ENTRY

John Walter Boyd Matthews (1840–July 11, 1879)

SUMMARY

John Walter Boyd Matthews, member of the House of Delegates (1871–1873), was born free in 1840 in Petersburg. His mother named him after the white planter who bequeathed land and enslaved workers to her and was her father. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) he worked as a barber and in May 1870 he had a job in the city’s customs house. In 1871 he won election to a two-year term in the House of Delegates representing Petersburg. Active in the legislature, Matthews introduced bills, made motions, and spoke more than most Black delegates. Aggressive, if not successful, his failed propositions included abolishing chain gangs for prisoners, raising taxes on alcoholic beverages, and pushing for laws to enforce the state constitution that guaranteed equal rights to all citizens. Matthews was a founding officer of the Petersburg Grant and Wilson Club and served as deputy collector at the City Point customs house. In 1875 he attended a state convention in Richmond that addressed the political and economic discrimination faced by African Americans in Virginia. Mathews died of a stroke at his home in Petersburg on July 11, 1879.

Early Life and Political Career

Petersburg seen from across the Appomattox River

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.

A Black barber shaves a white customer in Richmond while another customer sits awaiting his turn

            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 in Republican Party politics 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 Joseph P. Evans, both of whom the local newspaper identified as Radicals, won nomination. In November both men outpolled their Conservative white opponents by about 550 votes of approximately 3,500 votes cast.

Prosthetic Arm

            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 pre–Civil War public debt 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.

1872 political poster with large engraved portrait of presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant surrounded by smaller figures

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 of Ulysses S. Grant as 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.

MAP
TIMELINE
1840

John Walter Boyd Matthews is born free in Petersburg. His mother names him after the white planter who bequeathed land and enslaved workers to her and was her father.

1861–1865

John W. B. Matthews, as he was known, works as a barber and pays taxes on personal property worth about $60.

May 1870

John W. B. Matthews has a job in the customs house in Petersburg, which he may have obtained through Republican political alliances.

1871–1873

During his two-year term in the House of Delegates, John W. B. Matthews is more active on the floor, introducing bills, making motions, and speaking, than most of the other African American members.

October 25, 1871

Petersburg Republicans nominate John W. B. Matthews and Joseph P. Evans, both Radicals, as candidates for the city's two seats in the House of Delegates.

October 25, 1871
Joseph P. Evans and John W. B. Matthews are nominated as the Republican candidates for the House of Delegates from Petersburg. They receive the nomination over at least four white contenders.
November 1871

John W. B. Matthews and Joseph P. Evans, both Radicals, defeat their Conservative white opponents to represent Petersburg in the General Assembly.

August 1872

John W. B. Matthews is a vice president at the organizational meeting of the Petersburg Grant and Wilson Club, which looks to advance Republican principles and work for the election of Ulysses S. Grant as president.

1873–1879

John W. B. Matthews holds the position of deputy collector at the City Point customs house.

May 28, 1873

John W. B. Matthews marries Frances E. V. R. Gilliam at Gillfield Baptist Church in Petersburg.

1874–1879

John W. B. Matthews purchases several lots of land in Petersburg, including his mother's old house on Sycamore Street.

August 1875

John W. B. Matthews attends a state convention in Richmond addressing the political and economic discrimination faced by African Americans in Virginia.

July 11, 1879

John Walter Boyd Matthews dies of a stroke at his home in Petersburg.

FURTHER READING

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

CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John Walter Boyd Matthews (1840–July 11, 1879). (2022, January 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/john-walter-boyd-matthews-1840-july-11-1879.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "John Walter Boyd Matthews (1840–July 11, 1879)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (18 Jan. 2022). Web. 26 May. 2022
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