Henry Martin

While we applaud the Daily Progress decision to run articles about those formerly enslaved at the University as part of their “from the archives” series, we do recommend that the paper actually take the time to consult some experts before publishing pieces like this one on Henry Martin.

Henry Martin was indeed, according to his own recollections and those of others, born into slavery at Monticello in 1826, perhaps on the very day that Thomas Jefferson died. He was likely sold at an estate auction in 1827 to William Carr and ended up owned by the Carr family. He lived and worked at the Bentivar plantation until ca. 1847, when he was rented out, likely by the Ferrel Carr estate as a way to maintain the estate’s financial bottom line. They rented him to a relative, Mrs. Dabney Carr, then running a boarding house just north of the University (an area that would later be known as Carr’s Hill). At Mrs. Carr’s, he worked as a dining room attendant and also hauled wood from Bentivar to the University and then coal in the area.

During the Civil War, he was again rented out, this time to Mr. Bolling Haxall in Richmond. According to one report, he ran away from Richmond, “in the guise of a Confederate soldier,” and returned to Charlottesville and the neighborhood around the University, where he was put to work by the school in one of the hospitals in town.

After the war, now a free man, he worked odd jobs at the University, and was briefly hired by Charles Murray to work on the Abell farm in Albemarle County. By 1868, he returned for good to the University after he was hired as a janitor and bellringer. He would continue to work at the University until 1909-10, when he retired.

In 1890, he had already developed a reputation amongst white students at the University as “Uncle Henry,” the faithful slave who knew his place as a menial laborer supporting white learning. They saw him as someone who never desired an education (this was part of a post-war Lost Cause theme–the formerly enslaved were happy in slavery and not ready or even desirous for freedom or its fruits).

In that year, the student publication “College Topics” published a letter from Mr. Martin recounting his life story:

“To The Editors of College Topics:
By your request I have consented to the state the history of my connection with the University of Virginia.
I came to the University in the year 1850. I first served for the term of two years as waiter, in the dining hall on Carr’s Hill, managed at that time by Mrs. Carr, after whom this renowned resort is named.
Remaining on Carr’s Hill until the war began, I then served as a waiter for the wounded Confederate soldiers that were in the different hospitals surrounding the University. After the close of the war I was employed as a janitor for the rotunda and in that capacity I have since served. During my connection with the University in these capacities for the term of forty years, I have been kindly treated by both the faculty and the students, and it has been my aim to treat every one respectfully, and if, in any instance, I have done otherwise it was when I was in a passion and was a mistake of the head and not one of the heart.
As the years have gone by, and students have come and gone, I have always welcomed the new ones, and have always been loath to part with old ones. Men who now occupy places of honor and distinction in this government, I have known and served, and I hope that for many years to come shall be treated as kindly as I have been in the past.

So, Henry Martin, after a lifetime’s struggle, first as an enslaved person for forty years and then as an African American low wage worker in post-emancipation and then Jim Crow Virginia, earned a well-deserved pension for his hard work.

If Mr. Martin was faithful to anyone, it was likely first and foremost to his family and friends in Charlottesville. He almost certainly wore the mask of the “happy slave” when at work and in public setting surrounded by white students and faculty, but his letter suggests that he was not actually content to work for low wages and did in fact learn how to read and write. In 1909-1910, he earned a pension, getting his then current salary for the rest of his life, but at that point, he had already given a lifetime’s labor to white enslavers and the white University.

Only five years later, at the age of eighty-nine, Henry Martin would die. The Daily Progress described his funeral as “the largest and most distinguished crowd of white people that ever attended a colored man’s funeral in Charlottesville.” The service was held at First Baptist Church on West Main Street, one of the first African American churches in town and the church where William Gibbons, formerly enslaved at UVA, became the first minister of color.

After the funeral service, he would be buried in the Daughters of Zion (an African American mutual aid society) cemetery, described in 1915 by the Daily Progress as “the little colored burying ground in the rear of Oakwood Cemetery.” This was one of two segregated burial areas in and around Oakwood Cemetery in Charlottesville.

In life and death, Henry Martin, for white students, professors, and townspeople, continued to be “Uncle Henry,” the embodiment of the white supremacist “slavery was a positive good” school of thought that was linked to Lost Cause mythologizing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. UVA student yearbook Corks and Curls even ran an article in 1914 (the year before he died) that was written in an imagined slave dialect (“I dun know why they named me Henry Martin. Ole Missus got it out’n a book”; “I heard all of the Bible lectures of Dr. McGuffey and Mr. Minor. I learned more from them lectures than a colored man ever gets out’n readin’ and writin’.”). The actual details of Henry Martin’s life, however, hint at something far more powerful–a man who struggled for nearly 90 years to survive in enslavement and later the Jim Crow era and knew far more than he would admit in public. His life was in many ways a testament to quiet resistance to white supremacist ideas about African Americans.

His life and the bell he rung daily at the University of Virginia are now part of the exhibit in the new Rotunda Visitor’s Center, where the story of slavery at UVA is now plainly woven into the museum’s interpretation of the history of the school.

-Kirt von Daacke