William Henry Brisby was born in August 1836 in New Kent County to Roger Lewis, a free African American, and Marinda Brisby, who was of Pamunkey Indian origins. Lewis was much older than Marinda Brisby and died before March 1838. She returned to her family, who had not approved of Lewis, and the boy took his mother’s name. Little else is known of William Brisby’s early life. He had a brother and probably sisters; a nephew and a niece lived with him at one time.
Brisby may have inherited land from his father in New Kent County. Ambitious and industrious, Brisby soon established himself in the free black community there. He worked on the construction of the Richmond and York River Railroad and used his wages to purchase a set of blacksmith’s tools. With a partner, Brisby set up a blacksmith shop at Talleysville in 1859. The following year he bought his partner’s tools and on January 29, 1860, purchased the lot where his shop was located. One year later he acquired thirty-two acres of land nearby.
The advance towardof the Union during the in the spring of 1862 brought war to New Kent County. were being forced to work on Confederate fortifications near Yorktown. To avoid impressment Brisby served for several months as a blacksmith for a troop of Confederate cavalry stationed in the county. He traveled with the cavalry but at least could still oversee his farm and smithy.
On his own again in 1863, Brisby expanded his enterprises in April by purchasing for $900 in inflated state currency a large net for catching fish, which he salted and packed in barrels. He often traveled to Richmond to sell fish and crops and to buy iron and other goods. His cargo on the return trips sometimes includedand escaped Union prisoners. Confederate authorities twice imprisoned him for short periods at on suspicion of aiding the enemy. When Union troops under Major General Philip H. Sheridan commandeered his property in May 1864, Brisby showed Sheridan a testimonial by three Union officers whom he had helped escape, and Sheridan ordered Brisby’s three cows returned to him.
Brisby later testified that the slave regime’smade him a , and as late as 1860 he signed with his mark rather than a signature, often a sign of illiteracy. Somehow, though, Brisby learned to read and write. The 1863 note for the fishing net bears his own signature. Thereafter he continued to study and obtained books, and he took a special interest in the law.
In April 1867 Brisby was one of three delegates from New Kent County who attended the Union Republican State Convention in Richmond. After a constitutional convention organized a new state government, Republicans in New Kent County nominated him for the House of Delegates in 1869. Brisby won the election by just nineteen votes and was assigned to the Committee on Officers and Offices at the Capitol. In the General Assembly he voted with the Republican minority and was a leader among the African American delegates who condemned the erratic behavior of, a black Republican delegate from Surry County.
On September 11, 1871, county Republicans nominated Brisby for a second term. Newton M. Brooks, a former agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau in New Kent, had sought the nomination for himself and afterward asked Brisby to withdraw. When Brisby refused, Brooks threatened to run against him. Fearing that the presence of a third candidate would give the election to the, Brisby called for a second convention at which his African American friend and neighbor received the nomination and went on to win the election.
When Brisby petitioned thein 1873 for payment for property that Sheridan’s soldiers had taken in 1864, Brooks exacted his revenge. At his instigation, several men testified about Brisby’s Confederate service as a blacksmith. Their testimony forced Brisby to submit additional evidence and delayed payment of his claim until 1878.
On November 4, 1869, Brisby married nineteen-year-old Ann Rebecca Cumber, daughter of a long-resident free family. Of as many as twelve children, six sons and two daughters survived. Brisby remained active in local politics. During the 1876 election campaign the Republican Congressional Executive Committee named him a district canvasser for the Second Congressional District. Brisby served from 1871 until at least 1881 on the county board of supervisors, attended the county organizing meeting of what became thein 1879, and served as a justice of the peace until at least 1896 and possibly into the first decade of the twentieth century.
In 1885 Brisby and his brother, Matthew Brisby, went into debt to buy a steam sawmill, which they moved to his 129-acre property. The sawmill proved unprofitable, and his brother died before 1891, leaving Brisby responsible for all that they owed. He fell further into debt, assisted, according to family tradition, by a combination of alcohol and unscrupulous white men. Brisby began selling his property to stave off his creditors. Finally, in 1907 the county sold the last of his land at auction. A year later he sold the sawmill for $150 and, past the age of seventy, contracted to work there for the new owner.
For all of Brisby’s local prominence, his life ended sadly. A strict, sometimes violent disciplinarian, he drove his sons out of the household as soon as possible. His wife, Ann R. Brisby, died suddenly on August 1, 1894, and his beloved younger daughter, Nannie J. Brisby, became convinced that he had caused her death. Her alienation grew when he married Victoria Pearman Holmes, a widow, on February 20, 1901.
Sometime after 1908 Brisby began to suffer from dementia. He and his second wife moved into the Henrico County home of his unforgiving younger daughter. In July 1916 his physical condition worsened, and he was committed to Central State Hospital in Petersburg. Brisby died there of kidney failure on November 16, 1916. The place of his burial is unknown.