Births Deaths Marriages, Enslaved People, Maternal Kin, Oral History, Politics, Rights, Virginia

A great day in Charlotte Court House.

The freshly unveiled marker.

“First, I’d like to recognize my family, Joseph R. Holmes’ family, here today — including three of his brother Jasper’s great-granddaughters. Some here may remember their uncle, Dr. J. Maxwell Allen, who practiced dentistry in Charlotte Court House. His sister, my great-aunt Julia, first told me of Joseph Holmes when I was an inquisitive teenager digging for my roots. She did not know the details — only that her grandfather’s brother Joseph, born enslaved, had been killed because of his political activity. That was enough, though, to set this journey in motion. 

My remarks: 

“On behalf of the Holmes-Allen family, I extend thanks to all who made this day possible. So many in Charlotte County gave in so many ways — time, money, influence, prayer (look at God!) — and we are profoundly grateful for your embrace and support of this project. “We are also grateful to Kathy Liston. When I reached out to Kathy nearly ten years ago, seeking help to find the truth of Joseph Holmes’ life, I did not even dream of this day. I first visited Charlotte Court House in 2012 at Kathy’s invitation. She took me to Joseph Holmes’ homestead; to Roxabel, the plantation on which he may have been enslaved; to the school at Keysville whose establishment he championed; and finally to this courthouse, to the very steps on which he bled and died. The historical marker we reveal today stands as a testament to Kathy’s persistence and insistence, her values and vision, her energy and expertise, and we cannot thank her enough. 

“The beautiful story of Joseph R. Holmes’ life, and the terrible story of his death, were all but forgotten in Charlotte County — suppressed by some, repressed by others. This is an all too common phenomenon of American history. Though Africans arrived in this very state in 1619, the contributions of African Americans to the building of this country — both literally and metaphorically — are seldom recalled, much less memorialized. Black communities dealt with their trauma by hiding it away, refusing to speak of their loss and pain. It is never too late, however, to reclaim our heroes. 

“For hundreds of years, the Akan people of Ghana have used symbols, called adinkra, as visual representations of concepts and proverbs. The word Sankofa, often depicted as a bird looking toward its tail, means ‘go back and get it.’ The broader concept of Sankofa urges us to know our pasts as we move forward.Today, we have gone back for Joseph R. Holmes. In the shadow of Confederate monuments, we shine a light on his works; we affirm his life; we reclaim his legacy. As long as we speak his name, he lives forever. Will you say it with me? 

“Joseph R. Holmes. Joseph R. Holmes. Joseph R. Holmes. 

“Your family remembers. Your community remembers. We honor your life and sacrifice. 

“Thank you.”

(c) Ray Richardson

For press coverage, please see articles in the Washington PostRichmond Times-Dispatch, and Cardinal News.

Maternal Kin, Newspaper Articles, Oral History, Photographs, Virginia

Jasper Maxwell Allen.

My mother tells a story: the War was on, and her father had been sent overseas to serve. His older brother had come to Newport News for a visit, and the family gathered at her grandparents’ house. “We were in Grandma’s kitchen. I must have been about 5,” she says. “I remember it like yesterday. Of course, I knew he was a dentist, but to me he was just Uncle Mac. And I was telling everybody that I had a loose tooth, and he said, ‘Oh, let me see it.’ He put his hand by my mouth, and when he pulled it away, he opened his palm, and the tooth was in it! And I cried and I cried,” she says, laughing. “It didn’t hurt. I didn’t even feel it. But I guess I was so surprised!”


Jasper Maxwell Allen, the oldest son and second child of John C. and Mary Agnes Holmes Allen, was born in 1904 in Newport News, Virginia. Though he was named “Jasper” after his maternal grandfather, he was always known as “Maxwell” or “Mac.”

The 1910 census of Newport News shows the Allens at 748 21st Street.  John Allen, a painter at the shipyard, headed a household consisting of wife Mary and six children — Marion, Maxwell, Julia, John jr., Edith and Willie Allen — as well as an adopted son Jesse Jefferson (who was Agnes’ deceased sister Emma’s son.)

