ENTRY

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. (1840–1888)

SUMMARY

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. was an African American civic leader and entrepreneur who invented an early file holder and cofounded The People’s Advocate, Alexandria’s first Black newspaper. Born free, Pinn served as a scout and wagoner for the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865). After the war, he began a career in politics and public service, becoming one of the first two African Americans elected to local office in Alexandria and serving as magistrate, member of the city council, and county supervisor. He twice ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates. His 1880 patent for a file holder made him one of the few nineteenth-century Black Virginians to receive a patent. In his final years, Pinn moved to Washington, D.C., where he owned and operated a barbershop near the Capitol. Pinn died of an apparent homicide on March 26, 1888, at the age of forty-seven.

Early Years

Pinn was born free on November 6, 1840, in Prince William County. His father, Howison Pinn, was born free in Fauquier County, and his mother, Pattie Stokes Pinn, was free but had been enslaved as a child by the Lewis family in Prince William County. In 1843, members of the Lewis family sought to enslave and sell Traverse and his siblings. His parents petitioned the court for confirmation of the children’s freedom, and on May 15, 1845, a judge decreed that they “were born free, and are free.” In 1846, Howison Pinn bought 130 acres of farmland in Prince William County at public auction, and the 1860 U.S. Census lists Traverse as working as a farmhand there.

On the morning of July 21, 1861, Confederate troops on their way to the First Battle of Manassas trampled the Pinns’ cornfield, located two miles from the fighting. After the Virginia General Assembly passed a February 1862 law permitting the impressment of free African Americans to work as laborers, Traverse Pinn was forced to work in Confederate field hospitals in Manassas and Richmond.

In 1863, Pinn escaped to Union-controlled territory, where, according to a later account from a former Union soldier, he served as a scout “who rendered signal service to our army.”

Alexandria During the Civil War

By the autumn of 1863, Pinn was working as a wagoner for the Union Army’s Quartermaster Department, moving supplies in Alexandria. In May 1864, Pinn purchased a house on Duke Street in The Bottoms, an African American neighborhood in the city.

On October 3, 1866, Pinn married Susan Beckley, who was from a prominent free Black family in Alexandria. They raised four children: Norman (Pinn’s son from a previous relationship), Howard, Traverse Jr., and Sada. By the spring of 1868, Pinn had joined the African American Lone Star Baseball Club. The 1870 U.S. Census lists Pinn as working as a barber out of his home on Duke Street.

Political Career

On May 25, 1870, at age twenty-nine, Pinn became one of the first African Americans elected to office in Alexandria when he was chosen to serve as magistrate for the city’s Fourth Ward, where he was responsible for administering justice for minor crimes. In September 1870, ex-governor Henry Horatio Wells and the other Republican delegates to the Virginia State Convention tasked Pinn with canvassing for votes in rural African American communities for the upcoming national election. He later testified in the U.S. House of Representatives that members of the Conservative Party had threatened to kill him in Haymarket in Prince William County and in Wolftown in Madison County. “I was notified through a gentleman … not to come there; that if I did I would not get away from there alive,” he testified. Despite such threats, Pinn persevered in his efforts: when he found that he “could not hold a meeting in any of the villages, I called a meeting at a man’s house.”

In May 1871, Pinn was elected to the Alexandria City Council, making him the first African American elected to two different offices in Alexandria—and the only person to hold that distinction for more than a century. Pinn worked to reform the city’s criminal justice, economic, public health, and educational systems. In October 1871, Pinn tried but failed to persuade the city council to adopt a resolution to desegregate train cars. He had more success with a resolution to ensure that people incarcerated in the Alexandria jail had access to physicians. Pinn won reelection to the city council in May 1872.

