I’ve written of Joseph R. Holmes’ death. What of his life? The details are sketchy and poorly documented. Nonetheless, here is what I know.
- Joseph R. Holmes was born circa 1838, probably in Charlotte County, Virginia. His parents are listed as Payton and Nancy Holmes on his death certificate. I don’t know what the “R” stood for.
- According to Luther Porter Jackson, Joseph had a brother named Watt. According to my great-aunt Julia Allen Holmes, he also had a brother named Jasper Holmes, born circa 1841, who was her grandfather.
- The “Inventory and Appraisal of the Personal Estate of Capt. John H. Marshall,” filed in Charlotte in June 1857, lists 20 “Negroes,” including Joe, $600; Peyton, $900; and Nancy, $1000. There’s no Jasper. Nor are there any children bearing the names of Nancy’s younger children, some of whom who were born before 1857. Thus, though I’m tempted, I can’t draw any conclusions about whether these enslaved people are Joseph R. Holmes and his parents.
- Joseph probably was last owned by John H. Marshall’s son, judge Hunter Holmes Marshall, whose plantation “Roxabel” was (and still is) located about five miles west of Charlotte Court House.
- Joseph learned to read and write most likely as a child, as he exhibited a well-formed penmanship when in his mid-20s.
- He was trained as a shoemaker or cobbler. In Negro Office-Holders in Virginia 1865-1895, Luther Porter Jackson
asserted that brother Watt was also a shoemaker and that Joseph was “hired out by his master to engage in shoemaking by traveling from plantation to plantation.”
- However, according to “Shooting in Charlotte Court House,” published in volume VIII, number 2, of The Southsider quarterly, Joseph served as a butler for Marshall, then became a cobbler and opened a shop on the Kings Highway (now U.S. Route 360) near Dupree’s old store.
- Some time around 1865, Joseph married Mary Clark, born about 1849 to Simon and Jina Clark of Charlotte County. The couple had at least four children: Payton (1865), Louisa (1866), Joseph (1867) and William H. Holmes (August 1868).
- Tax records filed in Charlotte Court House for 1866 list Joseph R. Holmes in District #2 (T.M. Jones, revenue commissioner), paying one black poll tax, as well as taxes on four hogs valued at $5 and $20 worth of real property. I have not found a deed for this property.
- In 1867, Joseph R. Holmes was elected to represent Charlotte and Halifax Counties at Virginia’s Constitutional Convention. In A List of the Officers and Members of the Virginia Constitutional Convention, Holmes is
described: “… Jos. R. Holmes. Colored. Shoemaker. Can read and write a little. Ignorant. Bad character.” [This comes from an unfortunately unattributed photocopy of a page from a scholarly journal. I’ll hunt down the source.]
- Charlotte County tax records for 1867 show Joseph R. Holmes living at A.J. Johnson’s in District #2, paying only a black poll tax. (This seems to indicate that he was landless and working as either a sharecropper or tenant farmer.)
- In 1867, he registered to vote at Clements’ in Charlotte Court House. (So did Watt Carter, who may have been Joseph’s stepfather.)
- On 2 May 1868, Joseph Holmes purchased 11 1/2 acres in Charlotte County from A.J. Johnson for $92. The metes and bounds: “beginning at a corner on John R. Baileys on the Roanoke Valley Extension Rail Road marked as the plat (A) and thence along the Road South 15 W 22 poles to a corner at B. thence off the Road a New line S 70 E 17 poles to corner chestnut oak S 25 E 46 poles to pointers on John P. Dickersons line, thence his line N 55 E 44 poles to pointers on William H. Fulkers line thence N 57 W 80 poles to the beginning.”
- An entry for August 1868 in the Charlotte County birth register shows a son William H. born to Mary and Joe Holmes. Joe’s occupation was listed as “radicalism.”
- A letter Joseph wrote on 22 August 1868 is preserved among Freedmen’s Bureau records. In it, he requested of Thomas Leahey, Assistant Subassistant Commissioner at the Bureau’s office in Farmville, Virginia, that a school be established in the Keysville area. The plea was effective, and there’s a 24 November letter in the records from Leahey to Holmes enclosing vouchers for rent for the school, as well as triplicate leases for “Mrs. Jenkins'” signature. “I send them in your charge (believing you call to the D.O. daily) in order there may be no delay.”
- An anonymous article in the 23 November 1868 Richmond Whig, signed “Roanoke,” reported a visit to Charlotte County and, among comments about African-Americans and politics, stated: “They seem to be realizing the fact that politics won’t fill their empty stomachs nor clothe their naked bodies, and those who have been idle during the summer and did not make hay while the sun shone, meet with no sympathy and are left out ‘in the cold.’ I passed by the shop of our former representative, ‘Hon.’ Joseph Holmes, a few days ago; he was busily at work pegging away at a pair of boots. I told him I thought he was much better at making a boot than a constitution; and as he was anxious to make a pair for me, I believe, he agreed with me.”
- On 3 May 1869, Joseph was shot and killed in front of Charlotte County Courthouse by a group of men that included John M. Marshall, Griffin S. Marshall, William Boyd and M.C. Morris. The Marshalls were sons of his former master.
- In the 1870 census of Walton, Charlotte County: Wat Carter, 70, wife Nancy, 70, and children Mary, 23, Liza, 17, and Wat, 16; plus Payton, 4, Louisa, 3, and Joseph Homes, 2, and Fannie Clark, 60. I strongly suspect that Nancy Carter was Joseph Holmes’ mother and Wat, his stepfather. The young children are clearly Joseph’s. Mary may have been his half-sister, but more likely was his widow.) The younger Wat is likely the “Watt” referred to L.P. Jackson’s book.
- Joseph Holmes, age 12, son of Joe and Mary Holmes, died 11 March 1880 in Charlotte County.
- H.C. Williamson’s Memoirs of a Statesman: Being an Account of the Events in the Career of a Mississippi Journalist-Legislator were published by descendant Fred Thompson (actor and failed Republican presidential candidate) in 1964. In reminiscing about his youth, Williamson wrote: “Among the bolder of this presumptuous class of Negroes in my native county was one named Joe Holmes, a saddle-colored shoe cobbler, who occupied a small hut on the side of the public road a few miles from our home. Holmes aspired to the office of representative in the State Legislature and insolently asserted his equality ‘with any white man.’ Feeling that he was protected in his new-found rights by his white allies, he denounced, in public harangues throughout the county, the men who had so lately been the masters and believed themselves secure in control of that government which they had constructed and hitherto maintained. Such a condition prevailing over all the Southern States prompted the organization and active operations of that secret society of native, white southern men known as the Ku Klux Klan, which proved to be the salvation of the remnant left of southern homes and southern civilization. I remember passing Holmes’ shop one dae day and seeing nailed to the door the picture of crossbones and skull (the sign of the Ku Klux Klan, as I afterwards learned). But this did not deter him in the least. A short time thereafter, he fell in the Court House door, pierced with a leaden messenger of death from an unknown source, as he was entering to make an inflammatory speech to a horde of Negroes assembled.”
Birth, death, marriage and court records at Charlotte County Courthouse, Charlotte Court House, Virginia; other records as noted. Thanks, as always, for the incalculably valuable assistance of Kathy Liston.