Author: Brent Tarter

founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography
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William Harvey Patterson (February 3, 1810–May 24, 1895)

William Harvey Patterson was born free in New Kent County and served one term as a member of the House of Delegates (1871–1873). He married Mary Ann Dungey on November 22, 1832, and after her death married Lutilda Bailey on November 15, 1848. In 1866 Patterson was one of the founders of Second Liberty Baptist Church. The following year he received his license to preach. In the House of Delegates, Patterson served on the relatively inconsequential Committees on Public Property and on Resolutions. He successfully introduced a bill to prohibit cutting trees or other actions to obstruct the passage of boats or other vessels in the lower reaches of Sycamore Creek in New Kent County. He declined to run for a second term in 1873. William Harvey Patterson died at his home on May 24, 1895. He was buried in a family cemetery in New Kent County.

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Ross Hamilton (ca. January 1843–May 2, 1901)

Ross Hamilton was born into slavery in Mecklenburg County and served as a member of the House of Delegates (1870–1883). Hamilton had the longest legislative career of any African American in nineteenth-century Virginia one of the best-known African American legislators in Virginia. Hamilton was first elected to the House of Delegates in a special election on May 26, 1870, and took his seat on June 2, 1870. In 1877 the Speaker appointed Hamilton to the important Committee on Privileges and Elections as the least-senior member. He also served on the Committees on Claims, on Retrenchment and Economy, on Immigration, and on Labor and the Poor. Hamilton regularly attended county, district, and state Republican Party conventions, was a member of the Committees on Resolutions and on Finance at the state convention in August 1875, and was a delegate to Republican national conventions in 1872 and 1876. In 1883, Hamilton lost the party nomination for an eighth term in the House of Delegates. In November 1889, Hamilton won election again to the House of Delegates to represent Mecklenburg County by defeating a white man, which was the last nineteenth-century general election in which any African American won election to the General Assembly. On January 3, 1890, less than a month after the session began, the House declared Hamilton’s election improper and seated his opponent. Ross Hamilton died at his residence in Washington, D.C., on May 2, 1901, and was buried on the grounds of Boydton Institute in Boydton.

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Joseph B. Pope (1851–by 18 February 1884)

Joseph B. Pope, who has been mistakenly identified as African American in some sources, was a member of the House of Delegates (1879–1881) from Southampton County. Pope was almost certainly born in Southampton County and was the son of a prosperous planter, Harrison Peterson Pope, and his first wife, Virginia Ann Edwards Pope. On April 11, 1882, he married Jennie B. Prince. They had one son. In 1879, Pope won the nomination of the Readjuster Party for the Southampton County seat in the House of Delegates and defeated the Conservative incumbent. The only bill he introduced, to amend the charter of the town of Franklin, did not pass. Pope either did not run for or receive the nomination of the Readjuster/Republican coalition for a second term in 1881. Pope died, probably in Southampton County, on an unrecorded date early in 1884.

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Robert M. Smith (d. February 13, 1923)

Robert M. Smith represented Elizabeth City and Warwick Counties in the House of Delegates from 1875 to 1877. He was born free in New Kent County and was apprenticed to become a blacksmith. About 1863 he fled to Hampton as a refugee. After the American Civil War (1861–1865) Smith attended night school, later becoming a church and fraternal leader. In 1875 he won election to represent Elizabeth City and Warwick Counties in the House of Delegates. He unsuccessfully sought financial appropriations for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Smith worked as a wheelwright and blacksmith in Hampton for many years, may have operated a carriage manufacturing business, and operated a grocery store with a brother-in-law. He served as commissioner of revenue for Elizabeth City County, but resigned after an investigation found that his records were incomplete, costing the county perhaps $20,000. Smith became an inspector at the customs house in Hampton by 1891 and was deputy collector by decade’s end. He filed for divorce from his first wife on the grounds that she was legally married to someone else. Smith suffered from kidney disease and died at his home in Hampton on February 13, 1923, and was buried in Elmerton Cemetery in that city.

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Archer Scott (ca. May 1836–1909)

Archer Scott represented Amelia and Nottoway Counties in the House of Delegates from 1879 to 1884. Born into slavery of mixed-race ancestry, he was identified in the U.S. Census records as a farmer. Scott won election in 1875 to a two-year term representing Nottoway County in the House of Delegates. He proposed an unsuccessful measure to require sheriffs to summon equal numbers of white and Black registered voters when assembling panels of potential jurors. He was not a candidate for reelection in 1877, but he won election again in 1879 after Amelia County was added to the district. Allied with the emerging Readjuster Party, Scott won reelection in 1881 as a coalition of Republicans and Readjusters won majorities in the General Assembly. Among the many reform measures were a constitutional amendment to abolish the poll tax and laws to establish a college for African Americans (what became Virginia State University), and to abolish the whipping post. Scott won another term in 1883, but the Readjusters lost their majority and influence. He was elected an overseer of the poor in Nottoway in 1891 and deeded a half acre of property to the New Yielding Zion Church in 1893. Archer Scott died probably before July 31, 1909, when his name was not included on the personal property tax records for that year.

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John William Poindexter (ca. 1848–February 16, 1889)

John William Poindexter represented Louisa County in the House of Delegates from 1875 to 1877. Born free, little is known about his childhood. By 1860 he may have been working as a stemmer for a tobacconist near Louisa Court House. After the American Civil War (1861–1865), he became a teacher sponsored by the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society in schools operated by the Freedmen’s Bureau. He reportedly attended the teacher preparatory department at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. In 1875 he won election to a term representing the county in the House of Delegates. He opposed a poll tax requirement to vote, spoke in support of allocating funds to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, and argued against requiring payment for services at the state school for the deaf and blind. Poindexter refused the Republican nomination for another House term in 1877 and while receiving the nomination again in 1879 he lost in the general election. He remained active in the Republican Party during the 1880s, being part of a delegation that visited President James A. Garfield, attending the national convention as an at-large delegate in 1880, and holding a patronage position as a deputy collector of taxes. Poindexter continued to teach in Louisa County until he died of tuberculosis in 1889.

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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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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.