ENTRY

Gilliam, William (d. 1893)

SUMMARY

William Gilliam served in the House of Delegates from 1871 to 1875. He represented Prince George County, where he was born to a free African Americancouple. Gilliam was a farmer who owned a four-acre tract of land on the outskirts of Petersburg; he was elected to the first of two consecutive terms in the House of Delegates in 1871. Identified in newspaper reports as a Radical Republican, Gilliam was active in the Assembly and introduced numerous bills, although only one, to authorize a Prince George County business to construct a pier on the James River, passed. When he ran for a third term in 1875, some ballots in his district were lost and others were not reported; his Conservative opponent was declared the winner and seated despite Gilliam’s request for a recount. After this, Gilliam appeared to withdraw from partisan politics. He moved with his family to New York City, where he died in 1893.

Personal Life

Gilliam was the son of Reuben M. Gilliam and Patience Walker Gilliam, a free African American family that owned land in Prince George County, where he was born about 1840. Documentation of his family and personal life is scarce. Gilliam’s wife was named Susan, but there being no surviving official record of the marriage the date and her maiden name are not known. They had at least four daughters and two sons. Gilliam reportedly learned to read with the aid of a white woman to whom he was related. He identified himself to census enumerators in 1870 and 1880 as a farmer. On January 18, 1871, Gilliam paid $225 for a four-acre tract of land on the outskirts of Petersburg. Five years later he used the land as collateral when he borrowed $50 from the Citizen’s Bank of Petersburg, which he paid back within six months. Sometime during the decade Gilliam erected a house on the land.

Political Career

Gilliam entered politics in 1871 and in November defeated white Conservative Mann Page 619 to 398 to win a two-year term in the House of Delegates representing Prince George County. Newspaper reports usually identified Gilliam as a Radical Republican. He received a low-ranking seat on the Committee on Manufactures and Mechanic Arts. Gilliam introduced a bill to change voter registration procedures, but its provisions are not known, and it did not pass. During debate on appropriations for the state’s colleges, he “was particularly anxious,” according to a newspaper report, “that the colored people should not be overlooked in the distribution.” Gilliam was also on record opposing a bill to prevent the sale of alcohol on Sundays.

During Gilliam’s first year in the General Assembly, members began more than a decade of wrangling about how to pay off a large public debt left over from before the American Civil War (1861–1865). Before he was elected, the assembly had passed a law to refinance the debt by issuing new bonds with interest-bearing coupons attached. The act allowed people to pay taxes with the coupons, which meant that tax revenue collected in cash plummeted even as the burden of debt service significantly increased. One unanticipated consequence was a reduction in appropriations for the popular new public school system. In December 1871 Gilliam voted for a resolution to suspend operation of the law until the expense of funding the debt could be determined. The governor vetoed the resolution, and the assembly then passed a bill to prevent payment of taxes with coupons, which the governor also vetoed. Gilliam was not present when the assembly voted to override the veto and pass the bill.

Gilliam represented the county’s Republicans at the party’s state convention in April 1872 and was secretary of the June county convention that elected him an alternate delegate to the next congressional district convention. During the assembly session of 1872–1873, he introduced a bill to delay collection of taxes in the county, but it did not pass. Later, immediately after the delegates decisively defeated a motion to eliminate the annual $15,000 appropriation for Virginia Military Institute from the appropriations bill, Gilliam proposed to add a $20,000 appropriation for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), but it failed by a vote of 61 to 22.

Gilliam campaigned for other Republicans in the 1873 election, and on October 2, the county’s Republicans nominated him for a second term in the House of Delegates. He won reelection in November by defeating another white Conservative 849 to 625. Gilliam retained his seat on the Committee on Manufactures and Mechanic Arts and also received the lowest-ranking seat on the more influential Committee on Propositions and Grievances. He introduced a resolution, which did not pass, in support of a civil rights bill then pending in Congress. Gilliam also introduced two bills that year: one to permit harvesting of wild fowl with traps, which would have made it easier for rural people to take turkeys, quail, or other birds to supplement their diets, but it failed to pass; and one that passed to authorize a Prince George County business to construct a pier on the bank of the James River.

