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Friday, January 1, 2021

John J. Wright

                                                                           John J. Wright

     On November 18, 1863, John Julius Wright was born into slavery in Spotsylvania County at "the Blanton farm" near Massaponax. His mother was Louisa Alsop; his father's name is unknown. His step-father was Woodson Wright. As a free person after emancipation, John attended a nearby one-room school for black children on what is now Route 1. As a young student, John demonstrated intellectual promise and an aptitude for learning.


                                 Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (Library of Virginia)


     John attended the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute near Petersburg, where he graduated with honors in 1894. The Institute was established by the state legislature in 1882 to educate black scholars who wished to pursue a career in teaching. Over the years, the school's name changed as its mission evolved. In 1902 it became the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute. In 1946 it was renamed Virginia State College. And in 1979 it became Virginia State University. 

     His education now complete, John returned to Spotsylvania County where he became a teacher at the one-room school where he had once been a pupil.

     On February 12, 1896, John married Jennie Garnett, who had also attended the Institute. Like her husband, Jennie also had taught school in Spotsylvania. She died shortly after the birth of their daughter Jeanette in November 1898. Jeanette followed in her parents' footsteps as an educator after completing her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. 

     John next married Cora Jackson at Beulah Baptist Church on April 16, 1902. Cora had been a teacher in the Reedy School District of Caroline County. After marrying John, she assisted him in promoting black education in Spotsylvania County. They had one son, Jesse, who was born in 1903. John and Cora also adopted a boy named Randolph Thurston. 

     John J. Wright believed that the path to success for the black race required the ownership of land and a quality education. During the Jim Crow era, white-led school boards paid scant attention to the educational needs of black children. To help remedy that state of affairs, John organized a meeting of representatives of Spotsylvania's historically black churches. This meeting was held at St. Luke's Baptist Church on July 5, 1905, and the Spotsylvania Sunday School Union was established. One of the decisions made that day was to begin a fund raising effort to build a proper school for black students. 

     After several years of raising money for the new school, the SSSU had enough resources to buy a 158-acre tract in Snell for $3 per acre. A deed dated January 3, 1910 conveyed the property to John J. Wright and two other trustees of the SSSU. From 1910-1912, plans were made for the new building which were then approved by the County Board of Education. Master carpenter and contractor Alfred "Allie" Fairchild was chosen to construct the school, which was called the Snell Industrial School (it was also called the Spotsylvania Industrial School).

                                                                         Alfred Fairchild

     In the fall of  1913, the first classroom was completed and classes began for 47 black students in grades 1-7. The first teacher at the school was Sadie Coates Combs, who had been a student of John J. Wright and had earned her degree at the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute at the age of 19.

                                                                    Sadie Coates Combs

     Work continued on the new school, which was completed in 1922 at a cost of $7,500. John J. Wright served as the school's first principal. The building consisted of four classrooms, twelve bedrooms and four rooms in the basement dedicated to feeding the students. Although this school was created to serve black students from throughout Spotsylvania County, no provision was made to provide bus transportation on that scale. If black students could make it to Spotsylvania Court House, the county would then bus them the three miles to the school. For that reason, the Snell Training School was, in part, a boarding school.

                                                                     Snell Training School

     In 1927, the SSSU paid off the remaining indebtedness of the school, and a cornerstone was laid during a well-attended ceremony on October 2. The cornerstone was laid by the Prospect Lodge of Lewiston, assisted by the Prince Hall Lodge of Fredericksburg. In that same year, the building and four acres were leased for 20 years to the County Board of Education.

     By 1930, there were 135 students attending the Snell Training School, with a faculty of four teachers. During the early 1930s two years of high school instruction were added and two more rooms were added to the building, as well as some other improvements. A library was added in 1934, and that same year the school was accredited by the State Department of Education.

                                                                              John J. Wright
     John J. Wright died of apoplexy while at home on January 2, 1931. He is buried at Beulah Baptist Church. At some time after his death the Training School was renamed John J. Wright School
                                                             Free Lance Star 3 January 1931


     Shortly after 9 p.m. on February 3, 1941, John J. Wright School caught fire. The conflagration apparently was started by an overheated stove in one of the students' bedrooms.

