Early Life and Political Career
Matthews was born free in Petersburg and was the son of James Z. Matthews and his first wife, Rebecca Nicholas Gilliam Matthews. She had inherited several lots in the city and several enslaved men, women, and children, whose number increased to about thirty-five at her death when Matthew was eight or nine years old. She named her only son for Walter Boyd Gilliam, the white planter who bequeathed land and enslaved workers to her and her mother and was her father. Of biracial ancestry, Matthews’s parents were literate, and he learned to read and write.
It is unclear what John W. B. Matthews, as he was generally known, and members of his family did during the Civil War, but he probably remained in Petersburg, where he became a barber. Working in one of the few skilled professions open to African Americans during this period, he paid taxes on personal property worth about $60 in the years immediately after the war but did not then own any real estate. Petersburg had the state’s largest population of free African Americans before the Civil War, and afterward it had one of the most politically active populations. The precise circumstances under which Matthews became involved inpolitics are not clear, but as early as May 1870, he had a job in the customs house there, which he may have obtained through political alliances. On October 25, 1871, when Petersburg Republicans met to nominate candidates for the city’s two seats in the House of Delegates, Matthews and , both of whom the local newspaper identified as Radicals, won nomination. In November both men outpolled their white opponents by about 550 votes of approximately 3,500 votes cast.
As a member of the minority party in the House of Delegates, Matthews held the lowest-ranking seat on the relatively inconsequential Committee of Claims, but he was more active on the floor, introducing bills, making motions, and speaking, than were most of the other African American members that session. He unsuccessfully proposed measures to abolish chain gangs for prisoners, to raise taxes on alcoholic beverages, to inquire what legislation was needed to enforce the provisions of the Constitution of 1869 that guaranteed equal rights to all citizens, and to revise the tax laws. In the second year of his term, Matthews introduced a bill to allow local referenda to determine whether counties or townships should enforce the optional state fence law, and he proposed an inquiry into how many artificial limbs the state purchased for wounded Confederate veterans. He also cast one important vote during the first legislative skirmishes about payment of the under provisions of the so-called Funding Act of 1871. That law allowed payment of taxes with the interest-bearing coupons on the bonds issued to refinance the debt but reduced the revenue the state received for supporting the new public school system. Matthews voted with the minority in March 1872 when the House of Delegates overrode the governor’s veto of a bill to prevent payment of taxes with coupons.
In August 1872 Matthews was named a vice president at the organizational meeting of the Petersburg Grant and Wilson Club, which looked to advance Republican principles and work for the election ofas president. Matthews did not run for renomination in the autumn of 1873, perhaps because on May 28, 1873, at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg, he married Frances E. V. R. Gilliam and planned to start a family. They had at least one son and two daughters, one of whom died in childhood. At the time of his marriage, Matthews held the post of deputy collector at the City Point customs house, where he worked until his death. He purchased lots of land in Petersburg in June 1874 (his mother’s old house on Sycamore Street), in July 1877, and in May 1878, and early in 1879 he took out a mortgage to pay back the $165 he had borrowed from the Petersburg Savings and Insurance Company to buy the third property.
Matthews remained active in Republican Party politics, and in August 1875 he attended a state convention in Richmond that had been called to address the political and economic discrimination faced by African Americans in Virginia. He was a member of the standing committee on address. The convention adopted resolutions in favor of readjusting the state’s public debt and forming a statewide Laboring Men’s Mechanics’ Union Association to unite African Americans to protect their rights as citizens to purchase land and to receive fair wages. John Walter Boyd Matthews died of a stroke at his home in Petersburg on July 11, 1879. The place of his burial is not known.