Author: Matthew S. Gottlieb

assistant editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography at the Library of Virginia
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Teamoh, George (1818–after 1887)

George Teamoh represented Portsmouth and Norfolk County at the Convention of 1867–1868 and in the Senate of Virginia (1869–1871). Born enslaved, Teamoh secretly learned to read in his youth and worked in Portsmouth’s shipyards. After his wife was sold, one of his owners helped him escape from a ship. Teamoh returned to Virginia after the American Civil War (1861–1865), and he quickly became involved in local politics and labor issues. He won election to the Convention called to create a new state constitution, and then served a term in the General Assembly’s upper house. Republican Party infighting cost him his political career. He returned to the Norfolk shipyards and died sometime after 1887. His autobiography, God Made Man, Man Made the Slave, was published in 1990.

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Ruffin, R. D. (1842–1916)

R. D. Ruffin was a lawyer, sheriff, and member of the House of Delegates (1875–1876) who achieved financial success in real estate. Born enslaved, he faced controversy throughout his long public life. In 1874 voters in Alexandria (later Arlington) County elected him sheriff, possibly the first African American to hold the position in state history, but he resigned as pressure mounted over his residency. The following year he won election to represent Dinwiddie County in the House of Delegates. He survived a challenge to his election from his opponent, who claimed that Ruffin was not a resident of the county, and he introduced three bills that died in committee. His tenure is most notable for his being expelled from the assembly in 1876 when the overwhelming majority of delegates believed Ruffin stole money from the first door keeper. Ruffin, a lawyer who engaged in real estate, rose from slave to owner of lands reportedly worth millions of dollars. His financial climb was matched by a large number of lawsuits and arrests. To what degree his troubles stemmed from wrongdoing or a cutthroat political climate is unknown. In his later years, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he died in 1916.

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Richmond during the Colonial Period

Richmond was the most prominent of the towns that emerged at the fall line of the James River during Virginia’s colonial period. As early as 1608, the English settlers eyed a community near the seven-mile-long series of rapids that divided the head of navigation at the river’s downstream end and the calm stretch of water upriver from it. The area provided a series of strategic advantages: as a port, as a location for mills, and as a transitional territory between the Tidewater-based Powhatan Indians and the Monacan Indians of the Piedmont. The English attempted to settle there with limited success in the first half of the seventeenth century, but the establishment of Fort Charles after 1644 and the end of the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646) brought increased English settlement. In 1679 the General Assembly expanded William Byrd‘s landholdings around the falls, hoping to stabilize the area further. Within a few years Byrd transformed the location into an international trading center. Byrd’s son of the same name established the town of Richmond on the north side of the James River in 1733; the General Assembly formally recognized the town in 1742. Benefitting from its prime location and strengthened by nearby communities such as Westham on the west side of the falls and Rocky Ridge across the river, Richmond served as a key port for Virginia’s interior and emerged as an industrial location by the advent of the American Revolution (1775–1783).

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Norton, Robert (d. by October 17, 1898)

Robert Norton, one of three brothers elected to the General Assembly, served in the House of Delegates (1869–1882) and chaired the Committee on Labor and the Poor during the 1881–1882 session. Norton and his brother Daniel M. Norton escaped slavery in the mid-1850s. After the American Civil War (1861–1865), Robert Norton settled in Yorktown and carved out a power base by leading the fraternal society Lone Star. He won his first election to the House of Delegates in 1869, serving all but one term through 1883. The rise of the Readjuster Party late in the 1870s enhanced Norton’s influence, and he gained notice for seconding party leader William Mahone‘s nomination for the U.S. Senate. Norton sat as a delegate to Republican and Readjuster national and state conventions, and campaigned unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives in 1874. Norton lost his bid for renomination to the House of Delegates in 1883. He was named to the board of visitors of the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (later Virginia State University) in 1885 and held a gubernatorial appointment as a curator of the fund for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). Norton died by 1898.