By the 1920 census, the family was living at 2107 Marshall Avenue in Newport News: John C. Allen, longshoreman on piers, with wife Mary, and children Marian, Maxwell, Julia, John, Willie, Edith and Nita.

Maxwell attended local elementary schools and graduated either John Marshall or Huntington High School in Newport News. He attended college at Virginia Theological Seminary and College.

In 1929, The Southern Workman, a journal published by Hampton Institute for more than 50 years, announced that on August 29 Lena P. Jeffress, who received a diploma in Education in ’28, married Mr. Maxwell Jasper Allen [sic]. Lena Poole Jeffress was the daughter of J. Murray and Lena Poole Jeffress of Charlotte Courthouse, Virginia. Presumably, Lena and Maxwell met during one of his visits home from school in Lynchburg.

A year later, the 1930 censustaker found the couple living in Washington, DC, at 3027 Sherman Avenue NW, where they boarded in the household of David Spencer.  Maxwell worked as a waiter in a restaurant and Lena as a clerk in an insurance office. It is likely that Maxwell had recently begun his studies at Howard University Dental College; he graduated in the Class of 1932.

On 2 June 1932, the Pittsburgh Courier‘s society page mentioned that a Danville couple had entertained members of a drama troupe from Virginia Theological Seminary and College. One of the performers in the play “A Servant in the House” was Maxwell Allen. [Is this the same Maxwell? I thought he was in dental school by then.]

On 16 June 1934, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that the Virginia State Board of Dental Examiners had announced that 34 candidates, including J. Maxwell Allen, had passed the examinations to practice dentistry in the state.

A 1934 issue of Howard’s The Dentoscope journal announced:


Allen’s arrival was heralded in the local newspaper : “Colored Dentist’s Office at Charlotte Courthouse.”

On 1 August 1937, the Richmond Times-Dispatch covered the 67th anniversary celebration of Morrison Grove Baptist Church, “The oldest church for Negroes in Charlotte County.” After a brief history of the church, the article noted that “[t]he Central Sunday School convention with convene at Morrison Grove Wednesday and Thursday. Member schools will have charge of the program Wednesday. Dr. J. Maxwell Allen will lead a discussion on “Training the Youths for Christian Services” and Rev. W.C. Currin will preach Wednesday night.”

On 22 August 1939, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran a short article concerning the alleged disappearance of Maxwell Allen, “Negro dentist,” following a visit to his wife at Virginia Union University. He had been carrying a significant amount of money, and the family feared foul play. Apparently, Maxwell resurfaced without incident, and the brouhaha died down. (My mother has never heard anything about this.)

The 1940 census of Charlotte Court House lists doctor of dentistry Maxwell J. Allen, 35; wife Lena P., a public school teacher, 35; and sons Maxwell J., Jr., 8, and Cameron L., 2; as well as Margarette Brown, 8, niece. Apparently, however, Maxwell tried out a practice in Lynchburg for a few years during this stretch. In Stickley and Amowitz’ The Lynchburg Dental Society Presents One Hundred Forty-Three Years of Dentistry: 1820-1963, published in 1964: “Dr. J. Maxwell Allen was a graduate of Howard University School of Dentristry. He practiced in Lynchburg at 912 Fifth Street in 1940 and 1941, moving from here to Charlotte Court House, Virginia.”

Maxwell Sr. and Maxwell Jr.(1938) 001

 Uncle Maxwell and younger son, Cameron, circa 1939.

On 23 February 1950, in a column in the Charlotte Gazette called “News of Interest of Colored Readers”: In observance of Negro History Week, the Rev. F.L. Patterson, pastor of Morrison Grove Church, arranged a very interesting meeting. Miss Betty Smith presided. Mrs. Charles G. Blackwell spoke on “The Negro in Education.” Other speakers were Mr. G. H. Binford, on the subject “The Negro in Politics and Economics”; Rev. F.L. Patterson, on “The Negro in Religion”; Dr. J. Maxwell Allen, on “The Negro in Fraternals and Dentistry.”

