Morgan Poitiaux Robinson (1876–1943)


Morgan Poitiaux Robinson, Virginia’s first state archivist, worked to make the state’s records more accessible and to ensure that local records were stored in fireproof buildings. The son of John Enders Robinson and Virginia Morgan, he was born in Richmond on February 11, 1876. After receiving his early education in the city at Mrs. Camm’s School for Boys and McGuire’s University School, he entered the University of Virginia, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a law degree.

Robinson was named chief of the Archives Department at the Virginia State Library in 1915, at age thirty-nine. He had previously practiced law in Richmond and had worked as a historian for the War and Navy Departments in Washington, D.C., researching Revolutionary War records in Richmond. At the Archives Department, Robinson embarked on an ambitious program to process the collections and reorganize the manuscript reading room, replacing the old wooden shelves with metal ones and, for the first time, purchasing tables and chairs for researchers, funded by an appropriation from the General Assembly. Staff began to index newly accessioned Confederate rosters and sort through records recently discovered in the rafters of the Capitol. While working in the Archives Department, Robinson wrote several books and articles on the commonwealth’s history, among them Virginia Counties: Those Resulting from Virginia Legislation (1916). In 1918, the General Assembly appointed him Virginia’s first state archivist.

Change came to the Archives Department during Robinson’s tenure. From 1916 to 1924, juniors and seniors studying American history at Westhampton College (a women’s liberal arts undergraduate institution in Richmond) worked as archives apprentices in the Virginia State Library. Robinson initiated the program, and confessed that one day he hoped to have “a small army of young women willing to assist him in his important and interesting work.” Robinson needed the help, because the Archives Department staff was small and the collection crowded; the students likewise benefited from the practical experience.

The apprentices were assigned to research miscellaneous legislative petitions and successfully identified more than 1,200 assorted election returns, which had been flat-filed. Robinson trained the apprentices to be careful researchers and potential historians, assigned them readings in archival theory, and drilled them in the basics of handling and arranging documents. He was likely assisted in this task by Estelle Bass, who began work as an assistant in the Archives Department in 1918. (By 1925, she had been named assistant state archivist, and she would work in the Archives Department for nearly forty years). While the apprentices worked, Robinson himself assembled petitions that had “strayed into other files of papers” in the Archives. He hoped that the archival apprentice program would help make the Archives Department into “Virginia’s Historical Laboratory,” and that it would serve as a model for programs in other states.

During his long career, Robinson strove to make records more accessible. He “acted as sort of an amiable gadfly to the county and city clerks of the State,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch , which lauded his efforts to ensure that local records were stored in fireproof buildings. In 1940 Robinson witnessed the historic move of the Library’s growing collections from the Old Finance Building on Capitol Square to a new building on Capitol Street. His tenure at the Library traces the history of the Archives Department in two buildings and across three decades.

Robinson died on Sunday, October 24, 1943, and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery near his mother and his grandfather, Virginia politician Col. Charles S. Morgan. His grave is located near President’s Circle with a commanding view of the James River. Robinson’s will left “all of the residue” of his library, including his books, personal papers, and “State Library Memorabilia,” to the Virginia Historical Society.

February 11, 1876
Morgan P. Robinson is born in Richmond to John Enders Robinson and Virginia Morgan.
Morgan P. Robinson attends the University of Virginia, but leaves after suffering a severe football injury.
Morgan P. Robinson returns to the University of Virginia, where he receives his bachelor's degree, master's degree, and bachelor of laws degree.
Morgan P. Robinson practices law in Richmond.
Morgan P. Robinson works as a historian for the federal War and Navy Departments, researching Revolutionary War records in Richmond.
Morgan P. Robinson is named chief of the Archives Department at the Virginia State Library.
Morgan P. Robinson writes Virginia Counties: Those Resulting from Virginia Legislation.
Morgan P. Robinson establishes and manages an apprentice program for the Archives Department at the Virginia State Library.
Morgan P. Robinson is named Virginia's first state archivist by the General Assembly.
Morgan P. Robinson turns down an invitation to work at the Valentine Museum in Richmond. That same year, he publishes an article about the Virginia State Library's apprentice program in Historical Outlook: A Journal for Readers, Students and Teachers of History.
State archivist Morgan P. Robinson registers women to vote.
Estelle Bass, Morgan P. Robinson's assistant of seven years, is named assistant state archivist.
Morgan P. Robinson publishes the pathbreaking survey Virginia Local Public Records: Housing Conditions in the Offices of the Clerks of County and City Courts of Record.
The Virginia State Library relocates from the Old Finance Building on Capitol Square to a new building on Capitol Street.
The Society of American Archivists meets in Richmond and tours the Virginia State Library and its Archives Department.
October 24, 1943
Morgan P. Robinson dies in Richmond.
  • Egger, Rowland Andrews, ed. “Morgan P. Robinson.” Who’s Who in Public Administration Research in Virginia. Charlottesville, Virginia: Division of Publications of the Bureau of Public Administration, 1938.
  • Robinson, Morgan P. “Virginia’s Historical Laboratory.” Historical Outlook 11 (February 1920): 53–54.
  • Robinson, Morgan P. “Virginia State Library—Development of Archives Department.” William and Mary Quarterly 27 (July 1918): 68–70.
APA Citation:
McDaid, Jennifer. Morgan Poitiaux Robinson (1876–1943). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/robinson-morgan-poitiaux-1876-1943.
MLA Citation:
McDaid, Jennifer. "Morgan Poitiaux Robinson (1876–1943)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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