                                                            Free Lance-Star 4 February 1941

                                                            Free Lance-Star 5 February 1941

                                                            Free Lance-Star 6 February 1941

     In the immediate aftermath of the school's destruction, the decision was made to modify the surviving building that had served as an auditorium into classrooms. Over time, other temporary buildings, referred to as "tar paper shacks," were built to accommodate the students. The Spotsylvania County School Board agreed to build a new school and pay the teachers' salaries, In return, the SSSU donated to the county 20 acres of the original school site and turned over the $20,000 insurance settlement.

     A number of obstacles arose in starting construction of the new school in a timely fashion. Not the least of these was the reality of World War II, which made large projects requiring manpower and materials difficult. Delays were also caused by the insurance settlement, the lengthy negotiation  on the size of the new school, the contract bidding and so on. Ultimately, the Literary Fund of Virginia--a state-sponsored program that made available low-interest loans for school construction--provided most of the funds.

                                                             Free Lance-Star 16 October 1950 

     The groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the new John J. Wright Consolidated School took place on October 16, 1950. The school opened its doors to black students in grades 1-12 in 1952. In April of the following year, the school was officially dedicated

                                                           Free Lance-Star 27 April 1953                              

     Desegregation of Spotsylvania's public schools began in 1963, when 7 girls ages 9-15 from John J. Wright Consolidated School began attending classes at previously all-white schools. The county's public schools were completely integrated in 1968. At that time, John J. Wright became an intermediate school, serving black and white students in grades 6 and 7. When the 8th grade was added in 1978, the school was renamed John J. Wright Middle School, which remained in operation until 2006. Today the building serves as the John J. Wright Education and Cultural Center. 

The primary sources for this article are:







Wednesday, August 19, 2020

William Aquilla Harris

William Aquilla Harris (Courtesy of Rich Morrison)


     He came from a distinguished family that arrived in Spotsylvania in the early 1840s, and during his long and useful life, William Aquilla Harris made a significant mark in the community in the form of public service. He is best remembered as an excellent physician, and was my family's doctor for decades.

     William was born in Spotsylvania County on December 28, 1877 to Thomas Addison Harris and the former Mary Elizabeth Poole. At the time of William's birth, Thomas was overseer of the poor for Spotsylvania. The county poor house was located off Gordon Road near Old Plank Road. I believe the overseer's house was located on the poor house property. Thomas would later serve as county sheriff for twenty years, and then served the last nine years of his life as clerk of the Spotsylvania court.

House on Court House Road opposite the court house (Confederate Memorial Literary Society)

           Four years after William's birth, Thomas bought a 260 acre farm that lay along a stretch of Court House Road from Brock Road north. This was the house in which William spent most of his childhood. As a young boy, Thomas had attended Shady Grove Church with his family. But now that he was established at the courthouse, he and his family became members of nearby Zion Methodist Church. In the photograph below, William Harris appears seated in front (#58):

Sunday school group of Zion Methodist Church, about 1885

     William appears in another group portrait of that era. The photograph below was taken at Spotsylvania Court House about 1890. Shown are William (#5) and his father, Sheriff Thomas Harris (#13):


          William was educated in the public school near the court house until he was 15, then was tutored by a Professor George Jenks, an Englishman. He then studied Under Dr. George Rayland of Johns Hopkins University. In 1898, William entered the Medical College of Virginia, and earned his medical degree in 1901. He was president of his class. 

9126 Court House Road

     Upon his graduation from medical school, Thomas gave his son a portion of the family farm on which to build a house. During that eventful year, on July 3, 1901, William married Dora Crismond, who was the daughter of Spotsylvania clerk of court Joseph Patrick Henry Crismond. They moved into their newly completed house at 9126 Court House Road in 1903. Dr. William Harris ran his medical practice from this house. William and Dora raised a son and two daughters here. This building still stands.

The Free Lance 11 January 1902

          Among Dr. Harris's earliest patients was my grandfather, Horace Row, and Zebulon "Buckshot" Payne, who were injured in a buggy mishap in 1902. Buckshot was seriously hurt. Twenty years later, Dr. Harris made out the death certificate for Mr. Payne, who drank himself to death. In 1939, Dr. Harris made out the death certificate for my grandfather, who died of a heart attack in Sperryville while picking apples.

