Joseph Allen (ca. 1836–after 1905)


Joseph Allen was an African American member of the Richmond City Council, serving one term, from 1882 to 1884. Born in Richmond the son of a bricklayer, Allen was raised free and began work in the building trade that prospered after the American Civil War (1861–1865). He resided in Jackson Ward, a Richmond political district created by conservative whites in 1871 to concentrate African Americans in a single ward and so reduce their political strength. After winning election to the council as a Republican, Allen worked on legislation to improve the conditions at the city’s all-black lunatic asylum. His run for reelection was unsuccessful and he died, probably not long after 1905.

View of Shockoe Creek Valley

Allen was born in Richmond about 1836, the son of Lewis Allen and Emily Allen, but whether he was freeborn or later manumitted is not known. His father, a bricklayer, was free and living on Fifteenth Street between Marshall and Clay streets in 1852. Eight years later Joseph Allen lived in the same general area, a racially mixed neighborhood in the valley of Shockoe Creek. Literate and single, he resided with Effy Allen, a seventy-year-old black washerwoman who headed the household and was probably his grandmother. Other family members included Emily Allen, age thirty, Harriet Allen, age nineteen, Mary F. Allen, age sixteen, and Ida V. Allen, an infant of two. All natives of Virginia, they shared a house with another family. Joseph Allen plied his father’s craft, joining many other Richmond free blacks who worked in the building trades.

Joseph Allen married Rebecca Gardner on March 4, 1869. She was born into a Richmond family that had been free before the Civil War. Their son and daughter both died young. The Allens moved westward and upward to a house at Ninth and Marshall streets. Near the Virginia State Capitol and city offices, he worked in nearly all the construction trades, with sources variously describing him as a plasterer, carpenter, bricklayer, and whitewasher. In the early 1880s he became a grocer, operating a store at 206 North Fourth Street. The family also moved to 1006 North Sixth Street, in the second precinct of Jackson Ward, Allen’s residence for the rest of his life.

Richmond's Jackson Ward

Allen was one of thirty-three black Republicans that Jackson Ward’s predominantly African American electorate sent to the Richmond City Council between 1871 and 1898. The famous political district was created by conservative whites in 1871 through a classic gerrymandering of black neighborhoods in order to concentrate them in one ward, nullifying their political strength in five others, thus reducing the overall impact of their votes in city elections. One of the more obscure of these political newcomers, Allen served only one term on the common council, 1882–1884. He was appointed to the moderately important committee on lunatics, where he worked to improve conditions in the segregated black asylum, and to the second market committee, which was less prestigious but still significant to Allen in that many of his own constituents were hucksters. He ran for reelection on a Republican ticket that broke away from the party’s main faction and lost.

Allen was again working as a plasterer by the late 1880s and owned the house on Sixth Street free of mortgage. Rebecca Allen contributed to the family’s income by taking in laundry. Joseph Allen last appeared in city directories in 1905. He probably died not long thereafter, but he left no will, and the passing of one of the city’s pioneer black councilmen apparently went unnoticed by the Richmond press.

ca. 1836
Joseph Allen is born in Richmond. It is not known whether he is born free or enslaved.
Joseph Allen is free and living on Fifteenth Street in Richmond.
March 4, 1869
Joseph Allen and Rebecca Gardner marry in Richmond.
Early 1880s
Joseph Allen becomes a grocer, operating a store at 206 North Fourth Street in Richmond.
Joseph Allen, a Republican, serves on the Richmond City Council, representing Jackson Ward.
After 1905
Joseph Allen dies in Richmond.
  • Chesson, Michael B. “Allen, Joseph.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 93–94. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
  • Chesson, Michael B. Richmond after the War, 1865 –1890. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981.
  • Chesson, Michael B. “Richmond’s Black Councilmen, 1871–1896.” In Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, edited by Howard N. Rabinowitz, 191–222. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
  • Richardson, Selden. Built by Blacks: African American Architecture and Neighborhoods in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, Virginia: Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, 2007.
APA Citation:
Chesson, Michael & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Joseph Allen (ca. 1836–after 1905). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/allen-joseph-ca-1836-after-1905.
MLA Citation:
Chesson, Michael, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Joseph Allen (ca. 1836–after 1905)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 12 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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