruction’s annual report; to reintroduce the popular election of judges; and to incorporate the Masonic Temple Association of the City of Petersburg. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful save the last. He also opposed, unsuccessfully, the erection of a statue of Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson in Richmond’s Capitol Square. Goodwyn did not seek or was not nominated for reelection. Sometime after 1883 he moved with his family to Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he worked as a porter until 1910. The date and place of his death are not known.

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William Roscoe Davis (d. 1904)

William Roscoe Davis was an important African American leader in Elizabeth City County (later the city of Hampton) during the American Civil War (1861­–1865), and served as doorkeeper for the Constitutional Convention of 1867­–1868. Born into slavery, Davis was noted for his intelligence and received permission to work as a boat operator. He spent a considerable amount of his money paying for a lawsuit to defend his wife‘s manumission, but a local judge refused to enforce the couple’s legal victory. Davis was among the first slaves to find freedom at Fort Monroe. A Baptist exhorter before the conflict, he became an ordained minister by 1863. His charisma was so impressive that he became a paid orator who toured Northern states. Later in life he claimed credit for the creation of Hampton Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Hampton University), telling people that his request for a new teacher led to the arrival of the institution’s founder, Samuel Chapman Armstrong. He remained a leader in the community and respected elder in his family, also serving as the Old Point Comfort lighthouse keeper and buying property in Hampton. He died in 1904.

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Burwell Bassett (1764–1841)

Burwell Bassett was member of the House of Delegates (1787–1790, 1820–1821), the Senate of Virginia (1793–1805), and the U.S. House of Representatives (1805–1813, 1815–1819, 1821–1829). Born in New Kent County, he was educated at the College of William and Mary before inheriting his family’s land. Bassett won election to the House of Delegates in 1787 and then succeeded his father in the Senate of Virginia in 1793. He supported Thomas Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800 and later won a congressional seat as a Jeffersonian Republican. In three different stints in the House, Bassett generally supported states’ rights but only spoke occasionally. He also was a prominent and active lay leader of the Episcopal Church in Virginia. He died in 1841.

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Public School System in Virginia, Establishment of the

The first statewide system of free public schools in Virginia was established in 1870 after the ratification of a new constitution and was one of the most important and enduring accomplishments of Reconstruction. Prior to the American Civil War (1861–1865), education had been reserved mostly for elite white families; Virginia had no statewide system of free public schools. In Virginia, the education of free and enslaved African Americans had been discouraged and, in some forms, made illegal. After the abolition of slavery, the federal Freedmen’s Bureau established the first statewide system of schools, but only for African Americans; other, biracial systems were set up, but only in Petersburg, Richmond, and Norfolk. The new constitution created a new statewide system that, in spite of protests by African American members of the General Assembly, segregated black and white students. The first state superintendent, William Henry Ruffner, set about building the system’s infrastructure—creating more than 2,800 schools and hiring about 3,000 teachers by August 1871—and building political support for its funding. In debates over how to pay off Virginia’s large antebellum debt some politicians advocated reducing funding for public schools, although the system became more stable when the biracial Readjuster Party took over government in 1881, appointed R. R. Farr superintendent, and increased appropriations. By the turn of the century, public schools had attained broad social and political support.

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Frank Moss (d. by August 6, 1884)

Frank Moss was a member of the Convention of 1867–1868, the Senate of Virginia (1869–1871), and the House of Delegates (1874–1875). Records of his early life do not exist, but he likely was born in Buckingham County sometime in the mid-1820s. Local tradition holds that he was born into a free family but evidence also exists that he was enslaved. In 1867, he won election as a delegate to the constitutional convention required in order for Virginia to gain admittance into the United States after the American Civil War (1861–1865). Described by an American general as “energetic and enterprising,” he supported radical reformers on all major issues. His speeches, however, were considered so divisive that the Freedman’s Bureau ordered him arrested. A charge of breaching the peace was later dropped. A Republican, Moss served in the Senate of Virginia and voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and later was elected to the House of Delegates. Just after the election, in November 1873, he was arrested and tried for beating a man who voted against him, but the jury deadlocked. A national, pro-Republican newspaper denounced Moss as a laughingstock in 1875 and he lost reelection. In his later years, Moss supported the biracial Readjuster Party, although by 1883 he opposed its leader, Senator William Mahone. The circumstances of Moss’s death are unknown.

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Joseph T. Campbell (1827–1876)

Joseph T. Campbell was a lawyer, commonwealth’s attorney for Washington County (1863–1865), and a member of the Convention of 1867–1868. Born in Washington County and educated at the University of Virginia, Campbell practiced law in Abingdon. At the start of the American Civil War (1861–1865) he accepted a commission and served briefly in the 37th Virginia Infantry Regiment before falling ill. He returned home and served as commonwealth’s attorney. After the war Campbell was elected to represent Smyth and Washington counties at a state constitutional convention and was a conservative voice during the proceedings. He voted against the constitution that was ratified in 1869. He died in 1876.

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