The story of the ‘Virginia Dwarf Family’

The story of the ‘Virginia Dwarf Family’

In the fall of 1847, farmer and slave owner William Macon Waller was walking a coffle of about two dozen slaves from Amherst County, Va., to Natchez, Miss. Once in Mississippi, he planned to sell them to settle some debts.

The group was traveling what’s been called the “overland route,” 900-some miles through Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. While Waller probably rode a horse or a mule, it’s likely the slaves walked as far as 25 or 30 miles a day. Some were small children.

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Slave coffle, traveling from Virginia to Tennessee. Lewis Miller, Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia, 1853-1867. Courtesy, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Va.

During the journey, Waller wrote letters home to his wife, Sarah. He wrote about a variety of things, among them the progress they’d made, if any of the slaves had been sick, and about things he saw along the way.

Writing from Washington County, Va., on Oct. 4, 1847, Waller tells Sarah about a fascinating family he saw in Wythe County:

In passing on, I meet occationally [sic] rare if not interesting sights. At one house in Wythe County I saw a family of many children four of whom two males & two females were dwarfs.

The mails [sic] one thirty-eight and the other twenty not as large by a good deal as Ben. The females one twenty-seven and the other fully grown not as large as Mat. All the senses of each perfect. The balance of the children of good sise [sic] and their parents large.

The family that so intrigued Waller was the Walters family of Wythe County, Va., four members of which — Hiram, Roxana, Catharine and William — were dwarfs, or as we’d say today, “little people.”

According to newspaper accounts from across the U.S., for many years the siblings performed as the “Virginia Dwarf Family.” Hiram, the oldest, used the stage name “Major Walters.” It was apparently a common practice at the time for people in show business to use military titles.

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Catharine, Hiram and Roxana Walters, the “Virginia Dwarf Family.” Date unknown but likely post-1851. Ancestry.com.

A Nov. 5, 1836, article in the Charlotte (N.C.) Journal tells of a visit the Virginia Dwarf Family made to that city:

The Dwarfs—We among a number of other citizens of this place, paid a visit to the family of Dwarfs exhibited in this town on Saturday evening last, and we were truly astonished at this singular freak of nature.

The oldest of the four, Maj. Hiram Walters, was 26 years old last April, weighs 43 pounds, and is 3 feet 7 inches high. His sisters, Miss Roxana, who is 20 years of age, weighs 30 pounds, and is 3 feet high, and Miss Catharine, is 18 years old, weights 30 1/2 pounds, and is 3 feet 1 inch high, and his brother Master William, is in his ninth year, weighs 22 pounds, and is 2 feet 1 inch high.

These four dwarfs are children of the same parents and are perfectly formed. They are cheerful and communicative, and altho’ uneducated, they are very shrewd in their remarks.

Their combined weight is 125 1/2 pounds. Their father, Mr. Michael Walters, of Virginia, accompanies them, and carries with him certificates, to show that they are the offspring of himself and wife.

We think them well worthy the attention of the curious.

As one might expect, most stories about the Virginia Dwarf Family were politically incorrect by today’s standards, including observances such as this one made in the Augusta (Ga.) Constitutionalist:

The Major … is full of life, and when his two sisters have him by the arm, struts as large as a peacock. He appears to be of a lively turn; says he should like to get married, could he find a young lady to his fancy, and he seems to think, with the old Dutchman, that a ‘man ish [sic] a man, if he’s no bigger as my dumb [sic].’

It appears that sometime around 1851, younger brother William left show business. Perhaps he was seeking a life out of the spotlight. If he was, he didn’t find it. When William married Elizabeth Sawyers in August of that year, newspapers all over the country took notice, running this story from the Wytheville Republican:

Married, in Ashe, North Carolina, on Wednesday, 13th ultimo, Mr. Wm. Walters (a dwarf, about twenty three years old, and no more than thirty inches tall, and weight thirty five pounds) to Miss Elizabeth Sawyers (a full grown woman) daughter of Martin Sawyers, all of Wythe county, Virginia.

When William and Elizabeth had a daughter, Jane, four years later, it also didn’t escape the curiosity of the press. On Aug. 30, 1855, the Richmond Dispatch reported that “full grown” Elizabeth was “very dutiful and obedient to her little lord, and their union has been blessed by a fine baby, which shows no signs of dwarfage!”

The same article also reported that William’s older brother, Hiram, had no intention of marrying:

He wouldn’t get married, he said — he wasn’t such a fool — he wasn’t so green as his brother to be moping at home with his wife and baby — not he. He was going to be free, and go where he please — he was.

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Manifest from the schooner Mary Harris listing showmen John Burnell and J.H. McDaniel and members of the Walters family, 1861. Ancestry.com.

In May of 1861, Hiram, Roxana and Catharine, accompanied by their younger sister, Nancy, and two showmen, John Burnell and J.H. McDaniel, arrived in New York City aboard the schooner Mary Harris.

There, according to the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers, the Virginia Dwarf Family was scheduled to perform at Barnum’s American Museum:

More Novelty — At Barnum’s American Museum there is a most extraordinary family of dwarfs on exhibition. They consist of Major Walters, fifty-one years old, and only thirty-eight inches in height, his two sisters Roxana and Kate Walters, forty-two and forty-five years of age, and only thirty inches in height, and a younger sister, who stands five feet and nine inches in height. The family are from Virginia and the Major declares himself a staunch Union man and ready to fight for the government.

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Barnum’s American Museum, circa 1858. Library of Congress.

What happened to Hiram, Roxana and Catharine after that isn’t clear. All three appear to disappear from the public record after June of 1861.

One story that made it home to Wytheville was that the siblings died of smallpox in New York in 1861 and were buried at Weehawken Cemetery in North Bergen, N.J. Newspapers do report smallpox in the area at that time, but the cemetery has no record of their burials.

Interestingly, showman John Burnell, who married Nancy Walters, was buried at Weehawken in 1881, after dying penniless in New York. It’s unknown at this point if Nancy, who died in 1884, also is buried at Weehawken.

Another story that made it home was that Hiram, Roxana and Catharine died sometime during the Civil War, while performing in Europe. It’s said they were even presented to the King and Queen of England.

(I’ve found no evidence of that, either, but perhaps it was a more romantic story to tell than dying of smallpox.)

Things didn’t work out so well for William, either. William was reportedly a rough character, prone to brandishing weapons. In April of 1859, while running a grocery store in the east Tennessee town of Union, William shot and killed a man named Elijah Cross.

