A late afternoon visit to Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church and cemetery, in the Afton community of Warren County, North Carolina. November 11, 2017.
A late afternoon visit to Coley Springs Missionary Baptist Church and cemetery, in the Afton community of Warren County, North Carolina. November 11, 2017.
Every May, the nation marks Memorial Day, the longstanding tradition we use to recognize fallen veterans. The holiday has its origins in “Decoration Day,” originally held in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865, when thousands of former slaves, Union soldiers, and missionaries honored Union soldiers who had died in a Confederate prison and were subsequently buried in a makeshift mass grave.
Historian David Blight recounts that after the soldiers’ proper burials, a massive parade followed. Participants decorated the graves with flowers, and clergy delivered speeches to commemorate the fallen.
My personal introduction to Decoration Day began with oral histories provided by my family’s elders. In rural Tidewater, Virginia, they told stories of Decoration Day commemorations stretching back to the 1880s. Parades began in African-American communities and ended at local black cemeteries. Families and friends honored their ancestors through song and praise, while their graves were cleaned and re-decorated.
They had good reason to pay homage: Many veterans had returned from the front lines of war to become leaders in their communities, forming masonic lodges, burial societies, schools, churches, and cemeteries. These institutions formed the foundations of post-Civil War African-American communities, giving their communities potential for the very type growth and development African-Americans had been denied in slavery. READ MORE…
Distractions that lead to unexpected learning opportunities are curious things. The scourge of writer’s block was an unwelcome visitor this week, and thumbing through newspaper archives seemed the only remedy for sheer frustration. However, an interesting obituary in the Richmond Planet caught my attention. It featured a brief summary of the life of Mr. Valentine Griffin, an aged and much respected figure in Richmond’s African American community, who passed on March 16, 1894.
“Died at his residence, 1222 Buchanan St., Friday morning, March 16, 1894, in the seventy-fourth year of his age, Mr. Valentine Griffin. Deceased was born of free parentage in Charles City County, Va., worked as hireling until he became twenty one years of age. He removed to the County of Henrico, and there remained until the beginning of the Civil War. He was pressed into the service of the Confederates in the year of 1862, and placed upon the breast works. Near the close of the year 1863, he left the Confederates and went to the Union Army, and was placed in charge of the Commissary, where he remained until the close of the war.
He was with the Sherman Division in the far South, and it was some time after the surrender before he returned.
In 1866 he removed to his late residence in this city.
He was a member of the church for forty nine years; was a member of the Fidelity Division, Sons of Temperance for twenty years; was a member of the Rising Sons of Zion for thirty eight years, and the Daughters of Messiah for twenty nine years. In all these he was a faithful member.
All who knew him loved him, and he continually added to his host of friends. The principles of honesty, integrity, and sobriety, which were inculcated in childhood, and which are peculiar to and characteristic of himself, grew stronger as he grew to manhood; but in his declining years when nature began to fail him, they remained undaunted and the same; even imperishable shall they live. When he shall have mouldered away in forgotten dust, the philanthropist of ancient or modern times could not have left a richer legacy than he, ever had they their million extended from generation to generation. In tears of regret we leave Valentine Griffin to sleep the sleep of a peaceful citizen and a devout Christian and gentlemen.”
Immediately following the obituary was a testimonial to Mr. Griffin from Spencer T. Hancock.
“Dear Sir: Excuse me if you please. I want to say a word about my friend, Mr. Valentine Griffin. For twenty years I have known well. He was a pure, honest, upright Christian man. His word was as good as his bond. In all of his dealings with me for 20 years he never one time failed to fulfill a promise. If too unwell to attend to it himself, would invariable send a son or daughter.
In speaking of his afflictions to me he would cheerfully remark: ‘I am in the hands of the Lord. He knows best, and all that He does is right.’ I cannot express my feelings as I would wish, but a pure, good Christian man has left us to reap his reward, which I feel must be great. I am past three score and ten, have had dealings with a great many all over the country and never with a more honest, upright, Christian man than Valentine Griffin. What an example the has left for his children. May they follow it. May God bless us all, and may we all pattern after the life of this good man. He was my good friend, and I am proud to say, Valentine Griffin was my friend.”
A man of African descent, born free in 19th-century Virginia, pressed into Confederate service, escaped to Union lines, Sherman’s march to the sea? As a genealogist and confirmed history buff, this was simply too tempting. I had to dig a little deeper.