Mary Houston (1882-1916)

     Three years later, Dr. Harris treated Horace's mother, Elizabeth Houston Row, while she was enjoying a visit from her niece, Mary Houston of Rockbridge County, Virginia. Upon her return home, Mary wrote a highly entertaining letter to her aunt, in which she made reference to William: "When your letter came, I was just starting to write to you. You don't know how sorry I am to know that you are not well again--I think I'll have to go back there and punch that doctor's head--he is too good looking anyway and a black eye would be just the thing for the old guy."

     William Harris was an early adopter of the automobile, and as by 1910 he was making house visits by car. This experience made him an avid and long-time proponent of improving local roads. He served for a number of years on the county's road commission. He was also a member of the Automobile Association of Virginia and the Fredericksburg Motor Club.

     In addition to his medical practice, William was actively involved in the civic life of his community. For a time he served as county coroner and was head of the board of health for Spotsylvania County. He served on the county school board. He was a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. In 1912, he was appointed to the board of visitors of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

     In March 1917, Dr. Harris wrote this letter to my great-grandmother, reassuring her about her health and telling her that she should make the trip to visit her brothers in Rockbridge County. He also comments on the recent marriage of Horace to my grandmother, Fannie Kent. (Eleven years later, Dr. Harris signed my great-grandmother's death certificate).

     During World War I, Dr. Harris volunteered his services with the 304th Sanitary Train, which provided medical support for the 79th Division during its service in France. On June 30, 1918 he departed from Hoboken, New Jersey aboard USS Mongolia as a major in the Medical Reserve Corps. In June the following year he returned to the United States as a lieutenant Colonel in the MRC aboard USS Shoshone.

Member of House of Delegates, 1938

     Dr. Harris served three terms in the House of Delegates, 1936-1942. It was during this time that his wife's health began to fail. Dora Harris died at their home on April 29, 1938 She lies buried in the Confederate Cemetery at Spotsylvania Court House. The following year, on October 19, 1939, William married Mattie Puckett of Russell County Virginia.

     William Aquilla Harris died suddenly at home of coronary thrombosis on May 25, 1944. He is buried near Dora in the Confederate Cemetery. 


     After William's passing, Mattie Harris taught at Spotsylvania High School. She died on September 22, 1956. She is also buried in the Confederate Cemetery.

Mattie Harris at Spotsylvania High School, 1954



Biography of Thomas Addison Harris:

Biography of Joseph Patrick Henry Crismond:

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Harris Brothers Go To War

Map detail of Spotsylvania County, 1863

     In the early 1840s, Robert McCracken Harris moved his family from Warren County, New Jersey to Spotsylvania, where he had bought a 250-acre farm near Shady Grove Methodist Church. His first four children were born in New Jersey; the next five would be native Virginians. The Harrises attended Shady Grove and enjoyed the respect of their neighbors. They did not own slaves. Instead, Mr. Harris employed two free women of color, Bettie and Mary Curtis, who lived on their farm for years.
     As the social and political structure of the nation began to fracture with the coming Civil War, it would have been interesting to hear conversations within the walls of the Harris home regarding their allegiances. All four of their sons of military age fought during the war. Only three wore the Confederate uniform.
     Charles Montreville Harris (1845-1918) enlisted in the Fredericksburg Light Artillery. Although I could find no information about him from the compiled service records of Confederate soldiers, his service was mentioned in his obituary. He returned to Spotsylvania after the war and married Margaret Victoria Faulconer in 1868. They settled in Orange County, where he successfully farmed until he died of a stroke on November 19, 1918.

The Daily Star 20 November 1918

     Two Harris brothers, John A. (1840-1908) and Thomas Addison (1844-1912), enlisted in Company D of the 30th Virginia Infantry. They served with Benjamin Cason Rawlings (1845-1908), the Spotsylvania lad who ran away from home in December 1860 in order to join the Confederate army in Charleston, South Carolina. Several months later, he transferred to Company D of the 30th, where he was promoted to lieutenant at age17 and became captain of the company at age 18 in 1863. In the early 1900s, Ben wrote a memoir of his experiences during the war, which was the subject of Byrd Barnette Tribble's book Benjamin Cason Rawlings: First Virginia Volunteer For the South.