An October 1871 Alexandria County convention unanimously accepted Pinn’s resolution recommending that Republican delegates “make nominations from brain and sound principles, and not high birth, nativity, personal favor, or the number of dollars.” In March 1872, Pinn and House of Delegates member George Lewis Seaton helped establish a branch of the Freedmen’s Savings Bank in Alexandria. In December 1872, Pinn and fellow Fourth Ward Republican Alfred W. Harris drafted an unsuccessful petition to the U.S. Senate to rejoin Alexandria with Washington, D.C., a move that they believed would provide low-income Alexandrians with additional services.

By early 1873, Pinn had found employment with the U.S. Treasury, and he was disqualified from serving on the Alexandria City Council as a consequence of President Ulysses S. Grant’s executive order barring federal appointees from holding local office. In March 1873, Pinn was elected to serve on the board of the Colored Odd Fellows Joint Stock Company. In the spring of 1874, Pinn and Alexandria County sheriff R. D. Ruffin organized a citywide event to commemorate the death of U.S. senator Charles Sumner, a famed abolitionist. The following August, Pinn was elected to the board of the local chapter of the National Labor Council, which advocated for affordable transportation and free education for low-wage workers.

In October 1875, Pinn ran for the Virginia House of Delegates but lost the election to a Conservative Party candidate by 322 votes out of 4,832 total votes cast.

On April 14, 1876, Pinn and John Wesley Cromwell cofounded The People’s Advocate, with Cromwell serving as editor and Pinn working as business manager and publisher. According to historian Henry L. Suggs, the Advocate was “one of the largest, perhaps the first full-size black weekly.” The paper was delivered to readers across the state and beyond and tackled controversial topics that were often left out of the white press, including stories about violence against Black voters in the South. Though the Advocate was popular, subscription payments lagged, and the paper ceased publication after five months. In 1879, Cromwell moved the paper to Washington, D.C., where it found a more solid financial footing and published for another decade.

Pinn purchased a small farmhouse in rural Alexandria County and worked for the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Interior Department as a clerk and messenger. In the spring of 1879, Pinn was elected to the first of his two consecutive terms as Alexandria County supervisor, representing the Jefferson District. Pinn was one of the few African Americans to win election in Alexandria County after the 1876 imposition of the poll tax. Pinn again ran for the House of Delegates in October 1879 but dropped out of the race after the late entry of a popular Independent Party candidate doomed his chances.

Inventor

On August 17, 1880, Pinn received a patent for a file holder, making him one of the few nineteenth-century Black Virginians to receive a patent. Previously, stacks of records had been tied together with string; Pinn’s invention, which predated the metal filing cabinet by two decades, improved document storage by using wooden slats held together by metal fasteners. In 1882, the U.S. Treasury Department and U.S. War Department contracted with Pinn to purchase his file holders.

Later Years

Pinn remained active in local, state, and national politics through the mid-1880s. In the summer of 1881, he was selected a third time to represent Alexandria at a Republican state convention. At a meeting of Alexandria Republicans, Pinn helped adopt resolutions to support Readjuster candidates in the 1882 national elections.

In May 1883, he and other African American Republican leaders protested Frederick Douglass’s call for an African American convention in Washington, D.C., arguing that it should take place somewhere in the South, where Black civil rights were increasingly under threat. As a result, the convention was relocated to Louisville, Kentucky.

In February 1884, a popular African American newspaper, The Washington Bee, called Pinn an “old and tried Republican” with “good mettle” and suggested that he run for the U.S. Congress. After Democrat Grover Cleveland won the presidency that year, Pinn and other African American leaders met with U.S. senator John S. Barbour seeking assurance that “the legal, civil and other rights of their race in their State would be recognized by the democrats.” Barbour and others nevertheless began to put in place a system of African American disfranchisement and discrimination that resulted in nearly a century of white Democratic domination in Virginia. In early 1885, Pinn sold his farm shortly and moved with his family to Washington, D.C.; by the end of 1885, Pinn had been removed from his position with the U.S. Treasury.

In 1886, after a brief stint as a security guard, Pinn and an associate opened Pinn and Payne’s Barber Shop one block from the U.S. Capitol. The establishment catered to African American customers, including prominent business leaders from Washington, D.C., and New York.