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Richmond Daily Dispatch, April 23, 1859

William was charged with and convicted of murder, as reported in the North-Carolinian and other newspapers. The North-Carolinian also revealed a motive:

Convicted of Murder — Wm. Walters, a dwarf, well known about Bristol, has been convicted at Blountsville, Tenn. of murder in the first degree. Walters shot a man named Cross for making improper overtures to Mrs. Walters, who is said to be a woman of unusual personal attractions.

What happened after that is unclear. A Dec. 7, 1859, article in the New Bern (N.C) Daily Progress indicates William was granted a new trial and the case was moved to nearby Greeneville, Tenn.

Some have said the conviction was eventually overturned.

It hardly matters, however, as William was to face a bad end himself a few years later. On Dec. 30, 1863, the Wytheville Dispatch reported the following, under the headline “Murder in Wythe County”:

We are informed that Wm. Walters, the little dwarf (who was only 3 feet 2 inches high and 40 years old) was murdered on the evening of the 24th, by a man named Roberts.

It appears that they were returning together from a still-house at which place Walters had exhibited a considerable amount of money to possess which by Roberts, is thought to have led to the commission of the horrid deed.

Roberts was heard to say by a man named Etter that he had killed Walters, but pretended it was done in self-defence [sic]. Roberts is still at large but it is thought cannot escape as he is well known.

A decade later, William was still making headlines, if only as part of an apparent feud between rival area newspapers and without sympathy from reporters. On Feb. 4, 1873, the Bristol (Tenn.) News reported the following:

The Wytheville Enterprise says the dwarf Wm. Walters was not killed in the manner stated by the correspondent of the Courier Journal, but that his taking off occurred in a gambling spree near Cullop’s mill in Wythe Co., Va., with one Steve Roberts a wooden legged individual, who, because Walters won all his money, cut his throat from ear to ear, and then limped out of Virginia into Kentucky, and has never been heard from since.

Well, well! Cock Robin being dead, it is immaterial who killed him.

‘Stampede at Church’: The Court Street Baptist Church Tragedy

‘Stampede at Church’: The Court Street Baptist Church Tragedy

It was standing room only at Lynchburg’s Court Street Baptist Church late on the evening of Oct. 16, 1878. The Iola, Kan., Register would later describe the crowd that gathered that night as an “immense throng,” reporting that while the church could seat about 2,000 people, “there were many more than that present.”

On that night, members of the black community in Lynchburg, Va., had convened at the church for a wedding ceremony and revival service. Some newspapers, including the Register, would identify the couple being married as Thomas Johnson and Malinda Bosher. Others would claim that Andrew Jackson Everett and Mary Rives stood at the altar that night.

What is certain, however, is that before the sun would rise the next morning, as many as 14 people would be dead and dozens more grievously wounded in what newspaper headlines across the country would call “The Lynchburg Calamity,” the “Fatal Panic” and “Terrible Disaster.”

Court Street Baptist Church was founded in 1843 as the African Baptist Church, a spin-off of Lynchburg’s First Baptist Church. The church building one sees today, at the corner of Court and Sixth streets, was built in 1879, a year after the tragedy.

It boasts the tallest steeple in Lynchburg — a steeple topped with a copper ball said to be more than 9 feet in circumference.

When the tragedy occurred, the church was meeting in a building located just west of the current structure. Newspaper reports of the day indicate that structure had seen better days. As the Lynchburg Virginian put it the day after the incident, “The church had been condemned and though repaired was believed to be unsafe, which doubtless increased the panic.”

News stories about exactly what happened on that fateful night vary, sometimes wildly. What appears to have happened, however, is that either during or shortly after the wedding ceremony a false alarm went out among the congregants that the church was collapsing.

Some newspapers describe the sound that prompted the alarm as breaking glass and place the blame on a pea-shooter in the hands of a mischievous boy. Others report that chunks of plaster fell from the ceiling, causing the massive crowd to panic and flee the building, trampling each other in the process.

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The tragedy, as illustrated for the Nov. 9, 1878, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News. Jones Memorial Library.

The Nov. 9, 1878, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated News reports it this way:

There was a general rush to the doors and windows. The audience-room being on the second floor, those who first reached the head of the stairs were so pressed on by the panic-stricken crowd that they were thrown down, and those who followed shared the same fate, until they were piled up almost to the head of the stairs.

Upon this mass of writhing humanity the throng that followed trod. Men and women rushed over it, careless of everything, so that they made their escape. The consequences were terrible. Many persons were either trampled or smothered to death, and more were badly wounded. Some who were near the bottom bore a weight which every moment threatened to crush their lives out.

Some newspapers also give harrowing accounts of victims leaping from second- and third-story windows to escape the building. The True Northerner newspaper in Paw Paw, Mich., published this account:

Many leaped from windows, and a few who were in the gallery jumped from the third-story windows. Three women who made that venture were killed outright.

Seventeen-year-old Maria Wilson was one woman who leaped to her death. An Oct. 18 story in the Lynchburg News, headlined “The Church Horror: Some Additional Particulars,” ponders Wilson’s final moments:

The view from the window through which Maria Wilson jumped to an instant death is simply fearful. Whether her neck was broken by concussion against the fence or pavement is not known, but certainly ninety-nine in a hundred would never know afterwards that they had attempted the leap.

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The grave of Maria Wilson at Old City Cemetery. Cemetery officials believe other victims are buried there, too, but no markers exist.

Like everything else in this story, the number of fatalities reported in newspapers from New York to New Orleans and beyond varies, from eight to 14 people. The Orleans County Monitor, of Barton, Vt., reported that “14 people are known to have been trampled to death and 20 were so badly injured that a number cannot recover.”

The New York Herald, while admitting that “it is still impossible to get the full list,” reported on Oct. 18 that 11 were dead and 30-some wounded. It also provided a list of 19 of the wounded: Jane Lee, Lou Winfree, Judith Ward, Ellen Archer, Milly Leftwich, Paschal Horton, Miss Irvine, Lena Diamond, Henrietta Booker, Mrs. Jones, Eliza Ward, Martha Bopp, Ellen Shurr, Mary Smith, Mrs. Coleman, Caroline Irvine, Miss Watkins, Mary Ann Read and Walter Perkins.

Some newspapers even said the bride and groom died in the chaos that followed their blessed event. If that couple was Jack and Mary Everett — sometimes spelled “Averett” — they didn’t perish that night. Through at least 1910, the Everetts were very much alive and living on Floyd Street.

(As for Thomas Johnson and Melinda Bosher, I have yet to find any records of them or their marriage.)

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The names of the victims are painted on this church window, located behind the pulpit at Court Street Baptist. As you’ll notice, the spellings of some names differ from the city’s death records and other accounts.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics (records on microfilm at Jones Memorial Library), the following eight women died on Oct. 16, 1878, or succumbed to their injuries shortly after the tragedy:

Ann Cox, 16, born in Campbell County. Some sources call her Lucinda Cox or Arena Cox.