Lieutenant Benjamin Cason Rawlings (Courtesy of Byrd Tribble)

     In his memoir, Ben related an incident involving John Harris. The 30th had been deployed to City Point, Virginia in late May 1862 to keep an eye on Federal gunboats in the James River:

     "One night around one or two o'clock I was roused by one of the guards, calling me to come down right quick. I found big excitement in camp. Everything was dark; all fires and lanterns were out. Brumley, one of the pickets, had brought in a prisoner. He reported that he had started from his post with Harris, another picket, and another prisoner. The other prisoner had stabbed Harris, whom Brumley had been obliged to leave along the edge of the railroad tracks while he brought his prisoner in. I was ordered to send out a detail of a corporal and four men to bring in the wounded man to camp. We found Harris with six or seven wounds in his breast and arms, near death from loss of blood. We carried him on a stretcher to our regimental surgeon and sent for whiskey.
     "...I got a first hand account of the trouble from Sergeant Johnson. Near the crossroad, a sentinel saw two men come blundering in from the bushes and arrested them. One seemed to be a sailor. The sergeant foolishly neglected to search them but put each one in the charge of a picket and started them to camp. Brumley, who was not more than 15 years old, kept his in front of him at the muzzle of his gun, but Harris let his prisoner walk by his side and talk to him. After a short distance, this sailor, a big, strong fellow, all at once threw his left arm around Harris, grabbed his gun, stabbed him seven or eight times in the breast and shoulder, and ran back into the bushes. Brumley was just a few feet ahead of Harris, but it was too dark for him to help, so he kept marching and left Harris by the railroad. I went on to City Point, notified the pickets, and then came on back, reaching camp just before daylight, very tired.
     "The next day some of the cavalry ran across the escaped prisoner in the woods and arrested him, putting him on a horse behind a cavalryman to send him to camp. As soon as the two were out of sight of the other men, the Yankee jerked the cavalryman's pistol out of the holster, knocked him on the head, and took off for the bushes again. He was never seen afterwards. The two were supposed to be spies sent from the boats and no doubt they got back that night. Harris was sent to the hospital and finally after a long time recovered and served the rest of the war. He is now a successful merchant in Fredericksburg but still carries the scars on the breast and arms."

Thomas Addison Harris (Courtesy of Rich Morrison)

     Thomas Harris was discharged from the 30th Virginia on July 23, 1862. A month later, he joined Company E of the 9th Virginia Cavalry at Hanover Court House. He served as a scout for General J.E.B. Stuart. On June 21, 1863 Thomas's horse was killed in action during a fight with Alfred Pleasanton's cavalry at Upperville in Loudoun County. The wartime exploit for which he is best remembered took place during the Battle of Five Forks on April 2, 1865. Much of the fighting took place at "Burnt Quarter" in Dinwiddie County. Widow Mary Gilliam, who was then nursing a sick servant, and three of her daughters were trapped in their house as the fighting raged around them. Confederate General W.H.F. Lee, realizing that their lives were in peril, asked for five volunteers to escort them to safety. Corporal Thomas A. Harris was one of those five. Mary Gilliam refused to leave her ailing slave, but her daughters were safely brought out of harm's way. During this action Thomas was severely wounded, and his career as a cavalryman came to a close.
     Thomas returned to Spotsylvania after the war, married and raised a large family. Over the years he held a number of positions of public trust, including twenty years as Spotsylvania sheriff and nine as clerk of the Spotsylvania court. Several years ago, I wrote a biography of Thomas Harris, which can be read at
     William Harris (1836-1911), the oldest of the fighting Harrises, evidently identified more closely with the cause of the United States than his brothers, and he cast his lot with the Union army. He chose not to enlist in a New Jersey regiment, probably to avoid the possibility of shooting at his own brothers. Instead, he "was in active service on the western frontier as a scout," as reported in his obituary. I found a pension card which indicates that he served in the 25th Wisconsin Infantry and in the Veteran Reserve Corps. The V.R.C. allowed soldiers who were too sick or too badly injured for service in the field to perform light duties, such as those of a guard or hospital orderly. Like his three brothers, William returned to Spotsylvania after the war.

