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Henrico African American Trailblazers

In 2009, a committee of citizens appointed by the Henrico County Board of Supervisors began the planning of events and exhibitions to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Henrico. From this committee, subcommittees were formed to create activities on specific topics of Henrico History.

The African American Trailblazer group came together under the leadership of Sam Banks. Members included: Bettye P. Thornton, Carroll Zanders, Brenda Dabney Nichols, Elvatrice Belsches, Gloria Barber, Dr. Helen Harris, Dr. Jacquelyn Joyner, and Henry Johnson. Each member volunteered their time to plan an exhibition and special event to commemorate the many contributions of African American educators, scientists, entertainers, athletes and politicians from Henrico County.

The primary authors of the 24 Trailblazer biographies were, Sam Banks, Bettye Thornton, Elva Belsches and Brenda Dabney Nichols. Many of these individuals returned in 2018 to work on the Trailblazer Wall at Fairfield Library. This exhibit wall is an interactive display that shares the stories of 39 individuals from across the region who have impacted our county, state and nation over the course of three centuries.

Isaac Pleasants (Isaack). Pioneering Farmer, Civil War Claimant, and Church Leader. Born a Free Black in 1826.

Isaac Pleasants was born a free Black 1826 in the Varina Township of Henrico County. He is a descendant of slaves freed in 1782 by the 1771 will of John Pleasants. Isaac was married to Nancy Pleasants, and they had six children. The Pleasants’ farm was located about nine miles southeast of Richmond, and five miles north of the James River, in Henrico County.

In 1847, at age 21, Isaac Pleasants was listed in the United States Agriculture Population Census as a farmer. In the 1850 Federal Census, his occupation was listed as a bricklayer. Isaac Pleasants purchased his farmland fifteen years earlier than the Civil War for $2.50 per acre, with money he had earned as a bricklayer. He was owner of a farmhouse, cultivated farmland and acres of oak timber. A major part of the land and timber was fenced. Isaac and his family sold corn, cabbage, onions, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, and fodder.

In June 1862, the lives of Isaac Pleasants and his neighbors were directly affected by the Civil War. Although free, Isaac was taken by Confederate Troops to work on the Batteries (Earth Works) around Richmond. He was kept for twenty-six days until he escaped and went back home to “Gravelly Hill.” Afterwards, he went to Richmond to secure papers from City of Richmond Mayor, Joseph Mayo to document his free status and reduce the risk of being picked up again by the Confederate Troops.

During the conflict, United States soldiers occupied his house as a hospital, took household and kitchen furniture, acres of field produce, and cords of cut oak timber. Isaac filed a claim for reimbursement in 1873 with the U. S. Southern Claims Commission for $1,538.75. He was paid only $180.00 out of the appropriation for “Claims for Loyal Citizens” for supplies furnished during the Rebellion.

Following the Civil War, Isaac Pleasants continued to farm and helped to rebuild the community. He was a deacon and played a major role to develop the Sunday School Program at Gravel Hill Baptist Church. He is not listed in the 1890 U.S. Census indicating that he likely died before that year. The story of Isaac and Nancy Pleasants is remarkable in a period of slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, and segregation.

Powhatan Beaty. Medal of Honor Recipient, Shakespearean Actor, and Playwright. 1837-1916.

Powhatan Beaty (sometimes spelled Beatty) was born reportedly enslaved in Richmond, Virginia. He is believed to have relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio around 1849 where he learned the skill of cabinet making and also farmed as a young man.

The Civil War proved to be a pivotal point in Beaty’s life. With rising fears of an encroaching Confederate Army, Beaty and other African American men in Cincinnati were forced into what became known as the “Black Brigade.” They constructed fortifications around the city in late 1862. Beaty formally enlisted in the Union Army on June 7, 1863 at the rank of private and was promoted to first sergeant two days later. Assigned to Company G 5th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT), Beaty would gain renown for his heroic actions in a battle on the outskirts of Richmond, known as the Battle of New Market Heights.

Union forces attempted to break through the Confederate defenses surrounding Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. Around dawn on September 29, 1864, near what was known as New Market Road, the USCT brigade suffered great casualties from Confederate firepower. With his unit’s white officers either killed or wounded, Beaty took charge and led his men for most of the day.