On 18 Aug 1959, Newport News’ Daily Press reported: “Dr. J. Maxwell Allen Sr., Negro, a former resident of Newport News, died early Sunday in a Lynchburg hospital following a short illness.  He is the son of Mrs. Mary H. Allen and the late J.C. Allen Sr., of Newport News. Surviving, in addition to his mother, are his wife, Lena P. Allen of Charlotte Court House; two sons, Maxwell Allen Jr. and Cameron Allen of New York City; a brother, William J. Allen, Newport News; three sisters, Mrs. Julia A. Maclin, Newport News, Mrs. Edith A. Anderson, Jetersville, and Mrs. Nita A. Wilkerson, Washington; a foster brother, Jesse H. Jefferson of Baltimore; and several nieces and nephews.  Funeral arrangements are incomplete.”

Per his death certificate, Uncle Maxwell died of cancer after a twelve-day stay in a Lynchburg hospital. He would have turned 56 the day after his death.  He was buried in Charlotte Court House in Union Cemetery, just down the road from his house and office. His wife Lena joined him there in 1998.

Births Deaths Marriages, Enslaved People, Maternal Kin, Newspaper Articles, Politics, Virginia

Misinformation Monday, no. 8.

The eighth in a series of posts revealing the fallability of records (or, in this case, secondary sources.)

My great-aunt Julia Allen Maclin told me that her grandfather Jasper Holmes‘ brother, Joseph R. Holmes, a politician, was shot and killed at Charlotte Court House, Virginia. Before I found contemporaneous newspaper articles detailing the murder, I had only a couple of brief mentions in scholarly works to establish his death date. The accounts varied so widely as to be completely irreconcilable.

First, in Luther P. Jackson’s Negro Office-Holders in Virginia 1865-1895, published in 1945:

Joseph R. Holmes, Constitutional Convention, 1867-68, Charlotte and Halifax. SHOEMAKER. Born a slave in Charlotte County. Was hired out by his master to engage in shoemaking by traveling from plantation to plantation. Joseph R. Holmes’ brother Watt was likewise a shoemaker. Joseph learned to read and write and was very intelligent. After the war he received some training in law from his former master. About 1870 he met a tragic death by a gun shot on the grounds of the Charlotte County court house. According to one report his former owner shot him because of an offensive political speech; according to another report he was killed by mistake. During the period of his activity in politics, Holmes bought a farm home consisting of 8 1/2 acres.

Then, in Virginius Dabney’s Virginia: The New Dominion, published in 1971:

… In 1892, Joseph R. Holmes of Charlotte County, a black who had served in the Underwood convention more than two decades before, decided to run for the legislature. He was shot dead by a white man in the audience he was addressing.

Dabney’s account is so far off the mark as to boggle the mind. By 1892, Joseph Holmes had been dead more than 20 years. He never ran for any legislative seat and, while his murderer was certainly a white man, he was not giving a stump speech when he was shot.

Jackson’s version is much closer to the truth, though some the details of Holmes’ life cannot be confirmed and neither of the motives for his assassination are correct.

Here are newspaper accounts of the murder, which themselves vary a bit on the facts. However, based on comparisons with other sources, to be detailed soon, the New York Times‘ 8 May 1869 version of events (reprinted from the Richmond Dispatch, set forth below, seems closest to the truth:

The Recent Homicide at Charlotte Court-House, Virginia

From the Richmond Dispatch, May 5. From persons who were present at Charlotte Court-House on Monday we gather the following particulars of a most lamentable homicide which occurred there on that day, resulting in the death of JOE HOLMES, a colored man, well known to our readers as a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention. Early in the morning, Mr. JOHN MARSHALL JR. met a colored man named MINNIL, who was formerly a slave of Captain GILLIAM, and asked him if he was the man who attempted his life some time ago. The negro, without making any reply to the question, immediately raised his bludgeon as if to strike MARSHALL, who drew his pistol. The negro then took to his heels, and was pursued by MARSHALL and some of his friends, and it was rumored during the day that he had been killed by them. Such, however, was not the fact, for he was alive and well and his work yesterday. About 2:30 o’clock on Monday, while the rumor was rife, the question of arresting MARSHALL was agitated, and HOLMES made himself very officious in regard to it. MARSHALL spoke to him about it, and he made some insulting reply, when Mr. BOYD, a friend of young MARSHALL, struck him with a stick. HOLMES then drew, or attempted to draw, his pistol, when he was fired at by some unknown party. HOLMES immediately retreated, and, when near the Court-house door, turned and fired at the young man, when several shots were fired at him, only one, however, taking effect. HOLMES had strength enough left to walk to the Court-house, and fell dead. The deceased was a prominent member of the late Constitutional Convention, prominent rather from the merriment he created on rising to speak rather than from any participation in the serious work of the body. He was good-natured, polite, and a great favourite with the reporters, to whom he was specially courteous, and whose daily appearance he always greeted with a broad laugh. The nearest we ever knew of him to come to a quarrel was a laughable row with Dr. BAYNE over the disputed ownership of a law book. JOE’s death will be regretted by all who knew him in the Convention, and by those who have laughed over him in the Humors of Reconstructions, where he figured as the “great fire-eater.”