Pension card of William Harris

     John Harris married Annie McCracken, who was also from New Jersey, in 1873. By that time John owned a grocery at 615 Commerce (now William) Street near the city cemetery of Fredericksburg. John and Annie had three sons and a daughter, all of whom survived to adulthood.
     On October 14, 1870, William Harris married his neighbor, Mary Ann "Annie" Buchanan, at the Spotsylvania home of her brother, William Shelton Buchanan. Annie had grown up at "Shady Grove Corner," the Buchanan farm across Catharpin Road from Shady Grove Church. Before she married John, she taught school for a time at Hazel Hill. At the time they were married, William was working as a caretaker at Oakley farm which had been bought from Leroy Dobyns by Joseph Lichtenstern in 1868. William worked there until 1872, when Lichtenstern sold Oakley after running up large debts. William and Annie then moved to Fredericksburg and settled at 724 Commerce Street. John took William into the grocery business, which was thereafter called Harris & Brother. They remained in partnership until 1896, when William retired from the business.

The Free Lance 17 February 1885

     In 1894, Harris & Brother was burglarized by professional safe crackers, as reported in the June 12, 1894 edition of The Daily Star:

     John Harris played an active role in the civic life of Fredericksburg. He was involved in local Democratic politics and served as town magistrate. He was a devoted member of the Baptist Church and of organizations like the Sons of Liberty. He died at home on May 3, 1908

The Daily Star 4 May 1908

     William outlived his brother by three years. He passed away at his home on January 10, 1911. He and Annie are buried at Shady Grove Methodist Church.

The Daily Star 10 January 1911

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Fisticuffs on Princess Anne Street

Cardinal Richelieu Coleman (Library of Virginia)

     Cardinal Richelieu Coleman was born at "Alta Vista," a large farm in eastern Spotsylvania County, on November 19, 1878. His father, Solon T. Coleman, was a well known citizen who was active in Democratic Party politics. Solon was appointed as a registration official in the county in 1867 and was elected to the House of Delegates in 1893. He died the following year.
     Richelieu followed in his father's footsteps and immersed himself in the boisterous world of local politics while still in his early twenties. He was elected twice to the House of Delegates, in 1909 and 1911; the portraits above were taken with the other delegates during those sessions. After his stint in the state legislature, Richelieu was elected as deputy commissioner of revenue in Spotsylvania. During the 1920s, he was working in the Virginia attorney general's office, was a member of the Virginia State Democratic Committee and served on the Spotsylvania County Elections Board. Richelieu's son, Solon Bernard Coleman (1901-1974), also decided on a life of public service and served as commonwealth's attorney, was elected to the Virginia state legislature and was appointed circuit judge.

Charles Ainsworth MacHenry (The Daily Star 29 June 1925)

     Charles Ainsworth MacHenry (1875-1957) was an attorney in New York City. In 1916, he bought historic Oakley farm on Catharpin Road. At the time, Oakley consisted of 1,081 acres. In 1919, he added an additional 730 acres. Like most of the owners of Oakley since the 1860s, MacHenry was largely an absentee landlord. However, he qualified as an attorney in Virginia and practiced in Spotsylvania when he happened to be there. He employed William Lee Kent as caretaker at Oakley 1916-1919, and then hired George Day Stephens to oversee the property until 1926. He also had two engineers, named Stockwell and Ashmead, tending to the mining activity at Oakley. The mining venture was not a success. In 1926, he sold Oakley to George Beals, whose family has owned it ever since.

Oakley, 1935 (Frances Benjamin Johnston)

William Lee Kent

George Day Stephens (Courtesy of Matt Ogle)

     A general meeting of concerned Spotsylvania citizens met in the court house on March 17, 1924. MacHenry was the primary speaker that evening. The stated purpose of the meeting was to discuss the secretive manner in which a road bill had been passed by the legislature. A resolution was passed in which Governor Trinkle was asked to veto that bill. Those in attendance wanted to address other concerns, and MacHenry was only too happy to oblige. Another resolution was passed asking the Governor to remove Judge Frederick William Coleman (Richelieu's cousin) from office as Spotsylvania's Commissioner in Chancery and Commissioner of Accounts.
Frederick William Coleman (The Daily Star 29 March 1926)

     The following day, March 18, 1924, an angry confrontation occurred on Princess Anne Street, as described by that day's edition of The Daily Star:

     The case had the usual number of delays and postponements and finally came to trial in early May 1924. Once again, this was front page news in the May 3, 1924 edition of The Daily Star:

     Fortunately for Richelieu Coleman, his life was not defined by this unfortunate incident. He went on to serve in a number of positions of public trust over the coming years, as described in obituary published in the May 8, 1963 edition of The Free Lance-Star: