ENTRY

Robert Gilbert Griffin (March 1847–February 9, 1927)

SUMMARY

Robert Gilbert Griffin, member of the House of Delegates (1883–1885), was born in 1847 in Yorktown, the son of an enslaved woman and a prosperous white man. Griffin’s father acknowledged Griffin as his son and made arrangements in his will to free him and his family. When his father died in 1859 his estranged white family blocked these provisions. Griffin spent much of his adult life attempting unsuccessfully to claim his inheritance. In the early 1860s he moved to Philadelphia where he enlisted in the United States Colored Troops. He married in 1871 and returned to Yorktown where he became involved in politics. His Republican Party work earned him appointment as the town’s postmaster. In 1883 Griffin won election to a two-year term in the House of Delegates representing the district that included the counties of York, Warwick, James City, and Elizabeth City and the city of Williamsburg. After his political service ended and an unsuccessful run for sheriff, Griffin bought and sold property, harvested oysters, and farmed. He died Washington, D.C., in 1927 and was buried in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.

Early Years

Griffin was born in Yorktown, and was the son of Maria Griffin, an enslaved woman who also had four daughters. He and his sisters were all the children of a prosperous white man, Robert Anderson, whose white family in Williamsburg refused to live with him. Early in the 1850s Anderson moved to Yorktown, where he wrote his will in 1857 and left his estranged wife a legacy, acknowledged Griffin and his sisters as his children, left them and their mother most of his property, and directed that they all be freed and that the children all be cared for and educated. Anderson died in January 1859, but his widow and heirs at law prevented the will’s provisions from taking effect before the Civil War (1861–1865).

            As was common with enslaved people, public records contain almost no information about Griffin’s youth or when he learned to read and write. Nor do surviving records indicate precisely when he and his family became legally free. Sometime during the Civil War, Griffin and his mother and younger sisters in effect freed themselves. They moved to Philadelphia, where they lived with his elder sister and her husband.

            On March 28, 1865, in Frankford, Pennsylvania, Griffin enlisted as a private in Company K, 24th Regiment United States Colored Troops. The surviving military service record described him as five feet, four inches tall with black or hazel eyes, and light-colored hair. The infantry regiment briefly guarded Confederate prisoners at Point Lookout, in Maryland, and then in the middle of July it was ordered to Virginia. Stationed first in Richmond, the regiment was soon transferred to Burkeville, in Nottoway County, where it distributed food and other supplies to freedpeople and helped preserve order. Griffin and the regiment mustered out of service in Richmond on October 1, 1865. The regiment’s motto on its battle flag was “Let Soldiers in War be Citizens in Peace,” which Griffin put into practice with his wartime service and his political career afterward.

            Griffin returned to Philadelphia, but whether immediately after his discharge or later in the decade is unclear. While living there he married Caroline M. Johnson on August 21, 1871. They had three sons, one of whom died young. In April 1869 the family had hired a Richmond lawyer to claim the property Robert Anderson’s will bequeathed them. Griffin personally presented the will for probate at the courthouse in Williamsburg on October 12, 1871. In August 1872, when he was preparing to move back to Yorktown, the other members of the family deputized him to act for them in cooperation with the Richmond lawyer. The legal cases involving Anderson’s estate dragged on for years, and it is unclear how much of his father’s property they received. Griffin later purchased a few parcels of the several hundred acres of land in Yorktown and in the county that had belonged to his father. By 1876 Griffin was part owner of at least one lot in Yorktown. In 1877 he and a partner borrowed $600 to purchase a portable steam engine and sawmill, which they paid off in three annual installments. Griffin may have attached the engine to a gristmill and earned his livelihood for a time as a miller.

Political Career

            Soon after returning to Yorktown, he began taking an active part in Republican Party politics, sometimes in partnership with his neighbors, the brothers Robert Norton and Daniel M. Norton, who had been leaders of the African American political community in the county since shortly after the Civil War. Griffin provided transportation to the Republican candidate for Congress in 1874 and later testified at a congressional hearing into charges of bribery during the campaign. Griffin was not implicated. His Republican Party work earned him appointment as postmaster of Yorktown effective May 19, 1880. The following March, Griffin attended the convention of African American Republicans in Petersburg that voted to affiliate with the new biracial Readjuster Party that promised to refinance the pre–Civil War public debt to reduce the rate of interest and the principal in order to be able to increase appropriations for the public school system.

            Griffin was still serving as postmaster on August 29, 1883, when the convention of the Readjuster-Republican Party coalition nominated him for a two-year term in the House of Delegates for the district that included the counties of York, Warwick, James City, and Elizabeth City and the city of Williamsburg. On November 6, in a three-man race against a Funder and a white Republican who did not affiliate with the Readjusters, Griffin won with 2,412 votes to his competitors’ combined 2,262. In that election, the coalition of Readjusters and Republicans lost its majorities in both houses of the General Assembly to the newly reorganized Democratic Party.