As a result of his heroism, Beaty was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. Presented on April 6, 1865, the citation read that Beaty “took command of his company, all the officers having been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it.” Fourteen African American soldiers would earn the Medal of Honor for their valor at the Battle of New Market Heights (also known as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm).

Impressed with the bravery of these men, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler had a second medal specially designed that he bestowed upon Beaty and several other USCT soldiers at the battle. The medal was called the Medal of the Army of the St. James.

Beaty returned to Cincinnati after the war and became a respected playwright and Shakespearean actor. He performed at major venues in Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Washington opposite the esteemed African-America dramatic actress Henrietta V. Davis. Beaty married and had three sons that lived to maturity. Beaty’s heroic efforts at the Battle of New Market Heights were memorialized in 2001. At that time the Virginia Route 5 Bridge over Interstate 895 (Pocahontas Parkway) in Henrico County, near the battlefield, was dedicated as the Powhatan Beaty Memorial Bridge.

Henry Clay Jones. Pioneering Farmer, Blacksmith, Humanitarian, and Lumber Businessman. 1842-1920.

Henry Clay Jones was born a free Black in western Hanover County, Virginia, in April 1842. He was married to Martha Jane Johnson. Jones and a brother-in-law, William Johnson, established an 1876 joint venture in western Hanover County where, as farmers, they sold tobacco, wheat, corn, and oats to the Southern Fertilizing Company. In 1889 the business was divided, and Jones moved to Henrico County to start a new business.

Henry Clay and Martha Jones purchased land and migrated with five children to the Tuckahoe District (Three Chopt) on “Old Hanover Road”, which connected western Henrico and Hanover Counties; he originally purchased land in the corridor of Springfield and Nuckols Roads. By 1894, the couple had 15 children in their home called “The Big House.” Several sons were employed at the Gayton’s Coal Mines until an accident resulted in their decision not to return to mining. This set the stage to convince their father to cut a tract of timber to sell. The H. C. Jones Lumber Company was launched in 1895. In addition to utilizing land already owned by the family, the company was also able to acquire property in Henrico, Hanover and Goochland Counties. The milling operation employed both Black and white men in the Glen Allen area. The farming operation grew vegetables and raised farm animals for family consumption and sale.

In 1920, Henry Clay Jones died, leaving farmland, the lumber business, and acres of prime timberland to his sons to operate and manage. Jones’ heirs sold more than 600 acres of prime farmland and timber to Henrico County government and housing developers. This made way for expansion and new development for the Springfield and Nuckols Road corridor, former farm and timberland once owned by Henry C. Jones.

There are eight roadways named for Henry Clay Jones and his descendants in the Winterberry and Summerberry housing sub-divisions of western Henrico; Claywood Road, Keelwood Court, Morse Lane, Warnerwood Court, Jones Mill Court, Jones Mill Drive, Meltonberry Cove, and Newtonwood Court. His family’s privately owned Jones Road is one of the oldest private roads named for an African American family in the county.

During the period of slavery, Civil War, reconstruction, and segregation, Henry Clay and Martha Jones’ accomplishments in the lumber, timber, and farming businesses were remarkable. The businesses provided economic stability for many families in Henrico, Hanover, and Goochland.

William Leroy Vandervall. Pioneering Educator and School Administrator. 1860-1934.

William Leroy Vandervall was one of two children born to free parents Leroy P. and Ann Rebecca Johnson Vandervall. Reared in Henrico County, Vandervall received his early education from his mother, who organized and taught school in her home for newly freed slaves after the Civil War.

According to the family’s oral history, he later attended the well-respected Richmond Colored High and Normal School in Richmond, Virginia. According to the manuscript, Bridge Over Gilley’s Creek, a chronicle of the Vandervalls by descendant and family historian Welford Burrell, Vandervall worked in the early 1880s managing a co-op for African American farmers who were affiliated with a chapter of the United Order of True Reformers in Fredericksburg. A national African American fraternal and business organization, the True Reformers would make history in 1888 by establishing the first bank chartered by African Americans in America. Vandervall left the co-op and worked briefly in Pennsylvania before returning to Henrico in the mid-1880s. He would marry three times and to these unions five children were born who lived to maturity.