Mary Henry, a 60-year-old cook.

Emma Powell, 14 years old.

Virginia Robinson (sometimes Robertson), age 19.

Maria Ransom, 19 years old. According to the health department’s records, her mother’s first name was Malinda. The last name is illegible.

Millie Wood, a 26-year-old cook. She also can be found as Mildred Ward, Mollie Wood and Mildred Walls.

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Diuguid Funeral Home record of Wilson’s burial.

Maria Wilson, 17, a cook. She buried at Old City Cemetery in Lynchburg. Her brother, John, paid $30 for her burial.

Adeline Burks held on for 10 days after the tragedy, surrendering to her injuries on Oct. 26. She was about 50 years old, born in Appomattox, and her occupation in the records appears to be “housework.”

Next to each name listed was the cause of death: “stampede at church” or “church stampede.”

Also, I’m working on a bigger project involving this story, so if anyone has information — family stories or records, etc. — that they would like to share, please post in the comments section. Thanks!

New Mexican Green Chile Stew

I love New Mexico. Anyone who knows me well knows that, and I try to visit the Land of Enchantment as often as possible, which ends up being about once a year. I even have a T-shirt — created by my sister, Theresa, who also loves New Mexico — that says, “I’m a better version of myself in New Mexico.”

And it’s true. I am.

Every time I visit, which has been about 14 times over the past 10 years, I come back renewed in spirit and with all sorts of ideas. I return home determined to finish whatever ambitious writing project I’m working on or create the folk art masterpiece that’s been lolling around in my head for months.

Sometimes the feeling lasts; sometimes it doesn’t. OK, oftentimes it doesn’t. Life gets in the way and those projects take the back burner until my next trip to New Mexico, when I’ll dream big dreams and come home with big plans.

One thing that has stuck around between trips is my love for New Mexican cuisine, particularly green chile stew, a popular dish in New Mexico. The spicy, slow-cooked concoction of green chiles, potatoes and pork is one of my favorite meals.

In fact, I’m eating it right now. As I write this blog post. Yes, I really am.

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Green chile stew

Hatch, N.M., is known as the green chile capital of the world. The small, southern New Mexico village also is home to the Hatch Chile Festival, held each Labor Day weekend. I haven’t been to the festival yet, but it’s definitely on the bucket list.

So, is seeing the burning of Zozobra, which takes place on the same weekend in Santa Fe, four hours to the north. Santa Feans have been burning Zozobra — also called “Old Man Gloom” — since 1924.

It’s not only a huge party, but a time to symbolically set fire to the worries and hardships of the past year. You can read all about the history of Zozobra hereAfter all, this post is about stew.

My recipe for green chile stew — there are many — is from Ramona’s Restaurant in Alamogordo, N.M.

While visiting New Mexico with husband John and his parents in 2006, we went to White Sands National Monument, an otherworldly place near Alamogordo. White Sands is a massive gypsum dune, with snow-white sand nearly as far as the eye can see. It’s pretty amazing.

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White Sands National Monument

Afterward, we went to this nondescript diner called Ramona’s. There, I ordered my first bowl of green chile stew and it was a revelation.

For the rest of the trip, I ordered green chile stew every time it was on the menu. At the end of the week, I declared Ramona’s my favorite. And when I got home, I called the restaurant and they gave me the recipe.

Ramona’s closed some time ago, but because I was lucky enough to snag the recipe beforehand, I still make her green chile stew several times a year. Now, you can make it, too. Enjoy!

Ramona’s Green Chile Stew

1 pound pork (loin, roast, chops, boneless ribs, etc.), cut into 1-inch cubes
3 large cloves garlic, pressed/minced (or 1 1/2 tsp. jarred, minced garlic)
1 T. cumin
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. white pepper
16 oz. diced green chiles (mild, medium, hot or a mix)
4 cups of diced potatoes (I like to use red or Yukon gold – no need to peel)
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Put all ingredients in a good-sized stock pot or Dutch oven. Cook until potatoes are soft.

Hints: Sometimes, I use ground pork instead. If going that route, brown and drain the pork before adding the other ingredients to the pot. Also, if doubling the recipe, there’s no need to double the salt. Makes about four, meal-sized servings, and it’s great with piping-hot sopapillas or cornbread.

All the ‘Bawdy Ladies’ at Old City Cemetery

On Sunday, Sept. 25, Old City Cemetery will host its biennial “Bawdy Ladies of 19th-century Lynchburg” tour. The free, hour-long tour will be led by local historian Nancy Jamerson Weiland.

While giving the tour, Weiland will portray Lizzie Langley, one of the infamous “sporting women” of Lynchburg, Va.

For those not familiar with the phrase, “sporting women” has nothing to do with tennis, golf or softball. We’re talking about prostitutes, ladies of the night, hookers — you get it.

Langley (1828-1891) is one of several sporting women buried at Old City Cemetery, which was founded in 1806. Langley and her mother, Agnes — same profession — are buried just inside the cemetery’s Taylor Street entrance.

An impressive monument and iron fencing make the Langley plot easy to find on the right-hand side of the driveway. It’s been said the elaborate plot was paid for by appreciative customers — that, or it’s evidence of just how successful these working women were.

The “Bawdy Ladies” tour begins at 3 p.m. at the Langley plot.

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The Langley plot.

During the tour, Weiland will talk about the history of prostitution in Lynchburg from 1805 to 1940. According to a brochure she wrote on the subject, the first “houses of ill repute” in Lynchburg were located not too far from the James River in an area called Buzzard’s Roost.

Buzzard’s Roost — now the name of a local antique shop — was located in the vicinity of Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, Jefferson and Commerce (then called Lynch) streets. As Weiland writes, “Before the Civil War, this section along the river gained a notorious reputation for its bordellos, bars and gambling houses.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, Lynchburg’s prostitution business moved uphill from the river, to the Tinbridge Hill neighborhood, more specifically Monroe, Jackson and Fourth streets.

A passage in the book “Remembering Tinbridge Hill in Lynchburg, 1920-1970” describes this new red light district:

At the end of the 19th century, prostitutes began moving their thriving business into the area; bootlegging and gambling establishments sprang up there, as well. Unsavory activities, hilly terrain, and a growing black majority made it easy for the City to neglect this marginal area. By the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, its informal designation as “the forgotten hill” seemed well deserved, at least from the outside.