            Griffin submitted his resignation as postmaster on November 15 in order not to be in violation of a state law that prohibited federal employees from serving in the General Assembly, which began its session early in December; but he continued to act as postmaster through the remainder of the year because the Post Office Department did not replace him until March 1884. In the meantime, he took his seat as a member of the House of Delegates in December 1883 and was appointed to low-ranking seats on the relatively inconsequential Committees of Asylums and Prisons, on Executive Expenditures, and on House Expenses. On February 11, 1884, a member proposed to remove Griffin from his seat in the assembly because he continued to be postmaster of Yorktown. The Committee of Privileges and Elections recommended on March 3 that he be unseated, but after he stopped serving as postmaster the House of Delegates took no final vote on the proposal, and he remained a member of the house.

            Griffin introduced six bills and one petition of local interest to people in the counties he represented. The only bill to pass was to charter the Band of Brethren Lodge, Number One Thousand Nine Hundred and Fifty, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal mutual service organization in Yorktown intended to provide relief and burial benefits for members. Griffin was one of the nine original members of its board of directors.

            Democratic Party leaders in the General Assembly called it back into special session in August 1884. At that session Griffin introduced one unsuccessful local bill, and the assembly also took action to reduce African American voting and influence in politics. In November, near the end of the special session, it passed over the governor’s veto a law usually known as the Anderson-McCormick Act, which allowed the assembly (controlled by the Democrats) to appoint all officers of election and give them control over who could register and be allowed to vote. Griffin had voted against a similar bill that was passed and vetoed by the governor during the regular session and he again voted against the bill when the delegates passed it over the governor’s second veto. Griffin either did not seek or did not receive the nomination to run for a second term in 1885.

Later Years

            Griffin ran for sheriff of York County in 1887 with Robert Norton’s aid but did not win. Griffin and his wife jointly or separately bought and sold several properties in the town and county during the next two decades. In 1900 the census enumerator identified all the members of his family as white rather than as of mixed race, which earlier and later enumerators did. The enumerator in 1900 listed Griffin as an oyster planter, indicating that he may have leased a reef from the state or from someone who had created an artificial reef to sow with oyster spat for later harvest. Ten years later the census listed him as a farmer.

            Griffin’s wife died on September 24, 1918, after which he lived in the household of one of his daughters-in-law and may have later lived in Washington, D.C. Robert Gilbert Griffin died on February 9, 1927, and was buried in Eden Cemetery, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.

MAP
TIMELINE
March 1847

Robert Gilbert Griffin is born in Yorktown; his mother is Maria Griffin, an enslaved woman, and his father is Robert Anderson, a prosperous white man.

1857

Robert Anderson's will acknowledges Robert Gilbert Griffin as his son and leaves property to him, his mother, and his siblings, directing that they be freed, educated, and cared for.

January 1859

Richard Anderson dies, and his estranged white family prevents the will from taking effect.

ca. 1861-1865

Robert Gilbert Griffin, his mother, and siblings move to Philadelphia.

March 28, 1865

Robert Gilbert Griffin enlists as a private in the United States Colored Troops and serves in Maryland and Virginia.

October 1, 1865

Robert Gilbert Griffin musters out of the service in Richmond.

1869

Robert Gilbert Griffin hires a lawyer and files suits to claim the property left him by his father's will.

August 21, 1871

Robert Gilbert Griffin marries Caroline M. Johnson in Philadelphia; they have three sons.

ca. 1873

Robert Gilbert Griffin and his family move back to Yorktown, and he becomes active in Republican Party politics.

1876-1877

Robert Gilbert Griffin buys property in Yorktown and works as a miller.

May 19, 1880

Robert Gilbert Griffin is named postmaster of Yorktown.

November 6, 1883

Robert Gilbert Griffin is elected to the House of Delegates for a two-year term representing the counties of York, Warwick, James City, and Elizabeth City and the city of Williamsburg.

February 11, 1884

Robert Gilbert Griffin's seat on the House of Delegates is challenged due to his continuing work as postmaster of Yorktown; the challenge is later dropped.

1887

Robert Gilbert Griffin runs unsuccessfully for sheriff of York County.

1890-1910

Robert Gilbert Griffin and his wife buy and sell property in Yorktown and York County; Griffin works as an oyster planter and a farmer.

September 24, 1918

Robert Gilbert Griffin's wife, Caroline Johnson Griffin, dies.

February 9, 1927

Robert Gilbert Griffin dies and is buried in Collingdale, Pennsylvania.

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 & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Robert Gilbert Griffin (March 1847–February 9, 1927). (2022, January 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/robert-gilbert-griffin-march-1847-february-9-1927.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Robert Gilbert Griffin (March 1847–February 9, 1927)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (18 Jan. 2022). Web. 30 Nov. 2022
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