ENTRY

Robinson, John H. (1857–1932)

SUMMARY

John H. Robinson, born reportedly into slavery in Gloucester County, was a member of the House of Delegates (1887–1888). He graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) and went on to teach school and practice law. In his term as a member of the House of Delegates, he was particularly focused on issues with relevance to his district comprising the counties of Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick, and York, and the city of Williamsburg. Even after his retirement from politics and teaching he continued working with jobs in banking and life insurance and remained an active member of the Hampton community. Robinson died of pneumonia in his home in Hampton on December 6, 1932.

Early Life

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute

  • Church and Academic Hall
    Church and Academic Hall

    A photograph of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) shows the school's chapel, with its 150-foot clock tower, and an academic building at right. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Hampton Students Working on Telephones
    Hampton Students Working on Telephones

    Students repair and construct telephones in a class at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Students Studying Agricultural Science
    Students Studying Agricultural Science

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) measure the amount of force being applied by the screws in cheese presses. This exercise was part of the curriculum devoted to agricultural science. The message on the blackboard behind the class reads in part, "In all its effects, learning the meaning of things is better than learning the meaning of words." The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Indian Wearing Traditional Clothing in American History Class
    Indian Wearing Traditional Clothing in American History Class

    Louis Firetail of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe wears traditional clothing and stands next to a bald eagle in an American history class at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Class in Liberal Arts and Sciences
    Class in Liberal Arts and Sciences

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) mold clay to mimic objects hanging from easels attached to their desks. This exercise was part of a liberal arts and sciences class. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Constructing a House
    Constructing a House

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) work to finish the interior of a house that they built largely by themselves. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This carefully composed image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

John H. Robinson was born reportedly into slavery in Gloucester County and was the son of Edmund Robinson and Cornelia (or Cordelia) Robinson. His middle name may have been Hannibal, which evidently was the middle name of his son who was known as John H. Robinson Jr. In 1876, Robinson graduated from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). He taught school for four terms in Surry County, for one each in Prince George County and in Middlesex County, and thereafter in Elizabeth City County until the first decade of the twentieth century. Of the more than 450 students he taught between 1876 and 1893, about 22 became teachers. Robinson practiced law and, according to an obituary, was admitted to the bar in 1881. On December 25 of that year, while he was teaching in Prince George County, he married Margaret, or Maggie, Taylor. They had ten children of whom two daughters and two sons lived to adulthood. Their eldest-surviving son graduated from the medical school of Howard University, in Washington, D.C., and practiced medicine in Hampton’s Whittaker Memorial Hospital.

Political Career

Hon. John S. Barbour.

In the 1880s Robinson bought property and lived in Hampton, and in November 1887 he defeated two candidates to win election to a two-year term in the House of Delegates to represent the district comprising the counties of Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick, and York, and the city of Williamsburg. He received a majority of the votes in each of the five jurisdictions, and his total of 2,462 was almost two-thirds of all the votes cast. Sometime during the 1887–1888 session of the General Assembly, he posed with seven other African American legislators in one of the few known group portraits of nineteenth-century African American members of the General Assembly. Robinson was assigned the lowest-ranking seat on the Committee on Banks, Currency, and Commerce and the next-to-the-lowest-ranking seat on the Committee on the Chesapeake and Its Tributaries. Perhaps because Robinson continued to teach during the winter term, he was absent on December 20, 1887, when the assembly elected Democrat John Strode Barbour (1820–1892) to the United States Senate. Early in January, Robinson stated for the record that had he been present, he would have voted for Republican William Mahone. Robinson introduced bills that passed to incorporate the Newport News Cemetery Company (later Greenlawn Memorial Park) and to authorize a referendum in Warwick County about moving the county courthouse to Newport News. He introduced bills that did not pass to prohibit the use of long-handled oyster tongs in the James River, to authorize construction of a bridge over the northwest branch of the Hampton River, and for the relief of three former public school teachers in Elizabeth City County. Robinson did not run for reelection in 1889. He remained active in the local Republican Party for more than twenty years and often presided over county conventions early in the twentieth century.

Later Years

Robinson retired from teaching about 1917 and worked as a bookkeeper in a local bank, possibly People’s Building and Loan Association, for which he may have been an attorney. He was also a director of the Galilean Fishermen’s Bank in Hampton. He sold life insurance, first for the Richmond Beneficial Insurance Company and at the time of his death for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. He was an active member of the Queen Street Baptist Church in Hampton, a leader of the local Elks and Masonic lodges, and at the time of his death president of the Hampton Civic League. Robinson died of pneumonia in his home in Hampton on December 6, 1932, and was buried in Phillips Cemetery (later Pleasant Cemetery) in that city. His family caused the inscription on his gravestone to read, “Hon. John H. Robinson 1857–Dec. 6, 1932 Va. House of Delegates 1887–1888.”

MAP
TIMELINE
1876

John H. Robinson graduates from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University).

1876–about 1917

John H. Robinson teaches school for four terms in Surry County, for one each in Prince George County and in Middlesex County, and thereafter in Elizabeth City County.

1880s

John H. Robinson buys property and lives in Hampton.

1881

John H. Robinson is admitted to the bar.

December 25, 1881

John H. Robinson marries Margaret, or Maggie, Taylor.

1887–1888

Sometime during the session of the General Assembly, John H. Robinson poses with seven other African American legislators in one of the few known group portraits of nineteenth-century African American members of the General Assembly.

November 1887

John H. Robinson defeats two candidates to win election to a two-year term in the House of Delegates to represent the district comprising the counties of Elizabeth City, James City, Warwick, and York, and the city of Williamsburg.

December 20, 1887
The General Assembly elects John S. Barbour for the U.S. Senate.
Early in January 1888

John H. Robinson states for the record that had he been present when the General Assembly elected Democrat John Strode Barbour to the United States Senate, he would have voted for Republican William Mahone.

1889

John H. Robinson does not run for reelection to the House of Delegates.

About 1917

John H. Robinson retires from teaching and works as a bookkeeper in a local bank, possibly People's Building and Loan Association, for which he may have been an attorney.

December 6, 1932

John H. Robinson dies of pneumonia in his home in Hampton.

FURTHER READING

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

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Robinson, John H. (1857–1932). (2021, July 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/john-h-robinson-1857-1932.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Robinson, John H. (1857–1932)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (22 Jul. 2021). Web. 18 Oct. 2021
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