Half of my paternal ancestors from Virginia were born free from slavery, though that status didn’t necessarily make their lives any easier. One of the many restrictions placed on their freedom was the passage of a law in 1793 that required free African Americans to register every year.
“Free Negroes or mulattoes shall be registered and numbered in a book to be kept by the town clerk, which shall specify age, name, color, status and by whom, and in what court emancipated. Annually the Negro shall be delivered a copy for twenty-five cents. A penalty is fixed for employing a Negro without a certificate; the Negro may be committed to jail. Every free Negro shall once in every three years obtain a new certificate.” (Black Laws of Virginia)
Forced to abide by the punitive measure, at age 21, Valentine Griffin registered with the Charles City County Court in July, 1841, along with siblings John, William Bolling, David, James, Cassandra, and Eliza Ann. His registration read:
“Ordered that it be certified that it appears to the satisfaction of the Court by the testimony of _______that Valentine Griffin (son of Reuben Griffin), a man of dark brown complexion, 21 years old the 15th of April last, five feet six inches high, scar on the fore finger of the left hand, and one or two on the back of the right hand, was born free in this County.”
Valentine’s obituary noted that he moved to Henrico County soon after his twenty-first birthday. Shifting to Henrico County documentation, I located a marriage record for Valentine and Nancy “Lewis or Adams” (per the document), on January 5, 1847. There’s evidence that several family members made the move to Henrico along with Valentine. Between 1851 and 1864, his name regularly appears on lists of free African American registrants with James and William Griffin, who may have been his brothers.
In addition, I located what may be a “free negro” certificate for Valentine’s father, Reuben, who registered at the age of eighty-two in Henrico County Court on April 3, 1848. If correct, Reuben’s date of birth would have been sometime around 1766, which would appear to match the date of birth estimates for Reuben Griffin in the 1810, 1820, 1830, and 1840 Federal Census records of Charles City County, Virginia.
By 1850, Valentine, Nancy, and son Malachi (Malachia), are documented in the Western District of Henrico County, and by 1860, are documented in Henrico’s Eastern Division, with children Joshua, Maria, and Jeremiah.
Valentine’s obituary notes that he was pressed into Confederate service in 1862. I located his Confederate service record. In it, Valentine is described as a “helper, native of Virginia, citizen of Richmond,” and “free negro.”
The use of the term “helper” is interesting; neither Valentine nor most free African American males between the ages of 18 and 50 had much choice in the matter. As the Richmond Dispatch reported on July 17, 1861, “any free negro duly detailed and notified as aforesaid, who shall fail or refuse to obey the requisition as aforesaid, shall be subject to the penalties provided by law for persons drafted from the militia and failing or refusing to obey such draft,” as per the regulations passed by the Virginia Assembly regarding “negro conscription.”
After the war, in the 1870 Census, Valentine is documented in Richmond’s Jefferson Ward, working as a tobacconist. Sons Malachi and Joshua worked in a tobacco factory, and daughters Maria and Sarah, and son Joseph were “attending school.” In 1880, the Griffins were living on N. 20th Street, with Valentine documented as a general laborer, wife Nancy keeping house, son Jeremiah working in a tobacco factory, and daughter Maria listed as a servant.
Spencer T. Hancock, who provided a written testimonial to the Richmond Planet in honor of Valentine Griffin, relayed a wish for Valentine and Nancy’s children to someday “follow his example, “ and if Mr. Hancock meant an industrious life spent serving their community, then by all accounts they did. Son Jeremiah B. Griffin eventually relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he married, and became a pastor. He passed away on March 31, 1910, as a result of a terrible trolley accident, as reported by the Philadelphia Enquirer. He’s buried in Merion Memorial Park, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
Son Rev. Joshua R. Griffin, ordained in 1887, was a shoemaker by trade. He was also a mason, member of the Common Council of Jackson Ward, and later, a trustee and president of the East End Memorial Burial Association. A small biography carried in an 1895 edition of the Richmond Planet, described him thusly:
“J. R. Griffin was born in Henrico County, October 9, 1853. He sold daily papers during the war. Later he attended night school and also the public schools for several sessions after they were established.
On account of straightened circumstances, he went to work in a tobacco factory. He conceived the idea that he could learn a trade of some kind during his leisure moments, and accordingly served an apprenticeship under Mr. Smith, a shoe-maker who did business on 25th street, and Mr. Patterson (now deceased), who lived also in Church Hill.
In 1880, he went in business for himself____. He has done business within ____blocks of the present location ____May, ’81.
He served on the Republican City ____Committee one term.
He was judge of election of the 4th Precinct, Jackson Ward in1884 in the Blaine and Cleveland campaign when more than 800 suffragans cast their ballots for their choice.
In 1886 he was elected to the City Council when the reform movement swept the city. He was true to the nominees of the caucus, through all the exciting scenes.
In 1892, he was re-elected and served faithfully. He was again elected in 1894, which term he is now serving.
His motto is “Find the right, and stick to it.”
He is a member of Friendship Lodge, No. 19, A. F.M. He is secretary and has served six years. Has served as W. Master for five years.
He is Royal Arch Mason and is now holding the position of High Priest of Mt. Olivet Commandery, Knights Templars. He is now serving a third term as Eminent Commander, being elected consecutively. He served as District Deputy Grand Master three consecutive terms, and as Senior Grand Warden of the Grand Lodge of the State of Virginia. He has been superintendent of the Fifth Street Bapt. Church Sunday School since its organization. Although last summer he tendered his resignation it was not received.
He is a man of independent action, carefully weighing facts as presented to him and fearlessly acting in accordance with his convictions. Rarely losing his temper in a controversy, he is influential with those with whom he comes in contact. He is a pleasing speaker and possesses oratorical powers of which he may well be proud.”
Joshua married twice, to first wife Minerva Payne (ca. 1854-1904), and in 1909, to Virginia A. Stewart Miles, widow of Reuben Miles, and daughter of Thomas and Mary Stewart. Rev. J. R. Griffin passed on January 30, 1914, and is buried in East End Cemetery with several family members.
Son Malachia H. Griffin was also active in social welfare and masonic organizations in Richmond, including the Independent Order of Saint Luke. Malachi passed away on February 26, 1905. At the time of his death, he’d just been promoted to the position of watchman at the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. A description of his death and funeral was featured in the March 4, 1905 edition of the Richmond Planet.
“Seldom has there been a greater funeral display than was witnessed last Tuesday afternoon at the First Baptist Church, when Mr. Washington Early and Mr. Malachi Griffin, both faithful and devoted members of the I. O. St. Luke were laid away forever. There were about seventy-five carriages in the procession. One hearse was behind the other, both being preceded be a floral car, containing the costly designs sent by friends of the deceased.
Rev. W. T. Johnson, D. D., and Rev. Z. D. Lewis, D. D., were the principal speakers at the services, while letter after letter of condolences were read from friends and organizations. It was after 6 o’clock before the cortege moved to go to Evergreen Cemetery.
A peculiar feature of the affair was that Mr. Early had been watchman at the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. His death created a vacancy and Mr. Griffin, who was apparently well was elected to succeed him. He went on duty Saturday night and on Sunday morning, he was a corpse, dying suddenly after reaching his residence on North 8th St.
Previous to this Mr. Griffin had made arrangements for draping the hall in memory of Mr. Early and it later transpired that he was draping it for himself as well. The remains of both of them ‘laid in state’ at the St. Luke’s Hall and the funeral just described was the result. Funeral Director William Isaac Johnson had charge of the remains of both of them. Mrs. Maggie L. Walker, the accomplished official of the order was present.”
According to his death record, (George) Washington Early (ca. 1858-Feb. 25, 1905), Malachia’s predecessor, was from Cumberland County, Virginia, and noted as a “night watchman.” He was unmarried at the time of his death. Mary E. Griffin, wife of Malachia H. Griffin, who passed in 1918, is also buried in Evergreen Cemetery with her husband.
One question lingers: just where are Valentine Griffin and his wife Nancy buried? There are three candidate cemeteries, Barton Heights, Evergreen, or East End Cemetery. A trip to the Library of Virginia should sort that out. Until then, I continue to marvel at how one genealogy clue (in this case, an obituary) may illuminate a glorious path of discovery. It introduced me to the Valentine Griffin Family of Richmond, a free family of color from Charles City County, Virginia, and their legacy of social and political service to Richmond’s late 18th-early 19th century African American community.
Tucked away in the oldest section of Calvary Cemetery is the family plot of Rev. Israel Lafayette Butt. He was born on May 3, 1848, at the Northwest Bridge, in Norfolk County, Virginia, just north of the intersection of Ballahack Rd. and the Chesapeake Expressway, near the North Carolina border. Born enslaved, he was the chattel property of John Fisk (ca. 1810-1870), and was known by the name of “Israel Fisk” prior to emancipation. Read more