Joseph R. Holmes (ca. 1838–May 3, 1869), member of the Convention of 1867–1868, was born into slavery in Charlotte County and was the son of Peyton Holmes and Nancy Holmes. Little is known about his childhood, but he learned how to read and write and became a shoemaker. An 1857 estate inventory for John H. Marshall suggests that he owned Holmes and other enslaved persons. Later Holmes may have served as a butler to Marshall’s cousin Hunter Holmes Marshall before the Civil War and may have begun the study of law with him afterward. The circumstances of when and how Holmes gained his freedom are not recorded. On an unrecorded date he married Mary Clarke. They had three sons and one daughter. On May 29, 1868, Holmes purchased eleven and a half acres of land in Charlotte County.
After gaining his freedom, Holmes supported political reforms proposed by radical Republicans. In June 1867 he and Edward Nelson addressed a letter to the editor of the Daily Richmond Whig critical of moderate proposals by conservative white Republicans. At a public meeting in Charlotte County on July 20, Holmes was named one of several delegates to attend an upcoming Republican Party convention, which adopted a platform calling for equal legal and political rights and public schools when it met in Richmond on August 1. Two months later, county Republicans nominated Holmes for the flotorial seat representing Charlotte and Halifax counties in the constitutional convention that Congress required Virginia to hold in order to be readmitted to the United States. Incomplete, unofficial election returns indicate that on October 22, 1867, Holmes probably won majorities in both counties, defeating Wood Bouldin, who had served in theand was later a . Nelson won election to the seat representing Charlotte County, and , also African American, won election to one of the two seats representing Halifax County, a three-to-one victory for African Americans in the two black-majority counties.
The convention met in Richmond from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868. Holmes voted for the radical nominee for president,, who appointed him to the Committee on Taxation and Finance. On almost every issue Holmes voted for the most radical reform proposals offered during the convention, including with the majority to adopt the new constitution that contained numerous democratic reforms. General John M. Schofield, commander of the , described Holmes as “Colored. Shoemaker. Can read and write a little. Ignorant. Bad character. Radical.”
Holmes introduced a resolution that his committee look into whether tax revenue was “being used by the disloyal officials of the Commonwealth, to whose office is attached the collection of taxes, as an engine of vexation and oppression to many of the loyal people” of Virginia. He also proposed that the Committee on Privileges and Elections report whether any delegates were legally disfranchised as a result of their Civil War service and therefore ineligible to serve. Holmes also offered a resolution to have the Committee on Internal Improvements require the Board of Public Works to call a meeting of the stockholders of the Richmond and York River Railroad Company to meet and consider consolidation with the Richmond and Danville Railroad Company, alleging that some stockholders had been “misrepresented by their proxies” at a meeting early in 1867. All three resolutions failed of adoption.
Holmes and several other African American convention delegates were objects of unflattering racial stereotyping in the state’s white newspapers. An unfriendly Richmond journalist, treating him as a source of comic diversion, later wrote that in the convention Holmes was “prominent rather from the merriment he created on rising to speak than from any participation in the serious work of the body. He was good natured, polite, and a great favorite with the reporters, to whom he was specially courteous, and whose daily appearance he always greeted with a broad laugh.” A public disagreement Holmes had with Norfolk delegateabout possession of a law book one of them had borrowed from the library in the Capitol furnished opportunities for journalists to lampoon both men as ignorant and pretentious. James P. Cowardin, the son of an influential Richmond newspaper publisher, made fun of Holmes and Bayne in a lecture entitled “The Humors of Reconstruction.”
Holmes may have contemplated running for the House of Representatives or for a seat in the General Assembly in 1869. In March he was a delegate to the convention that nominated the Republican candidates for statewide offices. As a politically active African American, Holmes faced opposition from white residents in the county and attracted the ire of John Marshall, son of Hunter Holmes Marshall. On May 3, 1869, Marshall and other armed white men reportedly attacked one African American man and threatened to kill Holmes. While Holmes sought an arrest warrant at the Charlotte County courthouse, he encountered Marshall and some companions. According to witnesses Marshall hit Holmes with his pistol before shooting him in the chest. Two more shots rang out from Marshall’s group, striking and killing Joseph R. Holmes. A coroner’s jury issued true bills of indictment against Marshall and two other men, though none involved in the deadly shooting was ever tried or convicted. Several Virginia newspapers published long accounts of the incident, though some portrayed Holmes as the aggressor. Papers in more than twenty other states and the District of Columbia excerpted or reprinted them, giving Holmes’s death an exceptionally wide notoriety among many reports of white-on-black violence during the years after the Civil War. Holmes was probably buried on his land in Charlotte County.