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, Land, Maternal Kin, Other Documents, Virginia

Where we lived: ten acres near Westover Church.

In 1909, ten years after their father’s death, sole surviving heirs Mary Agnes Holmes Allen and Julia Holmes sold two parcels that Jasper Holmes had purchased in 1873 and 1879. “This figure represents a piece of land lying in Cha City Co, near Westover Church” wrote the surveyor who laid off the land and prepared this plat:

Pages from ALLEN -- Estate Litigation Docs

Westover, dating back nearly 400 years, is one of the oldest Episcopal parishes in Virginia. The current church was built in 1631 and remains active. Confederate breastworks running between the church and Evelynton plantation, on the south side of John Tyler Memorial Highway, are still visible.

Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Oral History, Photographs, Virginia

Mary Agnes Holmes Allen.

Her headstone is wrong. Mary Agnes Holmes was born October 15, 1877 — not October 22 — on the R.L. Adams’ plantation in Charles City County, Virginia. Her parents were tenant farmers there, and Agnes was one of a handful of Jasper and Matilda Holmes‘ children to survive to adulthood.

Agnes’ mother died when she was about 8 years old, and her father apparently did not remarry. Jasper Holmes was an ambitious man and managed to purchase several small plots of farmland upon which he supported his family in a degree of comfort. The Holmeses may have attended New Vine Baptist Church and, if so, that is likely where Agnes met John C. Allen.

There is an ugly story told about their marriage: John had quickly established himself as an eligible bachelor in Newport News’ East End, and his appeal was heightened — in the standards of the day — by his light skin and wavy hair. When he brought his new bride home shortly after Christmas 1900, his neighbors, peeking through curtains, were shocked to see a homely, broad-featured, brown-skinned woman step from the carriage. (Agnes herself was not immune to such prejudices, and her color-struck notions would reverberate among her offspring.)


During the early years of her marriage, Agnes did “day’s work” as a housemaid. I did not know this. I had assumed that she was always a housewife, which is a reflection of my failure to understand just how my great-grandparents were able to achieve the middle-class respectability that marked their lives by the middle of the 20th century. (Not to mention how they maintained their dignity on the climb.)

Me:  Now, his mama didn’t ever work, did she?

My grandmother:  Who?  Indeed, she did work.

Me:  Like, outside the home?

My grandmother:  Yeah, during the late years, she didn’t, but she worked outside the home ‘cause she told me one time she walked across the bridge, ‘cross 25th Street bridge, and said it was snowing and ice, and the ice froze on the front of her coat.  And I never shall forget, she worked for a lady, and this lady had a small child.  And she asked her would she wash the child’s sweaters.  Sweaters that the baby had.  And she took and said, “Asking me to do all kinds of extra work like that,” and said, “You know what I did?”  Said, “I washed the sweater in hot water, and then I put it in cold water.  When I got through with it, it was ‘bout big as my fist.”  I said, “How can [whispering, inaudible.]”  And she knew it –

Cousin N: Was gon shrink up.

My grandmother:  And I said, “Oh, my God, that is awful!”  And it was.  Anyway, she told me that.  She said, “I washed it all right for her, and I put it in hot water, as hot as I could find, and then put it in cold water.  When I got through with it, couldn’t nothing wear it.”

By the time my mother and her siblings were children, Mary Agnes Allen had assumed the domestic role I’d always imagined her in — at home on Marshall Avenue, among Tiffany lamps and lace antimacassars, preparing roast beef to serve on Blue Willow china to a husband just home from this board meeting or that union affair. Her grandchildren speak of her ambivalently, aware of the casually cruel distinctions she drew among them, but unable to name any particular misdeed.

Me:  Well, was Mary Agnes mean to y’all or what?

My mother:  She was not to me, that I remember.  I don’t know what this was about.  Ahh … maybe it was that she was not friendly.  Maybe she wont like Grandma Carrie, joking and saying little funny stuff.  I don’t know.  I don’t know what it was.

Her grandchildren — at least, her son John’s offspring — felt that lack of warmth acutely. Though their 35th Street home was only a mile away from hers, Mary Agnes Allen does not feature much in the stories of their childhood. (Nor, frankly, does John Allen Sr.)  In her later years, she left Newport News to live with her daughter Edith Allen Anderson in Jetersville, Amelia County, Virginia. The photo below, I’m guessing, was taken shortly before her move. And seems to reveal a softer side.


