Tag Archives: Virginia

Richmond, Virginia: A sketch of the life of Valentine Griffin (1820-1894)

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.

Richmond Planet, April 7, 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.

Richmond Planet, April 7, 1894

“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.

1854 Free Negro Tax List, Library of Virginia

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.

Free negro certificate for Reuben Griffin, 1848, Henrico County Court, 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.

1877 Beers map, Jefferson Ward, Richmond, Va. Library of Congress

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:

The Richmond Planet. Date unknown

“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.

Gravestone of Malachia H. Griffin, Evergreen Cemetery. April 6, 2013. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

 

Independent Order of Saint Luke building, Richmond, Virginia. January 22, 2015. Photo: Nadia K. Orton

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Charles City County, Civil War, Georgia, In Memoriam, Memorials to Civil War Veterans, Obituary Files, Richmond, Slavery, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia

Warren County, North Carolina – Earth Day, 2017: Trees, branches, and documenting family roots

IMG_20170422_154125283 - Copy (2)

Warren County, North Carolina

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April 22, 2017 · 9:45 pm

Norfolk, VA: Profiles in Zinc – White Bronze Markers of Norfolk’s African American Cemeteries, Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation

 

Zinc Marker Norfolk Copyright Nadia K. Orton

White Bronze Marker, Calvary Cemetery

 

A tour of Norfolk’s historical African American cemeteries is a veritable walk through history. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Many historic cemeteries are notable for their funerary art, but a great majority of African American cemeteries do not contain such features. Families simply couldn’t afford them, due to the economic deprivations of generations of enslavement, and subsequent systemic segregation of the Jim Crow era. To maintain cultural traditions, African American families marked their ancestors’ graves as best they could, with comparatively modest headstones of granite, marble, or brick, or handmade markers of stone, wood, flowers, or concrete.

Of particular interest in Norfolk’s black cemeteries are the monuments made of a material known as “white bronze.” Composed almost entirely of pure zinc, these rare markers were popular between the late 19th and early 20th century, produced by the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  READ MORE

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Norfolk, VA: Soldier for Christ and Community, Rev. Israel LaFayette Butt, Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation

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

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Filed under Civil War, Norfolk, Richmond, Slavery, Stories in Stone, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, Uncategorized, Virginia

Portsmouth, VA: Unmarked no longer

Portsmouth Headstone Copyright Nadia Orton

Unmarked no longer! We finally received the headstone to mark the gravesite of Cpl Edmond Riddick (ca. 1845-1926), a native of Southampton County, Virginia, and member of the 36th Regiment, U. S. Colored Troops. His grave had been unmarked for over ninety years, but now it is done, thanks to the assistance of the Department of Veterans Affairs. He served his community faithfully and selflessly for decades, as a long-time member of Zion Baptist Church, and commander of the local post of the Grand Army of the Republic. He was the father of educator William E. Riddick, whose well-known philosophy was “If you can make it at Norcom, you can make it anywhere.” We’re not related to him, but paid for the installation anyway, to avoid delays. Happy to have been able to serve this worthy citizen of Portsmouth.

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January 28, 2017 · 5:55 pm

Portsmouth, VA: Restoring dignity to a Civil War veteran’s gravesite

Gravestone Brinkley Portsmouth Copyright Nadia Orton

I first documented Pvt. Henry Brinkley’s gravesite in 2010. Born enslaved in Suffolk, he enlisted on January 1, 1864 at Fort Monroe, and engaged in action at various sites in Tidewater including Petersburg, part of the campaign that led directly to the liberation of Richmond on April 3, 1865. He mustered out in 1866. I always felt a connection to Pvt. Brinkley, and wanted to take care of his grave; he’d survived the Siege of Petersburg, while some of our USCT ancestors had not. Sadly, during a 2013 research visit, I noticed his headstone had been hit by a car (the cemetery gates can’t be locked at night.) Horrified, I made an attempt to find a descendant (current rules stipulate that a living descendant’s permission is required), but in this instance, made glacial progress. Over time, I got really tired of seeing Henry’s broken headstone. It looked terrible, and I didn’t want to fail him, so I contacted the Dept. of Veterans Affairs with a humble plea…and the gravestone was replaced! Lookin’ good, Pvt. Brinkley! RIP

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September 16, 2016 · 5:39 pm

A Personal Journey Through African-American Cemeteries – National Trust for Historic Preservation

Copyright Nadia Orton

At my great-great-great-grandfather Alexander Orton, 10th U. S. Colored Infantry, at Grove Baptist Church Cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia.

