The following piece was contributed to C’ville Images by Jane C. Smith. Jane is a member of the Central Virginia History Researchers.
“Everything within their range of vision . . .”
Those of you who attended Steve’s September presentation might remember that he showed a photograph of a baby, dressed all in white, with an embroidered and beribboned cap and gown and crocheted blanket. Holding the baby and gazing at him through her spectacles with an enigmatic smile was an elderly African American woman wearing a plain black jacket and a white ruffled cap. It was a Holsinger photograph dated March 26, 1914, and the Holsinger Studio ledger indicated that the photograph was taken for a “Mrs. Shepherd”.
When Steve showed us the photograph there was some discussion. Steve has a friend who is a descendant of that same Shepherd family, and Steve said they were talking with the family about who the baby might be. I longed to know more about the woman holding the baby, but realized it was unlikely that I would ever even discover her name. The story behind that fascinating smile would probably remain forever a mystery.
These last few months I’ve been scouring the recently digitized old issues of the Daily Progress for stories and obituaries from the African American community of Charlottesville. There was precious little published there, but every once in a while I find priceless details from the past. I began with 1910 and have been working my way through the years, day by day. On the Tuesday following Steve’s show I had made my way up to 1915 and was looking at the issue of February 27, 1915. There, on page one, was an obituary for an African American woman named Margaret Lewis. The name immediately caught my attention.
There was a very special woman named Margaret Lewis, a woman of importance in the history of this town. I had read stories about her in articles by local historian Gayle Schulman, and in the writings of Philena Carkin, who was one of the first teachers at the Charlottesville Freedmen’s School. Margaret and her husband Paul Lewis worked at the Freedmen’s School in its earliest days, just after the Civil War.
As I began to read the obituary, the very first sentence set my heart racing: “Margaret Lewis, an old-time colored nurse, died at 10:30 this morning at the residence of Mr. John E. Shepherd, on the Rugby Road . . .” Could it be possible that the very same Margaret Lewis I had admired for her work with the Charlottesville Freedmen’s School in 1867 was the woman holding the baby in the 1914 photo Steve showed us?
As I continued to read, each detail of the obituary – Margaret’s advanced age, the large number of children she’d had, the death of her husband years earlier – all these facts fit with the details of the life of Margaret Lewis of the Freedmen’s School.
Still not quite certain, I returned to the memoirs of Philena Carkin, Margaret’s contemporary, and found the evidence I needed in her description of Margaret: “quick bright, alert, and humorous” with “clear brown eyes that took note of everything within their range of vision.” I looked once again at the Holsinger photograph, and the expression of the woman in the photograph convinced me. She is Margaret Lewis.
This photograph by Rufus Holsinger shows a Shepherd family home on University Circle where we believe the photograph was taken of Margaret Lewis holding the baby. This house still stands today.
This photograph shows the Shepherd property known as “Shepli Park” where Margaret Lewis died in 1915. The house, designed by local architect Eugene Bradbury, sat on the corner of Rugby and Oxford Roads. It was destroyed by fire in 1921.
Philena Carkin (pictured above) wrote a long affectionate tribute to Margaret in her memoirs, Reminiscences of my Life and Work among the Freedmen of Charlottesville Virginia, From March 1st 1866 to July 1st 1875. I’ve quoted most of her description below, along with a link to the entire volume, which is available online as part of the UVa Text Collection. [These reminiscences were possibly written as late as 1910]
“Margaret Lewis was the wife of one of the teachers in the Primary department of our school – Paul Lewis – and as unlike her husband as it was possible for two persons to be. While he was slow and ponderous, both in intellect and manner, she was quick bright, alert, and humorous.
“She was a handsome woman, slightly dark for a quadroon, tall, straight and lithe, with good regular features and a pair of clear brown eyes that took note of everything within their range of vision. She was our servant for several years, and was most faithful and devoted to us. She was of great assistance to us in ways outside her domestic duties, on account of her knowledge of the characters and needs of the people with whom we had to deal.
“Every year there were boxes and barrels of clothing sent to us from the north, for us to distribute among the most needy colored people, and we always took counsel with Margaret who seemed nearly always to know just where any certain article was most needed. We felt we could trust both her judgment and conscience in this matter, for she carefully avoided asking favors for those of her own kin until others had been provided for.
“. . . But perhaps nothing endeared her more to Miss Gardner and myself than the fact that she always had some amusing story or anecdote to relate, which, told in her own inimitable manner never failed to provoke our laughter. She never gave herself up to malicious gossip, but the queer speech, and actions of the many queer people with whom she came in contact furnished her with an inexhaustible supply of material to feed her sense of humor. Her life was far from being an easy one, with her husband, and four or five little children to care for, besides doing a good deal of work for us, but she made light of ordinary troubles, and performed her duties cheerfully in spite of them. Her gift for seeing the comical side of things in general, probably helped her over many rough places. After we left Charlottesville some very tragic circumstances shadowed her life, and I have often wondered if the cheerful spirit that had upborne her through so many minor troubles, was sufficient to carry her serenely through those that must have been so much harder to bear. I hope and trust it proved to be so. She was only one more example of a bright spirit forced to grovel in the mire of unkind circumstance. If living now she must be quite old — more than seventy five, and her children are middle aged men and women. They have had very good educational advantages some of them having been to the Hampton School for a longer or shorter period of time. None of them could compare with her in looks, when they were little children, and I doubt if any of them are as observing and quick witted as she was. I hope they give her good care, and make her declining years comfortable and happy in return for the efforts she made to educate them and give them a fair start in life.”
“In a recent letter from Rives Minor I have learned that Margaret Lewis is now alone in the world, her husband Paul Lewis and all her children having passed away. Paul had become the owner of a home before I left Charlottesville, but I doubt if he had much other property so I fear her last years are to be not only lonely, but years of poverty as well. She truly deserved better of Fate.”
Lest the passages above leave you with the wrong impression of Margaret’s husband Paul, I include below a link to another of Philena’s manuscripts, which contains a better description of him:
“In February 1867 a colored man Paul Lewis , who like Mrs. Gibbons, was one of Miss Gardners pupils was placed in charge of another school of the same grade as that of Mrs. Gibbons. Both of these teachers were given positions with the understanding that they should continue their studies while teaching. Paul Lewis was a slave of Hon. Alexander Rives. His mother was the nurse of Mr. Rives children. He was wholly unlike Mrs. Gibbons who was very quick and bright. Paul was slow, but deep. He made a good teacher, adopting Miss Gardners methods of instruction, and drilling his pupils very thoroughly. He continued in the work for a year or two after I left, and then owing to some trouble he had with a white resident, he lost his position as teacher, and resumed his old trade of shoe making.”
-from Philena Carkin’s Reminiscences of my Life and Work among the Freedmen of Charlottesville, Virginia, from March 1st 1866 to July 1st 1875, pages 56-60, 106, 76
Holsinger photographs courtesy Special Collections, UVA Library. Shepli Park photo courtesy Daniel Bluestone.
Jane C. Smith’s research is focused on John Gibbons Shelton (1862-1952), principal of the Albemarle Training School from 1903 to 1930 and editor and manager of the Charlottesville Messenger from 1911 to 1928. Since his was the community’s only African American newspaper during that time, and there is only one known remaining copy of a single issue, Jane has turned to the Daily Progress as a local news source for African American stories from early twentieth century Charlottesville.