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 .
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
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.
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 that members of the 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. 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 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 , 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.
On August 17, 1880,, 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.
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 supportcandidates 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.