In Henrico, Vandervall turned his attention to enhancing educational opportunities for African American children. He successfully persuaded the county to build a school in the area known as Zion Town on lower Ridge Road. According to oral history accounts, the Vandervall family is credited with giving the name Quioccasin to the area served by the school.

By the early 1900s he began work with the U.S. Postal Service. He reportedly was one of the first African American postal carriers to service the rural route from Three Chopt Road westward to the Goochland County line. He retired after over 27 years of service.

In the 1950s when Henrico County decided to build a new school for African American youngsters, it was named the William Leroy Vandervall Elementary School in honor of Vandervall’s outstanding commitment to education. Located at the intersection of Quioccasin and Pemberton Roads, the school would later close and now serves as Pemberton Elementary School.

Virginia Estelle Randolph. Pioneering Educator, Community Leader, and Jeanes Supervising Industrial Teacher. 1870-1958.

Virginia Estelle Randolph

Miss Virginia Estelle Randolph was born in Richmond, Virginia to former slaves Nelson Edward Randolph and Sarah Carter Randolph. Born the second of four daughters, Randolph’s year of birth is commonly given as 1874; however the Bureau of Vital Statistics’ Register of Births for the city of Richmond lists her year of birth as 1870.

Randolph attended Baker Elementary School and later the Richmond Colored Normal and High School. Founded in 1867 under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Richmond Colored Normal (as it was commonly called) enjoyed a well-deserved reputation that extended beyond Virginia. Among its graduates were Maggie L. Walker, John Mitchell Jr. and Wendell P. Dabney.

After attending Richmond Colored Normal, Randolph is believed to have taught in Goochland County prior to being appointed to the Mountain Road School in the early 1890s. Beginning with a little over a dozen students, Randolph immediately sought to beautify the old one-room school. She also sought to impress upon parents in the community the importance of attaining an education. She organized Patron Improvement Leagues to raise funds for her school. Her chief mission was to educate the minds, hearts and hands of young people. She initiated vocational and industrial education at the school along with the standard academic curriculum. She also established Sunday services at the school. As a result of her tireless efforts, she developed successful interracial coalitions to support educational opportunities for African American youngsters in Henrico County.

Jackson Davis, superintendent of Henrico County Schools witnessed first hand Randolph’s success integrating industrial and vocational education into the standard curriculum. He requested funding from the head of the Jeanes Fund, a $1 million endowment set up by Quaker philanthropist Anna T. Jeanes of Philadelphia to aid rural African American schools. Davis intended the funds to pay for a teacher dedicated to traveling the entire county to assist teachers of African American youngsters. Randolph was chosen to be that teacher and, in 1908, she became one of the first Jeanes Supervising Industrial Teachers. Her education model became known as the Henrico Plan and became so successful that it was adopted throughout the South and in several countries abroad.

Miss Randolph received local recognition and national acclaim for her contributions to education and to the community. In 1915 when a new school was built next to the old Mountain Road School, it was renamed the Virginia Randolph Training School in her honor. After serving nearly sixty years in the field of education, Randolph retired in the late 1940s from her supervisory position in Henrico County. In honor of her legacy, the Museum in Memory of Virginia Randolph was established in 1970 on the grounds of the Virginia Randolph Education Center on Mountain Road in Henrico County. In 1976 the museum was named a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of Interior.

Jacob Elijah Lewis. Businessman, Farmer, Preacher. 1875-1957.

Jacob Elijah Lewis was born about 1875-76 in the Glen Allen, part of the Brookland District in Henrico, Virginia to John and Martha Lewis. Jacob Lewis married Ida Lewis of Hanover, Virginia, in January 1898. They purchased land on Springfield Road, built a two-story, wood- framed house, where they raised seven boys and three girls. Together, the family farmed the land. As family members died, they were buried in a cemetery on land to which the family holds a separate deed.

