In Season 3, Episode 4, of Not Even Past, host Brendan Wolfe considers the life of Henry Martin, a formerly enslaved man who for years worked as a janitor at the University of Virginia. Something of a mascot, something of a joke—that’s how the community treated him but underneath that was a black man just attempting to survive. Wolfe and producer Miranda Bennett interview Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, local historians working to maintain the cemetery where Martin is buried and tease out the stories of Charlottesville’s black community.
Read Martin’s life story, as told to the yearbook Corks and Curls.
Read a faculty member’s memories of Martin.
Read Martin’s obituary in the university’s Alumni Bulletin.
Read Martin’s obituary in the Charlottesville Daily Progress.
Read a newspaper report on Martin’s funeral.
Look at a slideshow of images of Martin at the university.
Click below to read a transcript of the show.
IMAGE: Henry Martin poses on the Lawn of the University of Virginia in April 1896. (University of Virginia Special Collections)
Brendan Wolfe: Corks and Curls was the University of Virginia’s yearbook. Its first issue came out in 1888, and it was published by a staff of fourteen mustachioed and mischievous editors—
One from each of the school’s fraternity houses.
The book’s tone is all over the place. In fact, it’s such a weird mix of sincerity and sarcasm that it can be difficult at times to know what’s real.
For instance, there’s an essay explaining the meaning of the yearbook’s name, Corks and Curls. The piece is so ridiculous that at least one historian has suggested that its author, Leander Fogg, was a fiction. A pseudonym.
As it happens, no student by that name was enrolled at UVA in 1887 or 1888.
So you have to take it with a grain of salt when the editors claim that Fogg, for his essay, was awarded a “chromo-lithograph of Henry Martin, the janitor.”
Was it a joke that a young scholar should receive the portrait of a janitor, and an African American janitor at that?
Chromo, by the way, meant colored. A colored portrait of a “colored” janitor.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but this was Virginia. At least ten black men were e3lynched in the state that year alone. For that matter, the historian R. L. Barnes has pointed out that the yearbook’s name “Corks and Curls” was at least in part a reference to blackface.
So maybe it was a cruel joke. A casual, rather than a violent, show of disrespect.
On the other hand, it’s also true that Henry Martin—
Who cleaned the classrooms—
Who rang the Rotunda’s bell—
Who knew the names of all the students and who held a key to every one of the buildings on Grounds—
He was one of the most beloved figures at the university.
It’s a contradiction, to be sure, but one that is at the heart of Martin’s fraught legacy at the University of Virginia.
I’m Brendan Wolfe, editor of Encyclopedia Virginia at Virginia Humanities. On this episode of NOT EVEN PAST, we consider the life of Henry Martin. Like many people of his time, his place, and his skin color, he left behind few of his own words.
And those that he did were mediated by white men—
University of Virginia men—
Men who had a stake in how Henry Martin presented himself.
In 1914, for instance, Corks and Curls, that same UVA yearbook, published Martin’s autobiography. But the editors titled it “A Dramatic Monologue,” which—
In true Cork and Curls fashion—
Fudges the distinction between fact and fiction. It becomes, in a way, a kind of minstrelsy.
In it Martin says he can’t read. “No, sir,” he says, “but I’ve had fifteen children and I made ’em all learn how to read and write.”
He goes on to suggest, though, that he may have once valued education too much.
“Politeness beats learnin’,” he says.
And yet, twenty years earlier, there was a letter to the editor in the student newspaper. Recounting how he came to work at the university, it was signed “Henry Martin.”
So which is it? Could Henry Martin read and write or couldn’t he? If he couldn’t, who wrote that letter?
Just as Leander Fogg was part fiction, so was Henry Martin.
He was who he needed to be. And that’s how he got by.
Henry Martin was born enslaved at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. And he recalled his birthdate to be July 4, 1826.
That means he was born on the day that Jefferson died—
Which serves to connect Martin symbolically to the University of Virginia’s founder, not to mention to the founding of the United States.
His master dead, Martin was sold. And years later he was hired out to a member of the Carr family who operated a boardinghouse near the university. The house sat on what’s come to be known as Carr’s Hill. It’s where the UVA president now lives.
On Carr’s Hill, Martin served meals and hauled wood. During the Civil War, he helped care for the Confederate wounded.
“During the war I nursed hundreds of them right there in that Rotunda,” he says in his yearbook autobiography.
“And when I go in it now, I ain’t studying ’bout the books I see. No, sir, I’m thinking on the soldiers that I seen laying on the floor. It didn’t make no difference how much they was suffering; they didn’t make no noise. No sir, they lay right still a-looking straight up at the ceiling.”
The image is powerful: Confederate wounded in the Rotunda, the university’s most prominent and beautiful structure. They’re quietly staring at the ceiling. And Martin is there to care for them.