Also in the book, Gloria Franklin, who grew up in Tinbridge Hill, describes the “sporting houses” that were active there in the 1930s and 40s:

On the Monroe Street side, we’d sit on the wall and watch the people go in there. During the war the soldiers, they would line up out there. And the businessmen would come up in the big Packards, which was exciting to me. I’ve always loved cars. And they would take negligees, I guess, and things, it looked like that’s what they were, in to them.

Recalling the working girls she saw, Franklin adds with a laugh, “… they’d be sitting out there with the prettiest negligees on, and birds in cages. All of them had birds. I thought that was just wonderful. I probably wanted to be a prostitute at one time.”

Weiland, a research assistant at Jones Memorial Library, has been leading the “Bawdy Ladies” tour for 15 years. She’s been researching the women — approximately 700 of them — for more than 30 years.

Asked how she first became interested in these colorful women, Weiland said, “I was going to write the great American novel [and] I got caught up in the research. The research was just so fascinating I just kept researching.”

During her research, Weiland used newspaper articles and public records to learn what she could about Lynchburg’s early prostitutes. In the process, she also found some distant cousins among their ranks.

And she’s not the only one. In her 21 years at Jones Memorial, a genealogy and history library located on Memorial Avenue, Weiland said she’s encountered lots of people with familial ties to Lynchburg’s red light districts.

“Oh yeah, that happens quite frequently, people coming into the library to research and it turns out they’re one of my girls,” Weiland said. “That’s not an uncommon thing to happen. It’s happened a number of times over the years.”

Coming up in mid-October at Old City Cemetery are the annual Candlelight Tours, where professional actors in period costumes portray people buried at the cemetery. Past years have included numerous characters from Lynchburg’s history, among them World War I soldier William Harrison Brooks, who I blogged about recently.

Tickets for the Candlelight Tours are $18 (ages 13 and up) and $10 (12 and under), and must be purchased in advance. For more information about events at Old City Cemetery, call (434) 847-1465 or visit the cemetery’s website.

In his own words: the story of Lynchburg freedman Charley Mitchell

If I had a time machine, I’d go back to the 1930s and work for the Federal Writers’ Project. For those who’ve never heard of it, the Federal Writers’ Project was part of the Works Progress Administration, which was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The WPA provided jobs for millions of people during the Great Depression. While most of these jobs involved things like infrastructure — building roads and bridges, for example — the WPA also hired more creative types, including musicians, artists, actors and writers.

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This mural, painted by John Augustus Walker, was a WPA project. It’s in the lobby of the History Museum of Mobile.

The Federal Writers’ Project employed more than 6,000 people — not only writers and editors but also historians, researchers, map-makers, geologists and archaeologists. These people worked on all sorts of projects, among them travel guides, children’s books and local histories.

What they might be best known for, however, are the slave narratives.

From 1936 to 1938, Federal Writers’ Project employees interviewed more than 2,000 former slaves. They also took photographs. The collection that resulted is titled, “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States.”

You can read the narratives online. They’ve also been used in other projects, including a book I read a year or so ago, “The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves,” by Andrew Ward. It was an interesting and enlightening book and I recommend it.

One of the individuals interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project (and included in “The Slaves War’ ” as well) was Charley Mitchell. Mitchell was born in Lynchburg, Va., in 1852. Because he moved to Panola County, Texas, in 1887, his interview is included with the Texas narratives.

Mitchell was owned by Nathaniel B. Terry, who is described in the narrative as an “itinerant Baptist preacher.” After the war, Mitchell worked in a tobacco factory and as a waiter. At the time of the interview, however, he was farming.

Mitchell, then in his 80s, spoke with the interviewer about a variety of things, everything from slave sales and attitudes about educating slaves to ghosts.

First, an important note: You’ll see that Mitchell uses the “N-word” throughout the interview. I’ve decided to leave the narrative as it was recorded by the interviewer. Also, there’s been some debate over the years about the use of dialect in the narratives, but again, I’m leaving it as is.

Charley Mitchell’s Story

“I’s born in Virginia, over in Lynchburg, and it was in 1852, and I ’longed to Parson Terry and Missy Julia. I don’t ’member my pappy, ’cause he’s sold when I’s a baby, but my mammy was willed to the Terrys and allus lived with them till freedom. She worked for them and they hired her out there in town for cook and house servant.

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Charley Mitchell, Texas, 1937. Library of Congress.

“They hired me out most times as nuss for white folks chillen, and I nussed Tom Thurman’s chillen. He run the bakery there in Lynchburg and come from the north, and when war broke they made him and ’nother northener take a iron clad oath they wouldn’t help the north. Durin’ the war I worked in Massa Thurman’s bakery, helping make hard tack and doughnuts for the ’federate sojers. He give me plenty to eat and wear and treated me as well as I could hope for.

“Course, I didn’t git no schoolin’. The white folks allus said niggers don’t need no larnin’. Some niggers larnt to write their initials on the barn door with charcoal, then they try to find out who done that, the white folks, I mean, and say they cut his fingers off iffen they jus’ find out who done it.

“Lynchburg was good sized when war come on and Woodruff’s nigger tradin’ yard was ’bout the bigges’ thing there. It was all fenced in and had a big stand in middle of where they sold the slaves. They got a big price for ’em and handcuffed and chained ’em together and led ’em off like convicts. That yard was full of Louisiana and Texas slave buyers mos’ all the time. None of the niggers wanted to be sold to Louisiana, ’cause that’s where they beat ’em till the hide was raw, and salted ’em and beat ’em some more.

“Course us slaves of white folks what lived in town wasn’t treated like they was on most plantations. Massa Nat and Missy Julia was good to us and most the folks we was hired out to was good to us. Lynchburg was full of pattyrollers, jus’ like the country, though, and they had a fenced in whippin’ post there in town and the pattyrollers sho’ put it on a nigger iffen they cotch him without a pass.

“After war broke, Lee, you know General Lee himself, come to Lynchburg and had a campground there and it look like ’nother town. The ’federates had a scrimmage with the Yankees ’bout two miles out from Lynchburg, and after surrender General Wilcox and a big company of Yankees come there. De camp was clost to a big college there in Lynchburg and they throwed up a big breastworks out the other side the college. I never seed it till after surrender, ’cause us wasn’t ’lowed to go out there. Gen. Shumaker was commander of the ’Federate artillery and kilt the first Yankee that come to Lynchburg. They drilled the college boys, too, there in town. I didn’t know till after surrender what they drilled them for, ’cause the white folks didn’t talk the war ’mongst us.

“Bout a year after the Yankees come to Lynchburg they moved the cullud free school out to Lee’s Camp and met in one of the barracks and had four white teachers from the north, and that school run sev’ral years after surrender.

