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 plain, 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.)

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.