It’s important to think about what such an image means, though.
About fifteen years later, a Virginia newspaper noted the recent passing of a formerly enslaved man named George Washington. He died in a soldiers home and left his estate to his former owner.
His life and death, the paper said, represented “slavery at its best.”
For white folks, so too did Henry Martin. Like the patriotically named Washington, he was closely connected to a founding father. He loved and cared for the very soldiers who fought to keep him enslaved.
Loving and loyal.
He was who he needed to be. And that’s how he got by.
After the Civil War, Henry Martin may have labored briefly on a local farm. By 1866, though, he was working at the University of Virginia.
He hauled coal at first, but within a couple of years he’d risen to the position of head janitor and bell-ringer.
From the 1820s until the Rotunda fire in 1895, the bell hung near the roof of the south porch of the Rotunda. It kept time on Grounds, its peals extending UVA’s presence into the surrounding community.
The fire started when an electric cable car in Charlottesville broke free and hit an electric line. An electrical surge traveled across town and into the large annex attached to the north side of the Rotunda, sparking the blaze.
Henry Martin may have rung the bell that day, too.
He married three times. One of his wives was named Martha Jane Bullock. In 1865 he married Patsy Washington, and together they had eight children. Six of them lived to maturity.
Martin was a tall man—six-foot-two by some accounts. “A fine specimen of manhood,” one historian wrote—
He was a man who, according to the local newspaper, was “not a typical negro in appearance.” In fact, he had “no negroid feature.”
This was meant as a compliment.
Students and faculty alike called him Uncle Henry, with equal parts affection and condescension.
Here’s what that Corks and Curls monologue has him saying:
“I’m getting too old to travel much, but I went to Washington two years ago and I ain’t no more than got off the train when a gentleman says, ‘Bless my soul! There’s Uncle Henry.’ And they all shake hands with me and don’t let me want for nothing when they see me, neither. And that’s the way it is everywhere I go.”
The story of Henry Martin is both sad and really frustrating—
Because how do we cut through how UVA saw him, how UVA needed him to be—
In order to get at something like the real man?
Is that even possible?
This is one of the tragedies of slavery in America. When the enslavement of African Americans ended in 1865, white southerners were in a pickle.
They had just lost a war—
A labor force—
Half their economy—
They had just lost their secure spot at the top of the social hierarchy—
And they looked for ways to get all those things back. Soon they came up with the Lost Cause view of the Civil War. It asserted that the start of the Civil War, as well as its result, was not their fault.
The Lost Cause also claimed that slavery had nothing to do with the war. It claimed that masters had loved their slaves. And that their slaves had loved them back.
All of these fictions helped restore white supremacy. How? Taken together, they added up to the nostalgic elevation of a society the foundation of which was the violent enslavement of other human beings.
And this elevation was not by accident. It came at exactly the moment when those formerly enslaved people were competing for political power.
By asserting that slavery was not that bad, that it was even pretty good, the Lost Cause also erased the actual experiences of African Americans. It erased the lives of people like Henry Martin—
Substituting in their place men like the Uncle Henry we know from Corks and Curls.
Going back to Corks and Curls—
To that essay about the meaning of the yearbook’s name—
We don’t know for sure whether the student Leander Fogg was real, let alone whether he won a chromolithograph of Henry Martin.
But we can see the way in which Uncle Henry seems to have existed in this strange in-between space:
Something of a mascot, something of a joke, and yet always loyal.
According to the local paper, he “was the personification of the qualities that go to make the faithful servant.”
According to the UVA professor David M. R. Culbreth, he “knew his part in life and played it well.” He “fully recognized that he was neither a professor, a student, nor a white man.” He was, in Culbreth’s estimation, just a bell-ringer, and “to serve was his delight.”
It is in honor of this fraught legacy that the University of Virginia laid a plaque near its chapel in 2012. The plaque tells us that Martin “was beloved by generations of faculty, students, and alumni, and he remembered them all when they returned for visits.”
He was, always and in the end, who he needed to be.
And that’s how he got by.
I met Edwina St. Rose after a late night of detective work.
Edwina St. Rose: You see my eyes. They’re so red because that’s what I do all day and half the night.
BW: I was trying to solve a mystery just yesterday, just like what you’re talking about. It went nowhere.
ESR: Right I know but it’s fun trying to solve it. And then sometimes I get so involved and I say well wait a minute why am I doing this. I couldn’t remember. I say, why am I here? I couldn’t figure out how I got there. Then you look and its midnight and you’re still looking for people.
BW: That’s right. I’ve been down those rabbit holes.
She’s looking for the stories of people who were buried alongside Henry Martin in a cemetery one mile away from UVA.
Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond: We are at the Daughters of Zion cemetery located at the corner of Oak Street and south 1st street. I’m Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond and I’m one of the members of the Preservers of Daughters of Zion cemetery.
ESR: And I’m Edwina St. Rose, also a preserver.
BW: Bernadette and Edwina are piecing together stories of African Americans who built and sustained Charlottesville and UVA but without much recognition. Many of them were buried in the Daughters of Zion Cemetery.
ESR: The Daughters of Zion Cemetery was established in 1873. At that point they wanted to have a cemetery of their own even though there was even though there are some African-Americans that were buried in Oakwood Cemetery in this one section. There was segregated area in the Oakwood Cemetery.
BW: How did you take this cemetery under your wing?
BWH: Well, I have relatives buried here. And I have memories as a child growing up coming here Memorial Day to place flowers at my ancestors’ graves. So that’s what really got me interested in the preservation and the restoration of the cemetery. This place was very overgrown. Members of the Daughters of Zion, a missionary group, they had died out and so there were no people except family members to come and preserve it and keep it landscaped and cleared out. But over the years, family members died out or moved away and there were not people here to take care of it. There were like little splashes of color you could see throughout the cemetery where I guess families had either planted rose bushes or some type of flower but you really couldn’t see the tombstones. You didn’t know what was really beyond the area you were in. We would dress up in jeans and long shirts and put hats on so that we could go to our plot and cut through the shrubs and all kinds of growth that occurred from year to year to be able to go over to the plot and to place flowers there.
ESR: I think I guess in a former life I was an investigator cause to me it’s like you’re looking for something, you’re trying to solve a mystery and you’re fact-finding. So I love that. You’re never certain because we have run across instances where we have a death certificate indicating that the person is buried here but when you talk to the family they said oh no, we decided against burying them here because it was so overgrown and they are buried across the street at Oakwood. And we have the situation of Henry Martin where we are fairly certain that he’s buried here but he has a marker at Oakwood Cemetery. I think when his wife died, the family erected a marker and put his name on it. So it’s a little challenging to determine where and who are buried here.
I knew his daughter. She was my grandmother’s best friend. So I had that connection with him. So I’ve always felt like I’ve known him and he was also related. So, I was very happy that we were able to establish that he is in this cemetery.
BW: Why do you feel confident that he’s here and not there? What are the records that point you to?
ESR: The newspaper account. It describes the little cemetery and so we’re fairly certain. And then their relatives, the Fleming relatives, are buried here and we think he would be buried with those relatives.
Well right now, it’s about 244 on the list of known burials. There are an additional 10 or more people that I have not put on the list yet but I’m fairly certain that they are here. It’s just a matter of you try to check, double check, and triple check and try to be as certain as you can that they are actually here. And if you find out that there is just nowhere else for them to be, you’ll put them on the list. But once you find out that they had a funeral at one of the local churches and if they’re not over in Oakwood, you think they must be here if they were buried at a particular time.
Normally if they were buried after 1912, we can normally find a death certificate. Prior to that we have to rely on the newspaper articles. There are some records that J.F. Bell Funeral Home has. I think they started in 1917. We can also compare them with the records of the people who are buried in Oakwood because this cemetery was known as Daughters of Zion, Society, Samaritan, Oak Hill, and various other names. So it’s kind of hard to determine when people are actually buried here if there are no markers.
All the records are lost and we’ve not been able to find them anywhere. We’re still hoping that someone, somewhere has them in their attic or wherever and we can have hopefully a plat of where people are buried. That would be wonderful. But until then we have to continue to try to find out on our own where people are located.
BW: Somebody’s attic has this.
BWH: Yes, that’s what we think.
ESR: But that’s why we’re using Facebook to sort of outreach to the communities. We’re hoping that if we can just keep our name out there that people will become interested. If they have an African American ancestor or even someone who worked for their family at some point in time. They may be able to give us information that would be so helpful. This is a place where we can tell the stories of the people that are buried here and at the same time we tell the stories of their contributions to Charlottesville and how they helped build Charlottesville and what they did while they were alive.
BWH: What comes to my mind is perhaps the indignities you suffered in life were not the same in death. That you had dignity when you were buried because you had a spot that you chose to be and so that sort of gives a lot of value to your sense of who were as a person and your value and your worth. That’s how I look at it because I really do think those were some very difficult times in which most of the people here were living and to be able to have the respect and dignity in death means that your life mattered, that you were valued and you were an important person.
BW: That was Edwina St. Rose and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond. They’re both members of the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion cemetery. If you want to learn more about their research, visit their facebook page facebook.com/daughtersofzioncemetery.
To read more about Henry Martin, go to EncyclopediaVirginia.org.
Music in this episode is by Blue Dot Sessions.
This podcast was produced by Miranda Bennett.