I’ll never forget the exciting moment when I found the gravesite of Alexander Orton, my paternal great-great-great-grandfather. Born in 1842 in Virginia, he was a Civil War veteran and member of the 10th Regiment, U. S. Colored Infantry.

Finding his last resting place was part of a genealogy project I’ve been pursuing for nine years now, keeping a long-standing promise made to an elder. Diagnosed with a serious chronic illness as a teenager, I needed a kidney transplant soon after college. My great-aunt gathered her entire church congregation to support my transplant fund, but held a lingering concern about our family legacy.

“Do not let our history die,” she told my father shortly before her passing in 2007. To honor her last wish, I vowed to make the most of my second chance and do my part in documenting our family history.

I’ve traced my father’s ancestry to 1630 in Virginia, and my mother’s to 1770 in North Carolina. Some of my ancestors were born free, while others were enslaved. Like Alexander, some enlisted in the Union Army to fight for freedom in the Civil War. They’d founded four African-American communities in Tidewater, Virginia, along with masonic lodges, banks, churches, and schools. They were oystermen, carpenters, farmers, teachers, Pullman porters, and teamsters at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. READ MORE

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Filed under Baltimore, Chesapeake, Civil War, Durham County, Florida, Franklin County, Gates County, Georgia, Hertford County, Isle of Wight County, Maryland, New Hanover County, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Pasquotank County, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Richmond, Slavery, South Carolina, Stories in Stone, Suffolk, Tombstone Tales, U. S. Colored Troops, Vance County, Virginia, Warren County, Wilmington

Recovering and Preserving African American Cemeteries – Preservation Leadership Forum, National Trust for Historic Preservation

Pinewood Cemetery COPYRIGHT Nadia Orton

Pinewood Cemetery, Wilmington, North Carolina

The reverence attached to cemeteries and burial grounds, which have long been considered sacred sites, is an example of enduring Africanisms and cultural tradition in the African American community. Burial grounds have always been regarded as places where ancestors could be properly honored and provided with the dignity, care, and respect in death that had often been denied them in life.

Interest in the study of my family tree has led me to over a dozen cemeteries throughout Tidewater Virginia and North Carolina, and helped reconstruct a family legacy spanning over 400 years. Cemeteries offer an important, tangible connection to history allowing closer interpretation of days past than most other sources can. Genealogists and family historians have long recognized the benefit of cemeteries in the study of family history and an increasing popular interest in genealogy has led to an increased focus on them.  READ MORE

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Protected: Isle of Wight County, Virginia: Following family roots

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Filed under Civil War, Isle of Wight County, Norfolk County, North Carolina, Portsmouth, Slavery, Virginia

Surry County, Virginia: The slave and tenant house at Bacon’s Castle

Slave/tenant house at Bacons Castle, Surry County, October 6, 2012

Slave/tenant house at Bacon’s Castle, Surry County, October 6, 2012

 

Photos of the slave and tenant house at Bacon’s Castle (ca. 1665). We had the opportunity to visit during an event a few years ago. I’d suffered a bilateral lower leg fracture some months prior, so those present would remember my fashionable orthopedic boot. Physical discomfort aside, it was an amazing experience. There were a few descendants of slaves and former tenant workers present. One descendant, Lucy, recounted memories of growing up at Bacon’s Castle. Her family had once lived in a similar structure, and she could vividly remember the sound of the rain on the building’s tin roof. It’s in these stories that history becomes a tangible thing, and connects with our present day.

A historical wayside marker in front of the house reads:

This building was first constructed in 1829 by the Cocke family, descendants of Arthur Allen. There was a single entry door and a porch. In 1834 there were eighty slaves working on the property, some of whom were probably housed in this building. The Hankins family, who owned the property during the Civil War, added an addition and possibly removed the porch in 1849. The floor plan today matches what would have been present in the late 1800s.

In the 1940s, several families were still living on the Bacon’s Castle property. The slave house was wired for electricity and a small kitchen added to the back of the building. Although three or four enslaved families would have lived here prior to the Civil War, the interior was modified to accommodate only one or two tenants after the war. The kitchen addition was removed in the 1990s, returning the building to its antebellum appearance.

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Bacons castle slave/tenant dwelling, 2012 Orton

 

Bacon's Castle Historical Marker, Colonial Trial, Surry. June 9, 2012

Bacon’s Castle historical marker, Colonial Trial, Surry County, Virginia. June 9, 2012

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Chesapeake, Civil War, Slavery, Surry County, The Descendants Corner, U. S. Colored Troops, Virginia