Author: Brent Tarter

founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography
ENTRY

Goodwyn, James P. (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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Jones, James Richard (d. after August 20, 1902)

James Richard Jones, who is difficult to track in the historical record because of confusion in the documentary record about his name, was a member of the Senate of Virginia and of the House of Delegates. In November 1876 he won election to the vacant seat in the Senate of Virginia from the counties of Mecklenburg and Charlotte to complete the short time remaining in the term to which the late Albert P. Lathrop had been reelected in 1873. He ran for election to the full four-year term in 1877 but lost to a white Conservative. Jones held the presidential appointment as postmaster in the town of Boydton from August 10, 1880, to January 12, 1885. Jones ran as a Readjuster for his old Senate seat in the autumn of 1881 and was elected. Jones successfully sponsored a bill to repair roads in Charlotte and several other counties. He also introduced two bills to abolish the whipping post and voted for a House bill that became law and terminated that painful and humiliating legacy of slavery. For reasons that are not evident, Jones resigned from the Senate of Virginia effective December 1, 1883, half-way through his term. In November 1885 Jones defeated Democrat Charles L. Finch to win a two-year term in the House of Delegates to represent Mecklenburg County. He did not win the Republican nomination in 1887, and in December 1888, Jones joined the Capitol Police force in Washington, D.C. Jones may have married Mary Baskervill in Mecklenburg County on December 28, 1869. The date and place of his death is not recorded.

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Lewis, Neverson (ca. 1839–1918)

Neverson Lewis served in the House of Delegates from 1879 to 1882 representing the district that included Chesterfield and Powhatan counties and the city of Manchester. Lewis was born, likely into slavery, in Powhatan County, and lived and farmed there his entire life. In 1879 he won election to the House of Delegates as a Republican Readjuster, meaning that he wanted to adjust the repayment of the old antebellum debt to reduce the amount of principal and the rate of interest in order to save money and increase appropriations for the public schools. Lewis voted to pass the 1880 bill to refinance the debt as Readjusters desired, but the governor vetoed the bill and the Senate failed to override it. Lewis served on the Committees on Claims and on Federal Relations and Resolutions from 1879 to 1880, and the Committees on Agriculture and Mining; Banks, Currency, and Commerce; Militia and Police; and Officers and Offices at the Capitol from 1881 to 1882. He died in 1918 in Powhatan County.

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Whittaker, Robert H. (d. September 7, 1905)

Robert H. Whittaker, born into slavery, was a member of the House of Delegates (1873–1877). Beginning his political career as a justice of the peace in Brunswick County, he was elected by the county Republican Party to two terms in the House of Delegates, where he advocated for the equal rights of Black Virginians in his voting record and collective action with other Black delegates. Upon his retirement, he and his wife purchased and farmed land near Lawrenceville. In 1887 he won election to the Brunswick County Board of Supervisors. After two terms he left office to return to farming. For the rest of his life, he and his wife were beset with debts and creditors seeking repayment. He died on September 7, 1905.

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Wilson, Ellis (1818–1904)

Ellis Wilson, born into slavery, was a member of the House of Delegates (1869–1871) who may have constructed coffins for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands before winning a two-year term representing Dinwiddie County. He voted against measures that built racial segregation and discrimination into the new public school system. In the debate over how to deal with Virginia’s crippling pre-war debt, Ellis voted for the bill that refinanced the antebellum public debt. When his term in the House of Delegates ended, he did not seek reelection and returned to his life as a farmer and as an ordained Baptist minister. Wilson died in September 1904.