Early in the 1874–1875 session Gilliam proposed “that the ministers of the several churches in the city of Richmond, without regard to color, be alternately invited to open this house with prayer,” but the Committee on Rules never reported it out for a vote. He also reintroduced the bill to permit taking of wild fowl with traps, but again it failed to pass.

In 1875 Gilliam ran for a third term, but at one of the polling places the men who counted the votes lost some ballots and did not report how many of the remaining votes each of the two candidates received. Gilliam believed that he had received a large enough majority there to win a majority in the county, but without the return, Conservative Mann Page had a majority. Gilliam challenged Page’s election, but the county clerk misplaced the remaining ballots, which made a recount impossible. The House of Delegates declined to order a new election and seated Page. Gilliam evidently withdrew from partisan politics after that.

Later Years

Late in the 1880s, he moved with his family to New York City, where he worked as a porter, a term that at the time embraced a variety of largely menial or custodial tasks. Gilliam died in Manhattan on January 23, 1893, and was buried at Saint Michael’s Cemetery, in Queens.

MAP
TIMELINE
ca. 1840
William Gilliam is born in Prince George County to Reuben M. Gilliam and Patience Walker Gilliam.
1870
William Gilliam identifies himself to census enumerators as a farmer.
1871—1872
William Gilliam serves on the House of Delegates' Committee on Manufactures and Mechanic Arts. He introduces a bill to change voter registration procedures, but its provisions are not known, and it does not pass.
January 18, 1871
William Gilliam pays $225 for a four-acre tract of land on the outskirts of Petersburg.
November 7, 1871
William Gilliam, of Prince George County, wins election to the House of Delegates by a vote of 619 to 398, defeating white Conservative Mann Page.
1872—1873
In the House of Delegates, William Gilliam introduces a bill to delay collection of taxes in Prince George County, which does not pass, and proposes to add to the appropriations bill $20,000 for Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. The proposal fails.
April 1872
William Gilliam represents Prince George County Republicans at the party's state convention.
June 15, 1872
Prince George County Republicans convene to elect William H. Baldwin and Gabriel Hill as delegates to the Second Congressional District Convention, with William Gilliam and Willis P. Hill serving as alternates. Baldwin serves as the meeting's chairman and Gilliam as its secretary.
1873—1874
William Gilliam receives a seat on the Committee on Propositions and Grievances. His resolution in support of a civil rights bill in Congress and bill to permit harvesting of wild fowl with traps do not pass. His bill to authorize a Prince George County business to construct a pier on the bank of the James River passes.
October 2, 1873
Prince George County Republicans nominate William Gilliam for a second term in the House of Delegates.
November 4, 1873
The incumbent William Gilliam wins a second two-year term in the House of Delegates representing Prince George County. He defeats his opponent by a vote of 849 to 625.
1874—1875
William Gilliam reintroduces his bill to permit taking of wild fowl with traps, but it again fails to pass.
December 3, 1874
William Gilliam proposes "that the ministers of the several churches in the city of Richmond, without regard to color, be alternately invited to open this house with prayer," but the Committee on Rules never reports it out for a vote.
November 2, 1875
Men counting votes at a Prince George County polling place lose some ballots and do not report how many of the remaining votes are received for each of the two candidates for a seat in the House of Delegates—Radical Republican William Gilliam and white Conservative Mann Page. Without the return, Page wins the majority in the county.
November 1875
William Gilliam challenges his opponent Mann Page's election to the House of Delegates from Prince George County, citing unreported votes.
1876
William Gilliam borrows $50 from the Citizen's Bank of Petersburg, using as collateral his four-acre tract of land on the outskirts of Petersburg. He repays the loan within six months.
February 12, 1876
The House of Delegates declines to order a new election in Prince George County, ruling that Mann Page is entitled to his seat.
1880
William Gilliam identifies himself to census enumerators as a farmer.
Late 1880s
William Gilliam moves with his family to New York City, where he works as a porter.
January 23, 1893
William Gilliam dies in Manhattan. He is buried at Saint Michael's Cemetery, in Queens, New York.
FURTHER READING
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
  • Lutz, Francis Earle. The Prince George–Hopewell Story. Richmond, Virginia: William Byrd Press, 1957.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Gilliam, William (d. 1893). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/gilliam-william-d-1893.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Gilliam, William (d. 1893)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 02 Mar. 2021
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