CHARLOTTE COURT HOUSE — On Oct. 23, 1867 Joseph R. Holmes became the first Black man in Charlotte County to win an election, to represent the county in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1868.
And this year on that same day, a historical marker is being dedicated in Charlotte Court House’s square for Holmes. Most locals don’t know his story, though they may have heard veiled references to the man, who isn’t primarily remembered for his service to locals. He also was murdered there, at the courthouse, for his political efforts.
The state historical marker describing his life and murder, which was installed earlier this month, stands on the same corner as two confederate memorials, just visible from the Rt. 40 interchange that brings people into town, as they crest the hill and begin to catch view of the courthouse itself—the only one still standing that Thomas Jefferson designed.
The marker is the result of a concerted effort by Kathy Liston, a retired archaeologist, who at the behest of descendants in 2012 researched Holmes, uncovered unknown records related to Holmes and raised donations locally to fund the marker. It is being dedicated with a ceremony on Saturday the 23rd at 1 p.m. in the Old Courthouse. The event is open to the public, but seating is limited, and masks are required.
Holmes’ slaying in May 1869 is described by Liston as “a lynching by gun instead of rope that silenced a Black man who dared to seek the rights the recently-ended Civil War had been fought to give him.”
What she found in the courthouse archives point squarely at the killers, “four men related to prominent families whose influence allowed them to escape justice,” she said.
She hopes the marker will serve as a small measure of the recognition and justice Holmes was denied 152 years ago.
And she’s tireless in that effort, checking daily on progress at and making sure there’s no interference. When walking across the courthouse square, it’s rare she meets a strange face — whether she’s helped them with a personal project, or because she’s been a thorn in their backside during a hotly contested local issue. And almost everyone she comes across has an opinion on her work and the marker.
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Joseph Holmes had a full life. He was married to a woman named Mary Clarke and had four children — three sons and a daughter. He was born around 1838 into slavery in the county and after emancipation, became a cobbler.
Many accounts list Holmes as a servant to Judge Hunter Holmes Marshall of Roxobel Plantation in the county. But Liston said her research shows it is possible his owner was the judge’s cousin, Capt. John H. Marshall. Either way, the Marshall family was familiar with Holmes before the judge’s son was indicted for his murder.
He was an outspoken supporter of the radical wing of the Republican Party, which demanded equal political and legal rights for newly-freed people. Party leaders noted his activism, and he was appointed as a delegate to the Virginia Republican convention in Richmond in August 1867.
But his aspirations were larger than that. Later in 1867 Holmes was elected to represent Charlotte County in the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1868 in Richmond alongside Edward Nelson, also black, representing Halifax. He defeated a former Confederate and Virginia Supreme Court justice, Wood Bouldin, for the role. As a rebel state, Virginia was required by Congress to write a state constitution incorporating the proposed 14th and 15th amendments to the U. S. Constitution guaranteeing the rights of freedmen as a condition of rejoining the Union.
But Holmes’ appointment, and that of other Black politicians, were lampooned by conservative press in Richmond. One publication described him as: “prominent rather from the merriment he created on rising to speak than from any participation in the serious work of the body. He was good natured, polite, and a great favorite with the reporters, to whom he was specially courteous, and whose daily appearance he always greeted with a broad laugh.”
James P. Cowardin, the son of an influential Richmond newspaper publisher, made fun of Holmes in a lecture called “The Humors of Reconstruction.”
His reform proposals offered during the convention continued to draw ire from white traditionalists. Appointed to a finance committee, he proposed widespread tax reform, and also tried to reform education. General John M. Schofield, commander of the First Military District, described Holmes as: “Colored. Shoemaker. Can read and write a little. Ignorant. Bad character. Radical.”
In 1868, he bought 11 acres of land near Keysville, adjacent to Charlotte Court House, and was actively writing letters to the local Freedman’s Bureau agent, advocating establishment of a public school.
At home and in Richmond, Holmes advocated for a better life for the Black residents of Charlotte, according to Liston. Had he lived, he had higher political aspirations. But Reconstruction was tense in the area.
All of these accounts of Holmes’ life are easily accessible, and due to Liston’s efforts Holmes’ story has a wider reach, including a new entry in the Encyclopedia Virginia, an online resource run by Virginia Humanities.