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Harris, Henry Clay (d. after October 5, 1905)

Henry Clay Harris, a Black Republican, was a member of the House of Delegates (1873–1875). Over his life, he was involved in the Republican Party from the local to the national level. Born early in the 1840s probably in Buckingham County and perhaps into slavery, Harris went to Philadelphia and Ohio to be educated. When he returned to Virginia in 1867 he began participating in local politics. In November 1873, he won election to a two-year term for a seat in the House of Delegates from Halifax County. During his tenure in the House of Delegates and after he lost his election for the Senate of Virginia in 1875, Harris fought against attempts to restrict African Americans’ right to vote. With his nomination in 1899 to the House of Delegates by Republicans in Halifax, Harris became one of the last African Americans a major party is known to have nominated for the General Assembly until after World War II. He lost the election. The date and place of his death and burial are not known. The last known appearance of Harris is 1905 in the Halifax County records.

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Robinson, John H. (1857–1932)

John H. Robinson, born reportedly into slavery in Gloucester County, was a member of the House of Delegates (1887–1888). He graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) and went on to teach school and practice law. In his term as a member of the House of Delegates, he was particularly focused on issues with relevance to his district comprising the counties of Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick, and York, and the city of Williamsburg. Even after his retirement from politics and teaching he continued working with jobs in banking and life insurance and remained an active member of the Hampton community. Robinson died of pneumonia in his home in Hampton on December 6, 1932.

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Syphax, John Bryce (d. September 8, 1916)

John Bryce Syphax was a member of the House of Delegates (1883-1885) and a candidate for several offices as a Republican before breaking with the party and affiliating first with the Readjuster Party and later with the Democratic Party. Syphax was the son of Charles Syphax and Maria Carter Syphax, the freed daughter of George Washington Parke Custis. He became active in Republican Party politics in 1872 and was elected to the House of Delegates as a Republican in 1873. Ultimately frustrated with how little influence his fellow Republicans had in the assembly and the party, Syphax signed a public address in March 1875 to call a state convention of African Americans. Beginning in 1880, Syphax affiliated with the Readjuster Party but became disenchanted with the movement and its treatment of African Americans. He sold his property in Arlington County in 1892 and moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he was active in Democratic Party politics. Syphax died on September 8, 1916, and was buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn.

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Wise, John S. (1846–1913)

John S. Wise was a member of the House of Representatives (1883–1885), a judge, and, late in his career, a writer of novels and history. Born in Brazil the son of Henry A. Wise, who went on to serve as governor of Virginia, John Wise grew up in Accomack County. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and fought at the Battle of New Market (1864) during the American Civil War (1861–1865) before earning a law degree at the University of Virginia and following his father into politics. In the 1870s he became a follower of William Mahone and joined his Readjuster Party, which allied with African Americans and supported reducing the principal and interest on the state’s antebellum debt . After losing to his cousin George D. Wise in 1880, Wise won a seat in Congress in 1882, serving one term, serving as a U.S. attorney for a year in the interim. An outspoken politician who fought at least one duel, Wise lost the governor’s race to Fitzhugh Lee in 1885, leaving Virginia and its toxic political atmosphere three years later to practice law in New York. There he wrote novels, including one in the voice of his favorite hunting dog, a memoir, and an account of his political career. He retired in 1907 and died six years later.

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Wells, Henry Horatio (1823–1900)

Henry Horatio Wells, a Republican and a native of New York, served as governor of Virginia from April 1868 until September 1869. After attending school in Detroit, Michigan, where he was raised, Wells practiced law and served in the state legislature. He supported free public schools, temperance, and the abolition of slavery. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), Wells served in a Michigan infantry regiment and then as provost marshal of Union-occupied Alexandria. He stayed on in Alexandria after the war, helping to found a railroad company and practicing law. In 1865, he publicly called for military rule of Virginia in order to protect the African American right to vote. When military rule came to pass, General John M. Schofield, commander of the First Military District, appointed Wells governor of Virginia, an office he held until the next year, when a new constitution was ratified and he lost statewide election as a Republican. Wells later served as a U.S. attorney for Virginia (1870–1872) and for the District of Columbia (1875–1880). He died in 1900.

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Davis, William Roscoe (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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Bassett, Burwell (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.

ENTRY

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; no southern states had public school systems and 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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Moss, Frank (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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Campbell, Joseph T. (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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