Resuming our “Holsinger at 100” series from last year, this photograph was taken exactly 100 years ago by Charlottesville photographer Rufus Holsinger. The photo shows Henry Martin, an employee at the University of Virginia, posing at the age of 87 in his familiar role as a bell ringer. Martin served as a waiter, janitor, and for more than 50 years, a bell ringer of the college bell in both the Rotunda and the Chapel at UVA. According to the Holsinger ledger at Special Collections, UVA Library, Holsinger took this portrait on February 8th, 1914, although Mr. Martin was likely retired by the time of the photo.
This second photograph, also with the same date, shows Martin posing with a bell, the one presumably salvaged from the 1895 fire that destroyed the Rotunda and the Annex. An African-American, Henry Martin was born into slavery at Monticello on the same day Thomas Jefferson died. Sharing the height, build, and longevity of the third President, Martin claimed Jefferson was his grandfather, although, according to historians at Monticello, it is not known for certain who Henry’s parents were.
In an oral history with a UVA professor late in his life, Martin remembered tending to Confederate soldiers being cared for at the University. He recalled the silence in the Rotunda as wounded soldiers laid still and quiet, despite the wide range of injuries they had suffered, staring upward into the dome of the Rotunda. Martin was a free man well before the Civil War and continued to work at UVA into his old age. Martin is believed to have had 3 different wives and as many as 20 children.
Henry Martin was likely on duty the morning in October of 1895 when an electrical surge from a mile down West Main Street started the fire in the Annex that spread to the Rotunda. Martin escaped harm and went on to serve for two more decades as UVA’s bell ringer. He was known to sit in on lectures at the University and retained a thirst for knowledge although he never learned to read or write.
This very early image of the Chapel at UVA shows the countryside and mountains to the West of Charlottesville.
Martin would ring the bell in the Chapel tower on the hour throughout the morning, giving rhythm and order to academic life at UVA.
This photograph, most likely taken later that spring in 1914, may very well be the last known image of Henry Martin. He died the following year at age 89.
All photographs courtesy Special Collections, UVA Library, except the Rotunda fire image. That photo, very possibly taken by Holsinger, was reproduced from a print in the Roseberry Family collection. It is not known if the original negative still exists.