“Lots of ’Federate sojers passed through Lynchburg goin’ to Petersburg. Once some Yankee sojers come through clost by and there was a scrimmage ’tween the two armies, but it didn’t last long. Gen. Wilcox had a standin’ army in Lynchburg after the war, when the Yankees took things over, but everything was peaceful and quiet then.

“After surrender a man calls a meetin’ of all the slaves in the fairgrounds and tells us we’s free. We wasn’t promised anything. We jus’ had to do the best we could. But I heared lots of slaves what lived on farms say they’s promised forty acres and a mule but they never did git it. We had to go to work for whatever they’d pay us, and we didn’t have nothing and no place to go when we was turned loose, but down the street and road. When I left the Terry’s I worked in a tobacco factory for a dollar a week and that was big money to me. Mammy worked too and we managed somehow to live.

“After I married I started farmin’, but since I got too old I live round with my chillen. I has two sons and a boy what I raised. One boy lives clost to Jacksonville and the other in the Sabine bottom and the boy what I raised lives at Henderson. I been gittin’ $10.00 pension since January this year. (1937)

“I never fool round with politics much. I’s voted a few times, but most the time I don’t. I leaves that for folks what knows politics. I says this, the young niggers ain’t bein’ raised like we was. Most of them don’t have no manners or no moral self-respect.

“I don’t ’lieve much in hants but I’s heared my wife call my name. She’s been dead four years. If you crave to see your dead folks, you’ll never see them, but if you don’t think ’bout them they’ll come back sometime.

“Two nigger women died in this house and both of them allus smoked a pipe. My boy and me used to smell the pipes at night, since they died, and one mornin’ I seed one of them. I jus’ happened to look out the window and saw one of them goin’ to the cow-pen. I knowed her by her bonnet.

“They’s a nigger church and cemetery up the road away from my house where the dead folks come out by twos at night and go in the church and hold service. Me and the preacher what preaches there done seed and heared them.

“They’s a way of keepin’ off hants. That’s done by tackin’ an old shoe by the side the door, or a horseshoe over the door, or pullin’ off part of the planks of your house and puttin’ on some new boards.”

A few more things:

Woodruff’s slave trading lot, mentioned by Mitchell, also is mentioned in Asbury Christian’s book, “Lynchburg and its People,” published in 1900. Christian writes that “Woodruff’s jail, on Lynch Street [now Commerce], between Ninth and Tenth” was “where the traders kept their slaves.”

Christian adds that the jail was “well patronized.”

According to an article written by John Marks in the 2007 issue of Agora, a journal published by Lynchburg College, the jail was built by Seth Woodruff in 1852 “to serve as a boarding house for slaves before their owners sent them to other parts of the country.”

That’s in keeping with Mitchell’s recollections about slaves being sold to buyers from Louisiana and Texas.

The college Mitchell mentions isn’t the current Lynchburg College, but one that operated in Lynchburg before the Civil War. The College Hill neighborhood, in Lynchburg’s downtown historic district, is named for this college. I couldn’t find much information about the college online, so that’s all I know at this point.

You can read more about Gen. Orlando Wilcox here in a book about his experiences.

I found the baker Tom Thurman in the 1860 census. His occupation is nearly illegible, but looks like “confectioner.” In the previous, 1850 census, Thurman works as a salesman for a confectioner named Samuel Thurman, perhaps his brother.

As for “Parson Terry,” I found a couple of censuses where he appears. Neither time is he described as a minister. In 1850, he’s a grocer and in 1870, he “works in tobacco factory.” Mitchell describes him as “itinerant.” Perhaps he means part-time preacher.

Hard to tell at this point without a time machine.

Extra! Extra!

Recently, while reading “And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank,” I learned that “extras” were published by big daily newspapers to share new information about things like the Leo Frank murder trial that gripped Atlanta in the early 20th century.

Having majored in journalism in college, I should have already known that. OK, let’s be honest, being a live, breathing person, I should have known that. But for some reason, other than knowing that paperboys back in the day hollered “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” I never gave it much thought.

This week, I want to share some “Extra! Extras!” — basically, stuff I learned from readers and other sources after posting articles. I love it when people post comments, especially when they have more information on the subject.

So, here goes.

Graves and Lambs

Four Little Lambs: the Stephens Children

After posting this article, I heard from Bob Stephens, great-grandnephew of the four Stephens children. He said the children’s father, James Stephens, bought the statue that overlooks the graves in Italy.

William Harrison Brooks: Cotton Mill to Battlefield

After writing about William Harrison Brooks, readers told me there was a photo of Brooks in the office at Old City Cemetery. So, of course I had to check that out.

Brooks Photo
William Harrison Brooks. Old City Cemetery.

When I got there, Ted Delaney, the cemetery director, showed me the photo and also a photo of Brook’s little sister, Ida. (See photo below.) Blog reader Wayne Fitzgerald told me Ida died of typhoid in December 1914. She’s buried next to her brother at Old City Cemetery.

Above Ida’s photo hangs the little girl’s wooden school ruler. Ida etched her name on it. Below Ida’s photo, hangs a photo of Brooks’ (and Ida’s) parents, Henry and Callie. (See photo below.)

According to notes from the cemetery’s files, the photo was taken around 1943. At the time, Henry worked at Lynchburg Cotton Mill and his wife ran a boarding house.

I also gathered this information from the cemetery’s files:

Because of his red hair, Brooks was nicknamed “Cock Robin.” He also was called “Harry.” He was unmarried and was, according to cemetery notes, “killed by a sniper on a [railroad] track in France.”

Brooks was originally buried in France. He was re-interred at Old City Cemetery — then called Methodist Cemetery — on Oct. 16, 1921.

‘White Negro Girl’ Helen Walker

After posting the story of Helen Walker, an albino African-American girl who appeared in sideshows and museums in the 1860s as the “White Negro Girl,” I was contacted by Ed James.

James is the great-grandson of the woman who his family calls “Nellie.”

James, who is currently working on a presentation about Walker’s life, said, “She was married three times and outlived five of her six children. She was a remarkable and intelligent woman. Despite her difficult start and lots of tragedy, she lived a productive life and was even involved in the suffragette movement.”

Wow!

Since I wrote that post, I also learned more about Major John Burnell, the showman who “managed” Walker and her twin brother, Henry. I believe he’s the man pictured with the twins in the third photo on this website.

It appears to have been commonplace for showmen to use military titles like “Major,” “Captain” and “Commodore.” I’ve found no evidence that “Major Burnell” ever served in the military. According to advertising, newspapers and other records, during the 1860s, Burnell was traveling with various sideshow acts and operating museums in St. Louis, New Orleans and Pittsburgh.

