William Henry Martin was born enslaved at Monticello, the Albemarle County estate of. He recalled his birthdate as July 4, 1826, the day that Jefferson died. Martin’s death certificate identifies his mother as Marla Carr, whom Martin, in various published reminiscences, never named but described as a Jefferson slave who married the master’s body-servant. In 1827, Martin was likely sold at an estate auction to William Carr, whose family was related to Jefferson through his sister, Martha Jefferson Carr. He served the Carr family at Bentivar, one of their Albemarle County estates, until about 1847, when Ferrel Carr died. Martin was then hired out to a Carr relative operating a boardinghouse just north of the University of Virginia. His duties included serving meals and hauling wood between Bentivar and the boardinghouse, located on what later became known as Carr’s Hill.
Anof Martin, written in 1915 by the university’s librarian, John S. Patton, notes that during the Civil War the Carrs hired Martin out to Bolling Haxall, a wealthy Richmond industrialist, but that Martin ran away “in the guise of a Confederate soldier” and returned to Charlottesville. There he labored in the military hospital superintended by , a professor of medicine at the university. In an published in the yearbook Corks and Curls in 1914, Martin described how he tended wounded soldiers in the Rotunda. “It didn’t make no difference how much they was sufferin’,” he said; “they didn’t make no noise.”
After the war Martin may have worked briefly on an Albemarle County farm, although records suggest that he was employed by the University of Virginia to haul coal as early as February 1866. By 1868 he was the head janitor and bell-ringer. The university’s bell, located in the Rotunda and then, after 1895, in the chapel, marked time on grounds. During the Rotunda fire on October 27, 1895, Martin rang the bell to alert the university community to the flames, which began in the building’s annex. His job as bell-ringer helped make him a well-known figure at the school, and he came to be widely referred to as “Old Henry” and “Uncle Henry.” The nicknames combined respect and condescension, and placed Martin in the context of the Lost Cause archetype of the faithful slave. In a history of the universityin 1908, Professor David M. R. Culbreth III wrote that Martin “knew his part in life and played it well.” He “fully recognized that he was neither a professor, a student, nor a white man,” but just a bell-ringer, and “to serve was his delight.”
Martin married at least three times. The date of his marriage to Martha Jane Bullock is unknown. In 1865 he married Patsy Washington and with her had one son and seven daughters, of whom at least six lived to maturity. Martin was a tall man—six-foot-two by some accounts—and while often depicted as being unable to read and write, he likely could do both. In 1890 he wrote a letter to College Topics, the school newspaper, recounting how he came to work at the university.The board of visitors noted Martin’s retirement on March 18, 1909, resolving that he “be continued in his present position as janitor, at the same salary, but without being required to perform any of the duties of the position.” “Well done, good and faithful servant,” the visitors wrote. He was paid a pension of $300 per year.
Martin died at 1 a.m. on October 6, 1915, of a strangulated hernia. Both hisand , which was held two days later at the First Baptist Church in Charlottesville and attended by many in the University of Virginia community, were front-page news in the Daily Progress newspaper. He was buried at the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville. In the summer of 2012, the university laid a plaque dedicated to Martin near the university’s chapel.