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Norton, F. S. (d. 1893)

F. S. Norton, one of three brothers elected to the General Assembly, served one term in the House of Delegates (1869–1871) and later sat on Williamsburg‘s city council (by 1879–1882). Born enslaved, he represented James City County and Williamsburg from 1869 until 1871, during which time he voted with the majority to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution as required by Congress before Virginia could be readmitted to the United States. Norton often differed politically from the Yorktown-based brothers, Daniel M. Norton and Robert Norton. He embraced Radical Republicanism in the 1860s while his brothers were more sympathetic with the Conservative Party. They all later joined the Readjuster Party, but he withdrew and supported the Republicans against his brothers. He identified himself as a Democrat in his later years. Norton died of unknown causes at his Williamsburg home in 1893.

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Norton, Daniel M., later Daniel McNorton (d. 1918)

Daniel M. Norton, one of three brothers elected to the General Assembly, was a physician who served in the Senate of Virginia (1871–1873, 1877–1887). Born enslaved, he escaped to New York in the mid-1850s. He learned the medical profession and by 1865 moved to Yorktown, where he quickly became a leader among the area’s freedpeople. The region’s voters elected him to the state Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868 and he later served for twelve years in the Senate of Virginia. Norton often clashed with the Republican Party‘s leadership and launched unsuccessful candidacies for the U.S. House of Representatives late in the 1860s and early in the 1870s. Norton aligned with the Readjuster Party in its early stages and played a key role in bringing African American voters into the short-lived, but powerful faction. He later clashed with political leader William Mahone, who engineered his removal from the Senate of Virginia. Norton owned considerable property in Yorktown, including the historic customs house. By 1910, he and his family were using the surname McNorton, although it is unclear why. He died in Hampton in 1918.

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Nickens, Armistead S. (1836–1906)

Armistead S. Nickens represented Lancaster County in the House of Delegates for two terms (1871–1875). Born into a free family, Nickens became prosperous enough by the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865) that the local agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau listed him as a respectable citizen capable of holding public office. Nickens won his first term in 1871, becoming the first African American elected official in county history. He gained a second term in 1873 by a scant twenty-nine votes. After his term in the assembly Nickens received an appointment as a special collector of delinquent taxes in Lancaster County. A landowner, according to local tradition Nickens advocated a bridge across the Rappahannock River that would connect Tappahannock and Richmond County. He died at home in 1906.

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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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Hunnicutt, James W. (1814–1880)

James W. Hunnicutt, a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868, saw his public career shift during the 1860s from a slavery supporter to a prominent Radical Republican to an ally of the Conservative Party. In 1860 Hunnicutt, a minister and newspaper publisher, voiced his concerns that secession would lead to the American Civil War (1861–1865), and would end slavery. He fled Fredericksburg for Philadelphia in 1862, already evolving into an advocate of African American rights. Settling in Richmond after the Civil War, his actions to help organize freedpeople earned him enemies in the white community. He won election to the Convention of 1867–1868 that wrote the state’s new constitution but his political power soon declined because of increased scrutiny on his prewar support of white supremacy, disenchantment from blacks outside of Richmond, and estrangement from other party leaders. In 1869 he lost a congressional election as a True Republican, a moderate Republican-Conservative coalition, and retired to Stafford County where he died a decade later.

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House of Burgesses

The House of Burgesses was an assembly of elected representatives from Virginia that met from 1643 to 1776. This democratically elected legislative body was the first of its kind in English North America. From 1619 until 1643, elected burgesses met in unicameral session with the governor and the royally appointed governor’s Council; after 1643, the burgesses met separately as the lower house of the General Assembly of Virginia. Each county sent two burgesses to the House; towns could petition to send a single representative, as Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Norfolk did. (The College of William and Mary also had representation in the House.) Most burgesses were also members of the gentry class, though the colonists they represented were usually small land–owners and tenant farmers. In 1774, when the House of Burgesses began to support resistance to the Crown, Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, earl of Dunmore, dissolved it. The Virginia Constitution of 1776 created a new General Assembly that replaced the governor’s Council with an elected Senate and the House of Burgesses with an elected House of Delegates. The House of Burgesses is notable, however, for being the training ground of many of America’s Founding Fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry.

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