It doesn’t appear he had time to fight in the Civil War.

According to an article in The New York Clipper, an entertainment newspaper of the day, Burnell died of consumption on May 16, 1881. The paper reported that he left his widow in “very destitute circumstances.” The following week’s issue of the Clipper invited readers to make donations to help her.

Recently, I also talked with Beth Macy, author of the New York Times bestseller “Factory Man.” Her next book, “Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South,” will be released on Oct. 18.

I mention this because “Truevine” has striking similarities to Walker’s story.

“Truevine,” set in the early 1900s, tells the true story of George and Willie Muse. The albino African-American brothers were kidnapped in Virginia’s tobacco country and forced to perform with circus sideshows for two decades until their mother found a way to rescue them.

You can watch a book trailer for “Truevine” on Macy’s website.

I can’t wait to read it!

Other photos of interest:

Ida and Ruler
Ida Brooks and her ruler. Old City Cemetery.
Brooks Parents
Brooks’ parents, Henry and Callie. Old City Cemetery.

Dan Ray Justice: Hometown Hero

Dan Ray Justice: Hometown Hero

On October 28, 1939, a skinny kid named Dan Ray Justice scored the first touchdown at Lynchburg’s brand new municipal football stadium.

Justice, a sophomore at Washington and Lee University, was no stranger to football fans in Lynchburg, Virginia. He’d played high school ball for the hometown team, E.C. Glass High School, and was even named “Best Athlete” his senior year.

Captain Photo - football- cropped
Justice in the Critic Crest, the E.C. Glass yearbook, 1937. Jones Memorial Library.

While it’s likely many of the 12,000 spectators who came out for that first game at Lynchburg City Stadium knew Justice and had seen him play football in high school, what they couldn’t know as they took their seats in the bleachers was that Justice would be the hero of the game.

On that fall afternoon, the W&L Generals were playing Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute, now commonly known as Virginia Tech. Tech, then nicknamed the Gobblers, was reportedly a much-bigger team and was expected to win.

From the beginning, the game’s outcome seemed a foregone conclusion — that is, until Justice picked up a Tech fumble late in the first period and turned what was supposed to be a throttling by Tech into a David and Goliath story.

Here’s how The Ring-tum Phi, W&L’s semi-weekly newspaper, later described it:

Capitalizing on a Gobbler fumble on their own 31-yard line in the waning moments of the first period, the General offense shifted into high and before the mighty VPI forward wall realized what had happened diminutive Dan Justice cut back over his own right tackle to cross the double marker for the only six-pointer of the game.

The article goes on to say that “Lynchburg’s pride and joy, diminutive Dan Justice” was the game’s stand-out player:

Justice scored the only Big Blue touchdown, did most of the passing, ran the ball one out of every three times, and gave probably the finest exhibition of punting the Lynchburg stadium will see in a long time.

Near the end of the third quarter, the Generals found themselves in a bit of trouble. Justice, standing in the end zone with the wind at his back, calmly booted to the VPI 24-yard line, a distance of 74 yards.

W&L went on to win 6-0.

1937 senior photo
Senior photo, 1937, E.C. Glass. Critic Crest, Jones Memorial Library.

It would be nice to say this story has a happy ending, that Justice was carried around the field atop the shoulders of his teammates and that he graduated from W&L and went on to marry, have children and live a long, happy life.

It doesn’t.

Justice did finish at W&L, but when World War II broke out, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines. He served as a second lieutenant with the 12th and 3rd Marine divisions until he was killed in action during the second Battle of Guam on July 23, 1944 (sometimes reported as July 22).

He is buried in Honolulu, Hawaii, at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

Even though he died on a battlefield far from home, Justice wasn’t forgotten. Since 1946, Washington and Lee has presented the Dan Ray Justice Memorial Football Award to its most-valuable offensive player. Lynchburg alumni of W&L also erected a monument to Justice at Lynchburg City Stadium.

City Stadium Monument - Copy
The monument, now located in the stadium’s entrance plaza.

Hopefully, with these efforts, the “diminutive” young man once called “Lynchburg’s pride and joy” will never be forgotten.

Here are some more images you might find interesting:

1936 football team - glass
1936 E.C. Glass football team. Note the City Armory, which still stands downtown on Church Street, in the background. Justice sits on the front row, second from left. Critic Crest, Jones Memorial Library.
1934 track photo
1934 E.C. Glass track team. Justice stands in the back row, third from left. Critic Crest, Jones Memorial Library.
Internment Form - cemetery - cropped
Military internment form, dated 1949, when Justice’s body was moved from Guam to the military cemetery in Hawaii.

 

 

Cure for hangriness: The Bread Box Cafe

Cure for hangriness: The Bread Box Cafe

Recently, I wrote about going with my sister Theresa to Antiques Roadshow in Virginia Beach.

On that Saturday morning, before Roadshow, we were driving around Virginia Beach looking for breakfast. We didn’t need to be at the convention center until about noon and I didn’t know what the situation would be like inside, as far as food was concerned, so I wanted something rib-sticking and hearty.

In short, I wanted eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast. And coffee, lots and lots of coffee.

After driving around for what seemed like forever and fast approaching a condition one might describe as “hangry,” we spotted The Bread Box Cafe.

Bread Box exterior
The Bread Box Cafe

The Bread Box is located in a nondescript building on the side of busy Virginia Beach Boulevard. There’s nothing fancy about the exterior, but there was evidence the restaurant might be a good choice: plenty of cars parked outside.

In my experience, lots of cars parked outside — especially if they’re pickup trucks or police cars — means you’re probably in the right place. And, like I said, Theresa and I were starved. To borrow from the Incredible Hulk, “Don’t make me hangry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m hangry.”

So, I turned into the parking lot.

The Bread Box Cafe is run by a woman named Esma, who moved to the U.S. from Bosnia. (As a side note, that afternoon at Roadshow, we ended up standing in line next to one of her friends. How likely was that?)

One of Esma’s specialties is homemade bread. On the menu, items include homemade basil and cheese focaccia, sourdough, French and multigrain breads, among others. According to online comments, Esma also makes wonderful desserts, but we were there for breakfast, so that would have to wait for another trip.

For breakfast, which is served all day, I ordered cheesy scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, multigrain toast and coffee, of course.

The Bread Box breakfast
Forget the beach, I might drive four hours just for this breakfast.

And it was perfect, everything I hoped it would be. The eggs, the hash browns, the just-crispy-enough bacon and the toast. Oh, the toast! I could’ve eaten a loaf of that toasted bread. My stomach was full long before I quit eating, but it was just so good I couldn’t stop.