He felt the calling to become an ordained minister and gave leadership in the community. Reverend Lewis first gained notable prominence as one of two founders of the Mount Vernon Baptist Church in 1892 located on Francistown. Reverend Moses Johnson was the other founder. This church is still in existence on Francistown Road however it is now located closer to Hungary Road.

As a businessman, he had a vision to establish an area for African Americans to come together for recreation and fun; he purchased Echo Lake and additional acreage in 1909. It proved to be a worthwhile investment, people came from eastern Henrico and the city of Richmond to meet, eat, swim and socialize together. After a few years, Reverend Lewis began to experience financial difficulty. Upon hearing of his situation, several African American businessmen, farmers and civic leaders organized themselves as the Echo Lake Group, Inc. (A. D. Price, undertaker; C.E. Morse, Sr.; businessman, Jesse S. Pryor, Jr., church and civic leader; Herman Melton; scientist and John Chambers and Sam Stewart) Under the leadership of these investors, the activities were expanded to include picnics, boat rides, dances, camping and sporting activities. The Johnson Happy Pals Orchestra frequently provided entertainment with dances and parties from dusk to dawn. Abner and Mt. Vernon Baptist Churches utilized the lake for baptisms, and the Ziontown Young Men’s Club assisted in working and upkeep of the lake. The lake continued to flourish well into the late 1940s. By then the group was getting old, some died, and others had to raise families. In 1981, Henrico County offered to purchase the lake, and later developed the land and opened it as a public park. There is a marker at the site.

Reverend Lewis died December 14, 1957. His funeral was held at Mt. Vernon Baptist Church. He was buried in the family cemetery, from which, in June 1994, many graves were moved and re-interred at Mt. Calvary Cemetery in the City of Richmond. Initiated by a developer, without family permission, it is still not known if the head stones of two sons are properly placed; there are four graves with stones not identified.

He was a man short in statue, but will always stand tall, and be remembered as a pioneer and visionary.

Richard Sykes (Sikes). Pioneering Farmer, Civil War Claimant, and Church Leader. Born a Free Black in 1880.

Born a free Black in 1800, Richard Sykes is a descendant of the slaves freed by the 1771 will of John Pleasants in 1782. Robert Pleasants, the son of John Pleasants, gave 78 former slaves 350 acres of his plantation and a community was developed known as “Gravelly Hill.” Richard Sykes was married to Mary Ann Sykes. The couple owned a farmhouse, farm, valuable cultivated farmland and acres of oak timber. Isabella Virginia Sykes was born to Richard and Mary Ann in 1830. At the age of sixteen, Isabella married Cornelius Atkins (Adkins) and Richard gave her 50 acres of land near Malvern Hill. In 1846, Isabella was a Black female land owner in Henrico County.

The Sykes’ property was caught in the middle of the American Civil War battles fought on the Glendale or Frayser’s Farm, Malvern Hill, and Long Bridge Road, June 25 – July 1, 1862. During the battles, Sykes and other families had to flee and hide out, going without food for days while Union and Confederate soldiers occupied their houses and land. His house was used as a hospital, and soldiers removed farm produce, animals and oak timber from his property. In 1872, as a result of his losses, Richard Sykes filed a claim of $2,728 with the United States Southern Claims Commission. He was reimbursed only $514.50.

Following the Civil War, Richard Sykes and other free Blacks returned, rebuilt and thrived. In 1866, Richard and Mary Sykes donated an acre parcel of land for the construction of Gravel Hill Baptist Church. Richard Sykes and his daughter, Isabella, had major losses resulting from the Civil War, but were able to redirect their lives and continued to move forth to make life better for families and the community of Gravel Hill.

Priddy Jasper Cosby. Educator and Community Organizer. 1882-1983.

Priddy Jasper Cosby was born on January 22, 1882, in Richmond, Virginia. Her parents were Harry Jasper and Florence Stovall Jasper who were originally from Powhatan County.

Priddy Cosby started her teaching career in the Hanover area around Rockville. She rode her horse and buggy from Richmond to Rockville where she taught only a few years before meeting Mercer Hugh Cosby, the son of William Darl Cosby.