During her research, she found something no other historian had unearthed: the original witness statements regarding Holmes’ death. They were mislaid in the courthouse, tied around with red ribbon, and missing the first six pages. What it reveals are first-hand accounts of what happened.
According to the statements, John Marshall and Griffin Stith Marshall, sons of Judge Hunter Holmes Marshall; their cousin William T. Boyd; and friend Macon C. “Mackey” Morris had formed something of a mob outside the courthouse on May 3, 1869. It was court day, so the square was buzzing with activity.
John Marshall was boasting around town that he shot a Black man. According to newspaper reports that the time, John Marshall said “I’ve killed one negro and I’ll have Joe Holmes blood before night.” It turns out, Liston found, that man didn’t die.
Upon hearing this, around 5 p.m., Holmes made a line to the courthouse to speak out and potentially obtain an arrest warrant for Marshall. But when he arrived, Holmes was approached by all four men. The witness statements all agree on this: Holmes demanded that shooting in the streets must stop. They exchanged words. Boyd struck Holmes with his cane. John Marshall drew a pistol and struck Holmes on the head. As Holmes fell back a few steps, Marshall fired point-blank, hitting Holmes in the chest.
What ensued can be described as little but a hunt. Then men pursued Holmes to the courthouse, shooting him again. Holmes cried “Oh, Lord!” and, as he staggered up the courthouse steps, a third shot rang out. He took his last breath and expired inside the door of the building.
Witnesses agreed that John Marshall fired the first shot and that the two other shots came from the group, but they differed as to who fired them. Some said Griffin Marshall, others said Boyd or Morris. They also disagreed whether Holmes had a pistol. One witness claimed Holmes had one in his hand before he reached the courthouse door; others said they never saw it until the doctor took it from his dead hand. No one said Holmes fired.
What’s missing from the witness statements are the first six pages that included statements from the doctors who examined the body. Liston wonders what they revealed — exactly how many bullets were in Joe Holmes’ body, which one killed him. Would he have survived the first blow?
On June 9, 1869 a “true bill” of indictment for murder was returned by the grand jury against all but Griffin Marshall. Arrest warrants were issued for the other three. But the Marshall brothers and Boyd fled town immediately after the shooting. Mackey Morris was arrested and held on a $500 bond, according to records Liston found. He posted bail and fled.
“Joseph Holmes’s killers never faced justice,” she said. “But then, the authorities never looked that hard for any of them. They had too much influence in the county and shooting a Black man was not considered all that important.”
Morris is never mentioned again in the court records. Census records trace Morris to Kentucky, but by 1878 he was back in Virginia. He spent years in Roanoke working as a policeman and ended up in Alexandria, where he died about 1909.
Liston traced William Townes Boyd, who lived at Wheatland plantation in Mecklenburg County, at the time of the shooting, to Tipton County, Tenn., where he became a banker. He died in 1916.
The Marshall brothers’ travels were related in a memoir written by Griffin’s daughter, Margaret Marshall, first published in The Hudson Review in 1971. Margaret wrote that she heard the Holmes story from her mother more than 35 years after the fact. Census and other records bear out some of her story of their travels.
The memoir says John and Griffin fled to Texas, then to San Francisco and later to Elko, Nev. After working as cowhands, the brothers became ranchers, John in Montana and Griffin in Idaho. John died in 1883 and Griffin in 1924.
Through the years, the story has found its way into Virginia history books, including an account by famous Virginia historian Virginius Dabney and William Cabell Bruce’s “Below The James: A Plantation Sketch,” which came out in 1918. But Liston says most Southern writers blamed Holmes for the incident, painting the accused men as unfortunate victims of circumstance, some even declaring them totally innocent.
“This was but one of innumerable crimes against freedpeople during Reconstruction,” she said. “But Joseph R. Holmes’s name deserves to be remembered. He stands out as a man who stood up for, and died, for his convictions. Holmes believed that everyone is created equal and deserved to be treated as such. In his own words he wanted peace.”
News of his death was widely published at the time, reaching newspapers in Australia. And by all accounts, the story is better known outside of Charlotte County than it is inside the county.