Because Esma makes everything herself, don’t go to The Bread Box if you’re in a hurry. It wasn’t an eternal wait, but I did go through a couple cups of coffee before the food arrived. Just enjoy the good coffee and wait. It’ll be worth it.

The Bread Box Cafe
2372 Virginia Beach Blvd., Suite 101

Road Tripping in ‘The Heart of Dixie’

Road Tripping in ‘The Heart of Dixie’

In July, husband John and I traveled to Mobile, Ala., for a wedding. The wedding was actually an hour away in Gulf Shores, but we decided to stay in Mobile because we’d never been there and thought it might be a neat, historic city to explore.

Before leaving Lynchburg, I did some online research about things to see and do in Mobile. Because we’d be driving the 800-plus miles, deep into what’s been called “The Heart of Dixie,” I also scouted interesting things to see along the route we’d be taking through Chattanooga, Tenn., and Montgomery, Ala.

Eight-hundred miles is a long way to drive and we’d only actually be in Mobile for two days, but John and I love a good road trip. A few tanks of gas, a couple bags of caramel Bugles and a season of “This American Life” on the iPod and we’re good to go.

For instance, we once drove 1,800 within the state of Arizona in one week. In New Mexico, noting that the grave of Billy the Kid was only 154 miles away in Fort Sumner, we said, “Yeah, let’s go!” Closer to home, we once drove five hours to the Eastern Shore of Virginia just to eat shrimp at an Exxon station and drive back home. It’s safe to say we love road trips.

On this trip, we decided to take the slightly longer route through Chattanooga and Montgomery instead of heading through Atlanta, because my traveling-salesman dad had said traffic in Georgia’s capital could be terrible. That said, while traffic was light in Chattanooga — where (historical side note) my great-great-grandpa August Siegmund fought two battles for the Union with the mostly German Ninth Ohio Infantry — it took an eternity to get to Montgomery, our stop for the night.

Dreamland Sign2
Dreamland’s neon sign lights up the night in Montgomery.

After checking into a hotel, we drove into Alabama’s capital city. The first thing we had to find was food. The hotel clerk recommended Dreamland, a barbecue restaurant in a section of downtown Montgomery called “The Alley.”

The first Dreamland Cafe opened in 1958 in Tuscaloosa, Ala. There’s a great story on the restaurant’s website about how the founder, a brick mason named John “Big Daddy” Bishop, prayed to God for guidance about how to best support his family.

“He had narrowed it down to opening either a mortuary or a restaurant and he got down on his knees for guidance,” the story goes. “Legend has it that God told him in a dream that night to build a cafe on the land next to his home and Big Daddy made that dream a reality.”

Today, there are nine Dreamland locations in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

Dreamland Meal
Great pork barbecue, a dream come true at Dreamland.

John and I both had the pork barbecue sandwich, he with his usual side of fried okra and me with my usual choice of macaroni and cheese. John later said it was the best barbecue he’d had in a while, possibly ever. The only disappointing thing for me was that I was too full afterward to order the banana pudding, which is supposed to be amazing. Maybe next time!

Dreamland sits catty-corner from the city’s minor-league baseball field. The team is nicknamed “The Biscuits,” which I thought was adorable. The mascot is a biscuit, of course. It’s like a clam but instead of a pearl, there’s a pat of butter in its mouth.

biscuits sign
The Biscuit. Isn’t he (or she) adorable?

The Biscuits have a live mascot, too, which we met outside the stadium. It’s a pot-bellied pig named Mrs. Gravy. She was very cute and liked to be petted.

After dinner, John and I walked to the Alabama capitol building. It was grand and everything you’d imagine in a Southern capitol. Outside, there was a half-ring of flags of the 50 states. At the base of each, there was a native stone engraved with the name of the state.

greenstone
Lynchburg greenstone, hundreds of miles from home at the Alabama state capitol.

As we approached Virginia’s flag, John and I suspected the stone would be greenstone, which was mined in Lynchburg. Sure enough, it was.

On the way to the capitol building, we passed the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church where, according to the historical marker outside, Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960. There also were markers near the capitol commemorating the 54-mile “freedom march” from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in 1965.

The next day, John and I drove on to Mobile, said to be the oldest city in Alabama and the actual birthplace of Mardi Gras. Like New Orleans to the west, Mobile is a melting pot with French, Spanish, British, Creole, African and other cultural influences. As one might expect, there are lots of live oaks and southern mansions.

When we arrived in Mobile, our first thought was of food. Before the trip, I’d scouted the dining options and happened upon Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, which is located in the historic Oakleigh Neighborhood.

Callaghan’s specialty is the LA — as in “Lower Alabama” — Burger. It’s made from a combination of beef and something called Conecuh sausage, and you have to get there before noon or they’ll run out of it.

For those of you who don’t know — I didn’t — Conecuh is the name of the Alabama county where the sausage is made.

Unfortunately, it was Friday and the LA Burger is only available on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I ordered a regular cheeseburger, which was great, and John ordered his usual far-southern fare, the shrimp po-boy.

We didn’t have a lot of time in Mobile, but we did a few things. Over the next two days, we visited the Old Plateau Cemetery, where many survivors of the slave ship Clotilda are buried. I wrote about that last week, and you can read about it here.

church st graveyard entrance
Church Street Grave Yard was founded in 1819 for victims of the yellow fever epidemic.

We also went to the Church Street Grave Yard, where I’d hoped to find the grave of Confederate Civil War General Braxton Bragg.

Church Street Grave Yard is located next door to Mobile’s downtown public library. John and I ducked inside the library to escape an afternoon rainstorm and were greeted with marble floors, iron railings and other extravagances. It was an impressive public library and is worth a look, even if it’s not raining.

The cemetery, on the other hand, was suffering from an serious lack of upkeep. The grass was a foot tall in places. There were beer cans strewn about and some monuments and decorative fences were toppled. There was a sketchy-looking man that kept going in and out of the cemetery while we were there.

graveyard beer cans
As much as I hate to say it, the cemetery needed some upkeep.

Despite that, it was a neat place to visit and we walked around for a while.

For all our looking around the grave yard, however, we did not see the grave of Braxton Bragg. That, as I would discover much later, was because he wasn’t there. He’s buried at Magnolia Cemetery, which is also in Mobile. Oh well, maybe next time!

The third historic site we visited in town was the History Museum of Mobile. It’s housed in a circa-1855 building that also has served as a market and later as Mobile’s city hall. As you’d expect, it was full of things — apparently 90,000 items — related to the history of Mobile.

officers toilet css alabama
This fancy officer’s toilet was recovered from the wreckage of the Confederate warship Alabama. The Alabama was attacked by a Union frigate and sunk off the coast of France in 1864.
john augustus walker mural
A WPA-era mural painted by John Augustus Walker in the lobby of the history museum.