Mary Agnes Holmes Allen died March 15, 1961, just two months before my mother married in the sideyard at Marshall Avenue.  A brief obituary ran in the Daily Press on the 17th, noting that she was a member of Armenia Tent No. 104 and the Court of Calanthe. She was survived by three daughters, a son, a “foster son” (actually, her nephew), a sister, and, most curiously, “12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.” In fact, she had ten grands and no more than three great-grands.


Interviews by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.  Photographs in collection of Lisa Y. Henderson.

Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Virginia

And then there were …

It’s beyond heartbreaking, even given the terrible infant mortality rates of times.  Of Jasper and Matilda Holmes’ 11 children, only three lived to see the 20th century. Matilda herself died giving birth to her last child, who lingered a few months before slipping away. Others died in clumps, compounding the family’s grief to unimaginable intensity.

Robert, the first child, was born in 1864. He lived long enough to be recorded in the 1880 census of Charles City County, but was dead before his father’s estate opened in 1899.

Walter and Angelina, born in 1868 and 1870, died within six months of each other in 1887, felled by tuberculosis.

William and Joseph, born in 1871 and 1874, died on consecutive days in January 1875, victims of whooping cough.

Emma, born in 1876, lived long enough to marry Cornelius Jefferson in November 1899 and to give birth to son, Jesse Holmes Jefferson, the following January. (Though, oddly, she is not listed in a transfer of property to Jasper’s heirs on 30 December 1899.) She died when Jesse was an infant, however, and the boy was reared in his aunt Agnes’ family.

My great-grandmother Mary Agnes, born in 1877, lived into her 80s. Her death in 1961 came more than 60 years after the death of all but one of her siblings.

Martha, called “Mattie,” born 1879, married Jesse E. Smith, in May 1899. She received a share of her father’s estate in 1899, but died during the next decade.

Julia Ellen, born in 1882, lived the longest of all the children. She was close to 90 in 1961 when she was listed in her sister’s obituary as the sole remaining Holmes.

The last babies, unnamed infants, died at or within months of birth.  The first, a boy, died in 1880 at the age of 2 days; the second, a boy, in 1884 at the age of 6 days; and the last in 1885, weeks after his mother gave birth to him.

Maternal Kin, Other Documents, Photographs, Virginia

Julia Holmes Jackson.

In the late 1980s, when I was in the early clutches of my genealogical addiction, I often made copies of old pictures by photographing them through a microfilter screwed onto my Canon AE1. I spent an afternoon at my great-aunt Julia Allen Maclin’s house, sifting through a box of faded sepia-toned prints and gasping with delight as she identified Holmeses and Allens. Two of the many I copied that day were small oval portraits of the same woman. In one, she faces the camera nearly head-on, her hair puffed into bouffant tied with a dark bow. In the second, she has donned a great fluffy disk of a hat and tilts her head to the right. Strong side-lighting revealed a tiny feature I recognized immediately – an epicanthic fold at the corner of her left eye. My grandfather (her nephew) had them, and my mother does, and I do, too, though mine are a mere suggestion of her prominent flaps. This was Julia Ellen Holmes, my great-grandmother’s sister and the woman for whom my great-aunt was named.



I don’t know a lot about Julia. Though just a child at the time, she is not listed in her parents’ household in the 1880 census of Charles City County, Virginia.  The first record of her that I’ve found is a deed of transfer filed 30 December 1899, at Charles City County Courthouse, from the estate of Jasper Holmes to Mary H. Allen and her husband John C. Allen and Martha H. Smith and her husband Jesse Smith, all of Newport News VA, and Julia E. Holmes, unmarried, of Charles City County, Jasper’s heirs at law.

Just months later, Julia (or a woman that appears to be her) is listed in the 1900 census of Manhattan, New York City, at 208 W. 72nd Street. There, Virginia-born Julia Holmes (born February 1880, which is not accurate if this is the right woman) lived in a boarding house that included three other servants, two waiters and a cook.  Headed by 39 year-old Mary A. Phillips, the tenants included blacks, whites, southerners, northerners, a Cuban and an Irishman.