William Darl Cosby owned a blacksmith shop and was a farmer. Priddy Jasper had to pass the blacksmith shop each day on her way to Rockville to teach. When her buggy needed to be repaired, she would drop it off at the blacksmith shop and walk approximately one mile to the school. That’s how she met Mercer Cosby, a widower with two children. He owned a farm in Henrico County across the road from his father’s blacksmith shop. The Cosby’s property covered land where Henrico, Goochland, and Hanover counties came together along Pouncey Tract Road.

Priddy and Mercer married around 1903 when she was 22 years old. They had four children, Grace, Mercer Jr., Harry, and William who was named after Mercer’s father. Priddy joined Fifth Baptist Church on Cary Street as a child and remained a member until her death but after marrying Mercer, she became very active at Abner Baptist Church in the Glen Allen area. She was a Sunday school teacher, sang in the senior choir, and most notably, was the founder of the Missionary Circle and served as president for over forty years.

“Miss Priddy,” as she was called by her friends and family, was also involved in civic work. She was a Springfield Home Extension Club captain and a member of the Henrico Tuberculosis Association. She traveled throughout the county with nurse Whilamena Beale inoculating people for tuberculosis. It was through her work with the Henrico County Tuberculosis Association that she received the Virginia Tuberculosis Association’s Meritorious Service Award. She was a founder and president of the Virginia Randolph Foundation,Inc., an organization granting annual scholarships to African American college students from Henrico County.

“Miss Priddy” lived most of her life in the Cosby farmhouse where she started life with Mercer. There she remained active in the community well into her 90s. Mrs. Priddy Jasper Cosby passed away in the Cosby farmhouse on July 15, 1983, at the age of 101. She is buried in the family cemetery.

George Washington Gee. Brick Mason, Contractor, Developer. 1891-1979.

George Washington Gee was born April 5, 1891, in the Banister community of Halifax, Virginia, to Mr. Littleton and Mrs. Henrietta Gee. He became a highly-skilled brick mason learning the craft from his father’s expert teaching. He, his wife, the former Julia Thompson, and their seven children, settled in Arlington, Virginia, where he started the Arlington Construction Company. Sons Garland, Littleton, and Roland learned the trade. Together, they built army barracks and homes in the Maryland, Delaware and the Washington, D. C. area. Three other children were born to the couple. The family resided in that area well into the forties. After the passing of his wife, he and the children moved to Henrico County, Virginia. For a short time, he commuted and conducted his construction business out of the Arlington-Washington-Baltimore area.

In 1950, he married Ms. Lloyd Delmar Thompson (1896-1979) of Henrico County. He changed the name of his firm to George Gee Construction Company. There were three noteworthy construction projects of the company that became the highlight of his career.

The first project was the thirty-three acre “Middleton Gee” development on Hungary Road in the Brookland District. This development and some of the streets were named after family members. Most of the homes are brick split-levels, with garage access and elegantly designed alcoves and patios. Most are built on one-to–two acres of land.

The second project, in the Tuckahoe District, was the forty-five acre “Thompson Heights” development bordered by Ridge and Parham Roads, extending over to Patterson Avenue. The development, with homes built similar to “Middleton Gee,” was named Thompson Heights after his wife’s family, William and Ella Davenport Thompson. Originally an African American neighborhood, the community is now diverse. The third project, and perhaps his greatest accomplishment, was the construction of the historic Quioccasin Baptist Church, located at 9011 Quioccasin Road. It is a living monument to the creativity, ingenuity and handiwork of Mr. Gee.

His hobbies included fishing, playing the organ, and studying the Bible. Mrs. Gee was not only his partner and bookkeeper, she was a graduate of Hartshorn Memorial College (Richmond, Virginia) and a gifted teacher who taught for many years at the two-room Coal Pit School on Francistown Road. The Gees built a beautiful home for themselves at Cleveland and Hungary Roads. After his wife’s death, Mr. Gee lived in the house until his own passing at age 88 in May 1971. His funeral was held at their church. They are buried in Signal Hill Memorial Park in Hanover County, Virginia. The partners in life made great contributions that will remain in our hearts forever.

Herman Dillard Melton, Sr. Scientist and Inventor. 1892-1973.