The museum was definitely worth visiting and, at $10, was not a big splurge.

In Mobile, we stayed at the Malaga Inn, which was once two homes. It was built for two sisters and their husbands in 1862. It was comfortable, affordable ($125/night), and within walking distance to restaurants and historic sites. I’d definitely stay there again.

After attending the wedding Saturday evening, John and I got back in the car Sunday morning and headed toward home. We’d planned to make it to at least Knoxville that day, but then switched gears and headed for Cookeville, Tenn. John went to college there at Tennessee Tech. It’s also home to Ralph’s Donuts.

Ralph’s had been around for decades and was a favorite hangout for John and his college buddies. I’ve been there a dozen times over the years and I’m particularly fond of the maple-frosted donut. So, when John suggested we go two hours out of our way for a donut, I was game.

Unfortunately, when we arrived in Cookeville, Ralph’s was closed, and would also be closed the following Monday morning. Since we’d last been to Ralph’s, the previous December, the hours had changed. Now, they’re closed Sundays and Mondays, much to our disappointment.

Oh well, as had become a refrain on this trip, “Maybe next time!”

The story of the slave ship Clotilda

The story of the slave ship Clotilda

In July of 1860, a two-masted schooner called the Clotilda sailed into Mobile Bay under cover of darkness. The Clotilda, sometimes spelled “Clotilde,” was returning to Mobile, Ala., from West Africa.

In its cargo hold were 110 men, women and children from the countries now known as Nigeria and Benin. All were destined to be slaves.

The Clotilda’s night-time arrival was far from coincidental. By this time in history, importing slaves into the U.S. had been illegal for 52 years. There were some businessmen, however, who were willing to risk steep fines and threats of imprisonment for what could be a big payoff.

In 1860, a single slave might sell for $500 to $1,000 or more, which meant the Clotilda’s cargo was worth approximately $100,000 — about $2.7 million in 2016 dollars.

But apparently money wasn’t the only thing at stake. So were bragging rights.

In her 1914 book, “Historic Sketches of the South,” Emma Langdon Roche writes that the Clotilda’s risky voyage began with a bet.

Just Landed NYPL
Slaves just arrived from Africa. Johnson & Warner, 1810, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division. (N.Y. Public Library)

“… a group of men were one day standing on the wharf discussing the efforts the Government was finally making to suppress the slave trade, the vigilance which was being exerted, and the possibility for a vessel equipped for such purposes to evade officials,” Roche writes.

“There was some betting — a favorite pastime of the day — and Captain Tim Meaher, a steamboat builder and river-man, who was standing near, wagered that he could send a slaver to the coast of Africa and bring through the port of Mobile a cargo of slaves. The wager was taken and the stakes were large.”

As Roche tells it, Meaher and the Clotilda’s Capt. William Foster, had no trouble finding slaves for sale. Many, perhaps all, of the men, women and children aboard the Clotilda had been prisoners of war, captured during tribal disputes and subsequently sold into slavery.

In her book, Roche writes that “it had long been a part of the traders’ policy to instigate the tribes against each other and in this manner keep the markets stocked.” With this in mind, the business partners also would have been been delighted to see the following report in the Nov. 9, 1858, Mobile Register:

From the west coast of Africa we have advice dated September 21st. The quarreling of the tribes on Sierra Leone River rendered the aspect of things very unsatisfactory. The King of Dahomey [now Benin] was driving a brisk trade in slaves at from fifty to sixty dollars apiece at Whydah. Immense numbers of negroes were collected along the coast for export.

As Roche puts it, upon leaving Mobile, Foster and his crew “sailed directly for Whydah.”

One of the captives aboard the Clotilda was a young man named Oluale Kossola. Sylviane A. Diouf, who authored a book about the Clotilda slaves, writes that Kossola was born in Benin and was a member of the Yoruba people.

“Kossola was born into a modest family, but his grandfather was an officer of the town’s king,” Diouf writes on the website Encyclopedia of Alabama.

She adds that at 14 years of age, Kossola “began training as a soldier and learned how to track, hunt, camp, shoot arrows, throw spears, and defend his town, which was surrounded by four tall walls.”

In April of 1860, when Kossola was about 19 years old and not too long before the Clotilda arrived in Benin, a neighboring tribe attacked Kossola’s town. They killed many of the townspeople and took the rest as prisoners.

According to Diouf, Kossola and the other survivors were marched to the coast, where they spent several weeks in a barracoon, a type of slave pen. Then the captives were loaded on the Clotilda.

Kossola and the others spent 45 days traveling across the Atlantic along what was called the “Middle Passage.” Diouf writes that “Kossola suffered from terrible thirst and the humiliation of having been forced on board naked.”

Once in Mobile, Kossola was owned by Tim Meaher’s brother, James. Because “Kossola” was difficult for his master to pronounce, Diouf writes that the newly enslaved man took the name Cudjo, “a name given by the Fon and Ewe peoples of West Africa to boys who are born on Monday.”

Cudjo Lewis - NYPL
Cudjo Lewis. From “Historic Sketches of the South.” Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/General Research and Reference Division (N.Y. Public Library)

When the Civil War ended five years later, Kossola was again a free man. He took the last name Lewis and married another Clotilda survivor. According to Diouf, the man now known as Cudjo Lewis and other Clotilda survivors wanted to return to Africa, but couldn’t afford the trip.

So, they did the next best thing: they built their own community on the outskirts of Mobile. “After emancipation, the group … reunited from various plantations, bought land, and founded their own settlement, known as Africa Town,” Diouf writes on her website.

“They ruled it according to their customary laws, continued to speak their own languages — which they taught their children — and insisted that writers use their African names so that their families would know that they were still alive.”

In 1928, Alabama-born novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston filmed Lewis as part of an anthropological project. He would have been in his mid-80s at the time, and is featured in the first 40 seconds of film, sitting on a porch and chopping wood for the visiting filmmaker.

Cudjo Lewis died in 1935, the last survivor of the Clotilda slaves. He is buried in the Old Plateau Cemetery in what’s now called Africatown. A tall monument was placed there in his honor, and it’s said that many other Clotilda slaves rest nearby.

Here’s a photo of Lewis’ grave marker at the Old Plateau Cemetery, also called the Africatown Graveyard:

Cudjo Marker

And an historical marker, with more information about the cemetery and its inhabitants, which also include a Buffalo Soldier:

historic marker - plateau cemetery

Etching, top of page, Library of Congress.