(Or is this my Julia? In the 1900 census of Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania: Julia Holmes, 17, Virginia-born servant, in the household of ice company treasurer Josiah A. McKee at 1838 Mount Vernon Avenue.)

The Holmes sisters sold off their father’s property over the next ten years, filing deeds of sale in 1905 and 1910. In the final transaction, on 10 Jan 1910, Mary Allen of Newport News and Julia Holmes of the City of New York, children and only heirs of Jasper Holmes (Martha Holmes Smith had died) filed a deed of transfer for property sold to James Clark for $300.

In the 1910 census of Manhattan, on Washington Square (North), Virginia-born Julia Holmes is listed as a servant in the household of Philo Hager, who worked in wholesale dry goods. By 1920, she had moved across the river to East Orange, which is where my great-aunt remembered her living. The censustaker found Julia Holmes at 1 Waters Avenue, listed as a servant in the household of B.C. Fenwick.  Her birthplace is given as New Jersey; her parents’ as Virginia; her age as 29. Only the middle statistic is correct.

I have not found Julia Holmes in either the 1930 or 1940 censuses and assumed that she died sometime before World War II. Certainly, my great-aunt never spoke of her as if she had lived a long time.


When I found my great-grandmother’s obituary in a March 1961 edition of the Daily Press, there, among the survivors, was “sister, Mrs. Julia Jackson of Orange NJ.” And then, when my cousin M., daughter of my great-aunt Nita Allen Wilkerson, sent me scans of a bunch of photos she found in an album that had belonged to Julia Allen Maclin, I found this:

Julia E Holmes?

I can’t see the flaps, but I’m certain: great-GREAT-aunt Julia.

(So, when, in fact, did she die? Where was she buried? Who was Mr. Jackson? Did she have children?)

Births Deaths Marriages, Maternal Kin, Virginia

John C. Allen arrives.

JC Allen 1

John Christopher Allen made his way down-river to the newly established city of Newport News around 1899, a thick-set country boy with dark curly hair.  In April of that year, he had purchased ten acres in Turkey Trot from A.H. Drewry and wife, but he did not hang around to farm it. What pulled — or pushed — him out of Charles City County is not precisely clear, but he would never turn back.


Newport News was a boomtown at the turn of the 20th century. The extension of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad down the peninsula, bringing coal from West Virginia for world-wide transport, was followed shortly by the development of the shipyard for which the city is still famous.

In June of 1900, the census taker found John Allen sharing a boarding house run by Henry Burrell with several single men.  The house was in the crowded East End, near the heart of industrial Newport News.  John was working as a shipyard laborer, and he was illiterate.  That year, on the day after Christmas, the 24 year-old son of Graham and Mary Allen, married 23 year-old Mary A. Holmes, daughter of Jasper and Matilda Holmes, at New Vine Baptist Church in Charles City County. They returned to Newport News to start their 50-plus years together.

Education, Letters, Maternal Kin, Other Documents, Photographs, Virginia

The Keysville school.

Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Chap. 91.  An Act to Incorporate the Keysville Bluestone mission industrial school.  Approved January 17, 1900.

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia, that Reverend Nelson Jordan, R.C. Yancey, George D. Wharton, P.E. Anderson, F.L. Hall, Jesse H. Wilson, Jordan Moseley, Whitfield Clark, L.N. Wilson, A.J. Goode, S.L. Johnson, N.C. Ragby and Miss Mary E. Wilson [are appointed] board of trustees [of an institution] by the name and style of the Keysville Bluestone mission industrial school for the purpose of keeping and conducting at Keysville, Charlotte County, Virginia, a boarding and day school of the above name, and of giving instruction to such colored persons, male and female, as may be committed to their care as pupils of said school. …



Rev. Whitfield Clark’s sister Mary married my great-great-great-great-uncle Joseph R. Holmes, who was murdered on the steps of Charlotte County courthouse in 1869. As shown below, Joseph Holmes had been instrumental in securing support for the precursor to this school:


Joseph homes letter

Photograph of Keysville Industrial School, Keysville, Virginia, by Lisa Y. Henderson, July 2012. Images of letters from Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau Letters of Correspondence 1865, 1872, (originals in Records of the Field Offices for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands 1865-1872, National Archives and Records Administration.)