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The story of Joseph Holmes was passed down in Lisa Henderson’s family for generations. A lawyer residing in Georgia, she is a direct descendent of his brother Jasper Holmes, and her branch is the only one that still bears the Holmes name. Her parents met in Newport News, but later moved to North Carolina, where Henderson grew up.
Her paternal grandmother Mary Agnes Holmes Allen was from Charles City County. Mary Agnes was born there, but her family was from Charlotte County, and family lore goes that they left because her uncle was killed while engaging in political activism.
But Black genealogy isn’t easy, and not just because families move around. Black families simply don’t have the same resources available, like census records that name and position ancestors in time. In the census of 1860, her ancestors are likely not listed by names, simply ages and gender under their owners.
She contacted Liston after reading a piece she wrote online about Charlotte County, and hoped that residing there, Liston would have access to people and documents she didn’t.
Henderson previously visited the area in 2012 and saw the school in Keysville that Holmes advocated for. She walked his death march from the corner of Legrande Avenue and Virginia 40 to the door of the courthouse and was moved to walk in his footsteps.
“Sometimes as a Black genealogist, it’s hard to see yourself in history, but history is local. There are heroes right where we are,” she said.
Just as important, she said, is to understand these people had agency, rather than acted upon. There were many like Holmes, who took upon himself to advocate for his community.
To find out her family’s stories, she put miles on her car, recorded oral histories and refused to leave a stone unturned. She said research takes patience. She said through this research she also understands “the value of speaking our ancestors’ names. They lived lives worth remembering,”
But there are still mysteries she doesn’t have the answers to. She doesn’t know what happened to Joseph Holmes’ children. They disappear from the record soon after the killing and she assumes they left the area and changed their names. Who wouldn’t, she added, since their father was killed and no one was brought to justice for the slaying.
In fact, her great-uncle was a dentist who moved back to the Charlotte County area, where he raised two sons, all deceased now. She said her great-uncle would have certainly known the story, but when she asked her cousins, “did they know,” they didn’t.
“Their father knew and didn’t tell them as a protection,” she said.
What she had was an outline, but after working with Liston, she could fill it in with incredible detail.
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Liston had been solving other mysteries when Henderson contacted her. But Joseph Holmes has always been on her list to look into. She first encountered his name in Bruce’s work in 1998. Her list is long and she’s systematically working through it.
She moved to Charlotte County in the early 1990’s for a house, called Westview. An archaeologist, she’d been searching for a farmhouse that was never touched and wanted to restore one, to dig on the property untouched. Built in 1832 by John Elam, Westview is a two-story brick federal home that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The family left all their papers with the house. And as she did her research, she discovered a darkness that shrouded the place. The enslaved people who worked there didn’t move far and some stayed on as day laborers or tenant farmers. She noticed that many of the Black residents who lived near the home had the same surnames she saw popping up in farm records. She began collecting oral histories and doing her own research to fill out local history with stories that had been ignored in the past.
She is the kind of person who always has a cause, according to her friend and sometimes co-researcher P.K. Pettus. And Liston is used to looking through archives. Her original area of interest was the War of 1812, being from Maryland. But locating in Charlotte County, she had an incredible stroke of luck: the original courthouse never burned down like many in Virginia did, so all the primary documents still exist. She found the Holmes witness statements almost immediately. They’d simply been mislaid many years ago.
Getting the marker made by the state and approved to go on the courthouse lawn was not her first bout with the Board of Supervisors in Charlotte. Starting in 2014, when remodeling and adding on the original courthouse was discussed, she and Pettus were among those who advocated for a separate building to preserve the original structure. They have stood up for multiple historic structures under threat of change or being torn down.
Donna Fore, supervisor for the Aspen and Phenix district, was one of Liston’s supporters on the board for the marker.
“The most informed people don’t know this story,” Fore said. “We can’t undo what happened to him, but by putting this up we can try to honor his memory. Charlotte County is a beautiful place and people should know their history.”
Not the full board was in agreement, though, when they voted in May 2020 on whether the marker could be located there. Chairman Gary Walker voted against placing the marker on the courthouse lawn, citing in his comments during the May 10 meeting that cluttering the lawn was a bad idea. He did not return calls and emails for comment.