To celebrate the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 2013, Virginia’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission created a roll call of the African-American men who were elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868 and to the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate during Reconstruction. Unfortunately, it picked up Virginius Dabney’s wildly inaccurate date:

Joseph R. Holmes, a native of Virginia, was a shoemaker and farmer who represented Charlotte and Halifax Counties at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868. He ran for a seat in the Senate of Virginia, but was killed in 1892.


Births Deaths Marriages, Enslaved People, Maternal Kin, Newspaper Articles, Virginia

Tragedy at Charlotte Court House.

I first heard a version of the story of Joseph Holmes’ assassination from my great-aunt, Julia Allen Maclin. Joseph Holmes was brother to her grandfather Jasper Holmes. I later found a few references to the murder in books about Virginia’s political history, but details conflicted widely. A few years ago, I found these digitized articles, which firmly established the date of the incident and seemed to offer better insight into what actually happened. Last summer I visited Charlotte County and, with the invaluable assistance of archaeologist Kathy Liston, began to explore the landscape of Joseph and Jasper’s lives and shine light on the aftermath of his assassination.

 Tragedy at Charlotte Court House – A Negro Shot by a White Man – Particulars of the Affair – Result of the Inquest – Order for the Arrest of Those Concerned.

Richmond, May 4, 1869.

A tragedy occurred at Charlotte Court House, Va., yesterday, in which Joseph Holmes, a negro member of the late Constitutional Convention, lost his life. A few weeks since John Marshall, a son of Judge Marshall, of that county, was fired at in the night while in his residence by some unknown person. Yesterday being court day, Mr. Marshall was at the village, and there recognized a negro whom he suspected of having attempted to assassinate him. Marshall charged the negro with the crime, and he at once fled into the woods and was pursued without avail. A few hours afterwards, Joseph Holmes, who was formerly body servant of Judge Marshall, encountered young Marshall and threatened to have him arrested. A fight thereupon ensued, and both parties having pistols, firing commenced – Marshall aided by his friends. Holmes was shot through the breast, and staggering to the Court House fell dead. An inquest was hold, the jury returning a verdict that the deceased came to his death from a gunshot wound at the hands of some person unknown. The affair creates the greatest excitement in the county, where Holmes was exceedingly popular among the negroes, having been elected to the convention by a 2,000 majority over a white candidate. An order has been issued for the arrest of Marshall and party, but they have not yet been apprehended. — New York Herald, Wednesday, 5 May 1869.



Soon after the shooting of Joseph Holmes by young Marshall, in Charlotte county, Virginia, a meeting of the republicans of the county was held, speeches were made by prominent members of the party, and among the speakers were John Watson, George Tucker and Ross Hamilton. These parties were arrested and committed to jail under an indictment which charges that they did, on the 20th May, “feloniously conspire one with another to incite the colored population of Charlotte to make war against the white population by acts of violence,” &c. A petition for a writ of habeas corpus was on Monday presented to Judge Morton of the Circuit Court of Henrico, at Richmond, wherein it is alleged that the parties are illegally detained in the custody of the Sheriff of Charlotte county, and they are innocent of the charge brought against them. This writ was granted and made returnable on Tuesday. In accordance therewith the prisoners were brought before Judge Morton on Tuesday afternoon and after discussion of certain points of law the prisoners were hailed for their appearance before the County Court of Charlotte, Va., to answer the indictment. — New York Herald, Friday, 25 June 1869.