Pinn died on March 26, 1888, at the age of forty-seven. According to an oral history from Pinn’s niece, Pinn was shot twice in the abdomen on a road near his family’s farm in Prince William County and was buried on his parents’ property.

MAP
TIMELINE
November 6, 1840

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is born free in Prince William County to Howison Pinn and Pattie Stokes Pinn.

May 15, 1845

A Fauquier County judge rules that Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. and his siblings are free persons after their mother’s former enslavers try to enslave them.

1862

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is forced by Confederate officers to work in field hospitals in Manassas and Richmond.

1863–1865

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is employed as a scout and wagoner for the Union army’s Quartermaster Department in Alexandria.

May 10, 1864

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. purchases a home on Duke Street in The Bottoms neighborhood of Alexandria’s Fourth Ward.

October 3, 1866

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. marries Susan Beckley in Alexandria.

Spring 1868

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. joins other African American leaders in Alexandria to form the Lone Star Baseball Club.

June 14, 1869

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is elected to serve as vice president of the Fourth Ward Republican Club.

May 25, 1870

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is elected magistrate of the Fourth Ward.

September 22, 1870

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. serves as a delegate at the Republican state convention in Richmond.

March 6, 1871

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. testifies to the U.S. House of Representatives that members of the Conservative Party threatened to kill him when he was canvassing for the Republican Party

May 25, 1871

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is elected to Alexandria City Council.

March 14, 1872

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. and others establish the Alexandria branch of the Freedmen’s Savings Bank.

May 25, 1872

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is reelected to Alexandria City Council.

1873

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is disqualified from serving on the Alexandria City Council after President Ulysses S. Grant bars federal appointees from holding local office.

March 18, 1873

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is elected to the board of Colored Odd Fellows Joint Stock Company.

July 31, 1873

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is elected delegate and secretary at the Republican Party’s state convention in Lynchburg.

March 1874

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. and others organize an event in Alexandria to commemorate the death of abolitionist U.S. senator Charles Sumner.

August 24, 1874

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is elected to the board of the local chapter of the National Labor Council.

Spring 1875

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is appointed Seventh District Internal Revenue storekeeper for Virginia.

November 3, 1875

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. runs for Virginia House of Delegates, losing to a Conservative Party candidate by 322 votes.

April 14, 1876

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. cofounds The People’s Advocate with John Wesley Cromwell and serves as the paper’s business manager and publisher for five months.

June 1876

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. moves to a farmhouse in the Jefferson District of Alexandria County.

May 25, 1879

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is elected county supervisor for the Jefferson District of Alexandria County.

October 20, 1879

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is again nominated for the Virginia House of Delegates but withdraws before the election.

August 17, 1880

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. patents a file holder.

March 17, 1881

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is appointed assistant messenger for the U.S. Treasury Department.

May 25, 1881

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. is reelected as an Alexandria County supervisor and serves as vice chair of the Board of Supervisors.

May 1883

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. and other African American leaders persuade Frederick Douglass to hold an African American convention in Louisville, Kentucky, rather than Washington, D.C.

January 1885

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. and other African American leaders meet with U.S. senator John S. Barbour of Virginia to ask whether Democrats will protect African American civil rights.

1886

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. becomes a co-owner and barber at Pinn and Payne’s Barber Shop.

March 26, 1888

Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. dies, apparently as a result of homicide.

FURTHER READING
  • Moore, James T. “Black Militancy in Readjuster Virginia, 1879–1883.” Journal of Southern History 41, no. 2 (1975): 167–186.
  • Suggs, Henry L., ed. The Black Press in the South, 1865–1979. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Pinn, Travis A.. Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. (1840–1888). (2023, August 08). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/traverse-benjamin-pinn-sr-1840-1888.
MLA Citation:
Pinn, Travis A.. "Traverse Benjamin Pinn Sr. (1840–1888)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (08 Aug. 2023). Web. 13 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2023, August 09
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