In an email to Liston dated May 8 of that year, he elaborated: “While Mr. Holmes may be worthy of this honor there are others who have served in the General Assembly and the military who would also qualify for this honor. If it were to be placed at his home site I would be voting in favor but setting the precedent of placing it on the courthouse lawn would be unwise, in my opinion. If that is the only option I will have to vote no.”
Liston finds this puzzling, since the square already has “multiple markers for Patrick Henry and John Randolph, and one for [colonial-era politician] Paul Carrington. There are no markers or monuments of any kind [on the green] memorializing African American contributions to the county.”
And next to the Holmes marker are two monuments given to the county in memory of Confederates. The first is a statue of a Confederate soldier with an inscription reading “Gloria Victis. Charlotte County cherishes the memory of her heroes under the auspices of H.A. Carrington Camp C.V. No. 34 August 27, 1901.”
The second is a cannon which serves as a “memorial to all wars” according to board minutes, but was installed in 2006 by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. According to board minutes from the first half of that year, there was no discussion or vote taken to place the monument there.
Locals including Liston and Pettus recall that Bob Moates, a gun store owner in town, a Robert E. Lee impersonator whose likeness to the general was boasted in his 2009 obituary and founder of the local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veteran, was instrumental in getting the cannon, as was Walker. A 2006 article in Southside Virginia’s Cooperative Living magazine in which Moates and Walker are both quoted reads, “Also for the Civil War buff, visitors will see an 1841 replica cannon that was placed in the courthouse square this past summer alongside the Confederate War Memorial.” But like many Southern localities, Charlotte County is embroiled in a fight over its monuments.
At the behest of citizens, and following an email from local resident James Morton last year, the board undertook a monuments commission headed up by supervisor Kay Pierantoni. At their meeting last Tuesday, Oct. 12, the commission said it found support from the community to move the original Confederate War Memorial, which has already been moved multiple times. Pierantoni said they came to that “we cannot forget the inhuman practice of slavery practiced in this county” but wanted to “handle this in a healing way.” Their recommendation is to move it to the nearby Charlotte County Museum. But she also continued to say of the confederate dead, “most were not slave owners, many buried…in unmarked graves…” and that this statue was their local site of remembrance.
She concluded with the statement, “No one up here has black skin. We can’t know what it is to walk in the shoes of our Black friends… We can’t tell them don’t want what they want. They have told us when we pull into courthouse, this is not first the first thing they want to see.”
Walker asked staff to look into the cost of moving the statue.
But leading up to the dedication, Liston is hearing the same complaints that Walker cited —you’ve opened up the floodgates, who else. She’s not sure, though, that is their real concern.
The process of getting a Virginia Historical marker is a long one. After years of research, Liston contacted Jennifer R. Loux, who directs the highway Marker Program Manager for Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources, in February 2020. She submitted her completed application that in March 2020 and it was presented to the Virginia Board of Historic Resources for official approval in September.
Like most Virginians, Loux had not heard about Holmes before. That makes his story an ideal candidate for the program, she said.
“The purpose of a marker is to educate the general public about facets of Virginia history that they may not have encountered before,” she said. “We don’t steer away from difficult subjects — it is crucial that Virginians of all backgrounds learn about the full scope of Virginia’s past so that we can better understand the complex issues we’re facing in the present. Markers, such as the one about Joseph R. Holmes, can inscribe onto the landscape stories that have been forgotten or intentionally marginalized.”
And recently, the office has seen an increase in applications for markers about Black history. Over the last five years, 51 percent of all new markers have focused on African American history, she said.
And because of that, as well as cultural shifts, she said the office has been busier than ever during the last few years. That’s because of a general surge of interest in public history as debates about Confederate monuments intensified and a strong desire to publicize stories that have been left out of the narrative.
The installation of this marker and its dedication were originally scheduled for May 2021, on the date of Holmes’ murder. It was postponed due to the historic times Charlotte County is currently experiencing — the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Liston thinks this October date, on the 154th anniversary of his election, is even more poignant. It’s a celebration of life for Joseph R. Holmes, a man who never got a funeral and who deserves to be remembered for more than his death.
Updated Oct. 21 to change several time references and to add that Morris never faced trial.