ENTRY

Wilson, Ellis (1818–1904)

SUMMARY

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.

Early Years

The Freedmen's Bureau.

Ellis Wilson was born probably into slavery and probably in Dinwiddie County, but the date and place of his birth and the names of his parents are not known. Little about his personal life is recorded and the circumstances of when or how he gained his freedom are not known. He had at least two daughters who were born before the American Civil War (1861–1865), and about 1868 or 1869 he married Biddy A., whose maiden name is not known. She had five children, possibly from a previous marriage, and they raised one adopted daughter and one adopted son. An entry in the agricultural schedule of the 1870 census reported that Wilson then farmed on twenty acres of land in Dinwiddie County. It is possible that he was the man of that name who in 1866 constructed coffins for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. The following year, a bureau agent in the county included Wilson on a list of responsible African American men there.

Political Career

The Fifteenth Amendment. Celebrated May 19th 1870.

On July 6, 1869, when voters ratified a new state constitution, Wilson, described in a newspaper report as “colored Radical,” defeated a white Conservative candidate by a vote of 1,517 to 853 to win election to represent the county for a two-year term in the House of Delegates. Wilson received a low-ranking seat on the Committee on Retrenchment and Economy. In the short special session in October 1869 he voted to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, as Congress required before it seated senators and representatives from Virginia. Wilson introduced no bills during the 1869–1870 regular session. In June 1870 he voted to delete a provision that required racial segregation from the bill to create the first statewide system of public schools, but the motion failed to pass. He also voted to prohibit racial distinctions in selection of local school trustees, which also failed to pass. As a consequence, he joined most of the African American delegates in voting against the bill as their only means of expressing their dislike of the requirement for racial segregation in the new public school system.

            Wilson attended the September 1870 Republican Party state convention. During the final session of his term in the assembly, which met from December 1870 to the end of March 1871, he introduced a bill to authorize the Dinwiddie County Court to rescind the order it had adopted to enforce an optional state fence law. The assembly incorporated the provision he sought into a law to allow courts in Dinwiddie and eleven other counties to vacate their prior rulings. Wilson gave testimony at the beginning of March to a committee that investigated charges that representatives of Pennsylvania railroads had tried to bribe members of the General Assembly prior to the assembly’s voting to sell most of the state’s railroad stock, but he was evidently not implicated. On what became the most consequential matter on which Wilson voted that session, he joined almost all the other African American delegates in voting for the bill that refinanced the antebellum public debt. Because of the high rate of interest on the new bonds issued to pay the debt and the tax-receivable character of the interest-bearing coupons, more than a decade of political turmoil and reduced appropriations for the public schools ensued.

Grand Republican Rally!

            Wilson attended the Republican senatorial district convention in September 1871, but he either did not seek or did not win the Republican Party nomination for the House of Delegates that autumn. He resumed his life as a farmer and as an ordained Baptist minister. In 1870, while still a member of the House of Delegates, Wilson purchased 82.25 acres of land for $200. He became a successful farmer, and did not engage in politics after serving as an election supervisor in Dinwiddie for the Republican Party in 1872.

Later Years

His name rarely appeared in newspapers or in public documents other than in the county’s deed books and tax rolls. Although almost invisible more than a century after his death, Wilson was one of many freed people whose ability allowed them to succeed after freedom provided them the opportunity. In 1904 he paid taxes on five tracts of Dinwiddie County land that included more than 550 acres and was worth more than $1,400. Among his other sources of income from the property was the occasional sale of timber. Wilson died on an unrecorded date in September 1904, and a commissioner qualified to administer his estate on October 6. The place of his burial is not recorded.

MAP
TIMELINE
February 1818

Ellis Wilson is born probably in Dinwiddie County.

1866

Ellis Wilson constructs coffins for the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands.

1867

An agent of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands includes Ellis Wilson on a list of responsible African American men in Dinwiddie County.

About 1868 or 1869

Ellis Wilson marris Biddy A., whose maiden name is not known.

July 6, 1869
Voters ratify a new state constitution, often called the Underwood Constitution, rejecting separate provisions that would have disfranchised men who had held civil or military office under the Confederacy. The new constitution supplants the former one, proclaimed on April 7, 1864.
July 6, 1869

Ellis Wilson defeats a white Conservative candidate to win election to represent Dinwiddie County for a two-year term in the House of Delegates.

October 1869

In the short special session of the House of Delegates, Ellis Wilson votes to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, as Congress required before it seated senators and representatives from Virginia.

1870

An entry in the agricultural schedule of the U.S. Census reports that Ellis Wilson farmed on twenty acres of land in Dinwiddie County.

1870

While still a member of the House of Delegates, Ellis Wilson purchases 82.25 acres of land for $200. He becomes a successful farmer.

Early March 1870

Ellis Wilson gives testimony to a committee that investigated charges that representatives of Pennsylvania railroads had tried to bribe members of the General Assembly prior to the assembly's voting to sell most of the state's railroad stock.

June 1870

Ellis Wilson votes to delete a provision that required racial segregation from the bill to create the first statewide system of public schools, but the motion fails to pass.

July 1870
The General Assembly passes An Act to Establish and Maintain a Uniform System of Public Free Schools; the law requires racial segregation in the schools.
September 1870

Ellis Wilson attends the Republican Party state convention.

December 1870 to the end of March 1871

During the final session of his term in the assembly, Ellis Wilson introduces a bill to authorize the Dinwiddie County Court to rescind the order it had adopted to enforce an optional state fence law. The assembly incorporated the provision he sought into a law to allow courts in Dinwiddie and eleven other counties to vacate their prior rulings.

March 30, 1871
The General Assembly passes "An Act to Provide for the Funding and Payment of the Public Debt," or the Funding Act of 1871.
September 1871

Ellis Wilson attends the Republican senatorial district convention.

1872

Ellis Wilson serves as an election supervisor in Dinwiddie County for the Republican Party.

1904

Ellis Wilson pays taxes on five tracts of Dinwiddie County land that includes more than 550 acres and is worth more than $1,400.

September 1904

Ellis Wilson dies.

October 6, 1904

A commissioner qualifies to administer Ellis Wilson's estate.

FURTHER READING

Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.

 

Lowe, Richard. “Local Black Leaders During Reconstruction in Virginia.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 103 (1995): 181–206.

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Wilson, Ellis (1818–1904). (2021, July 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/ellis-wilson-1818-1904.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Wilson, Ellis (1818–1904)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (22 Jul. 2021). Web. 24 Oct. 2021
Feedback
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sponsors  |  View all