Herman Dillard Melton Sr. was one of several children born to James and Adaline Melton in Henrico County. He attended Coal Pit School and later graduated from the Virginia Randolph Training School. In 1909, Dr. E. Guy Hopkins recruited young Melton, a fellow Glen Allen resident, to work in his laboratory at the University College of Medicine prior to its merger with the Medical College of Virginia in 1912.

Melton initially washed test tubes and bottles in the laboratory before learning how to prepare slides of human and animal tissues for microscopic examination. He would go on to prepare thousands of such slides each year. The slides were vital in the education of medical and dental students and critical to the work of research scientists at the Medical College of Virginia. His skill and aptitude caught the eye of anatomy professor Dr. H. L. Osterud who suggested that he sit in on anatomy and pathology classes although the university did not enroll African Americans at the time.

Melton read textbooks on his own and experimented with improvements to the standard methods used in tissue preparation. One of his inventions was a method that enabled a rapid preparation of tissues for microscopic examination. A scientific paper Melton wrote about his discovery was published in 1921 in the Journal of Laboratory and Clinical Medicine. Melton also would improve upon several of the standard procedures in embalming and histology at the Medical College of Virginia.

Melton met and married Julia Price, and to this union four children were born. The family moved to Julia’s home place in Hanover County. In the 1930s he invested along with several other African American men in Henrico’s Echo Lake Park in Glen Allen. Previously owned by Rev. Jacob Lewis, an African preacher and farmer, the lake became a popular recreational area and site for baptisms for African Americans. The park was purchased by Henrico County in the 1980s.

Melton would serve the Medical College of Virginia for 55 years, retiring in 1965. As chief anatomy technician for the majority of his career, Melton was revered for his intellect and professionalism as well as for his dedication to the university and its students. In honor of his legacy, Virginia Commonwealth University established the Riese-Melton Award, which is given annually to a university member for outstanding contributions to cross-cultural relations.

Matthew James Robinson, Sr. Businessman, Educator, and Civic Leader. 1898-1979.

Matthew James Robinson Sr. was an extraordinary businessman and community leader whose entrepreneurial spirit helped build a family business that has spanned five generations.

Robinson was born in West Point in King William County, Virginia to Daniel S. and Roxanna Blueford Robinson. He was reared in Richmond where his family moved during his infancy. According to the family’s oral history, Robinson was greatly inspired by his paternal grandfather, George Benjamin Robinson, an ex-slave who had learned the art of broom making and had attained an education after the Civil War. Young Daniel S. Robinson started the Imperial Broom Company in 1900 and young Matthew began working in the broom factory with his father at age 12. He also attended school and graduated from Van de Vyver School in Richmond, Virginia. This all-Black Catholic school offered a variety of academic, vocational and business courses that would prove pivotal in Robinson’s adult life.

After high school, Robinson earned a law degree from the Hamilton College of Law in Chicago, Ill. He also earned a certificate in industrial arts instruction and a certificate from the Washington School of Real Estate and Insurance. In 1918 Robinson married Carrie Miller and to this union three children were born.

Robinson took over the operation of the broom company in 1938, while his father remained on as company chairman. During that same year, Robinson began his career as an educator. He taught at Fair Oaks Elementary School and later at Gravel Hill Elementary School, both in Henrico County. Robinson also operated a school bus that served the youngsters of the county’s Fairfield and Varina districts.

Around 1941, Robinson joined the faculty of Virginia Randolph Training School in Glen Allen, where he would have a monumental impact upon legions of students. As an industrial arts teacher he taught manual trades to students from across Henrico County during segregation and prepared them for productive lives as adults. He retired from Virginia Randolph High School in 1964.

Robinson used his business acumen and leadership skills to start the Matthew J. Robinson Realty Company and served as its president until 1975. He was the founding president of the Henrico Teachers Association Federal Credit Union and served as president of the Henrico NAACP. In addition, Robinson was a faithful member and leader in New Bridge Baptist Church. As a result of his sustained efforts to secure recreational facilities for the residents of his community, known as Bungalow City, Robinson Park was dedicated in his honor in 1982 in eastern Henrico County.

Clarence Edward “Eddie” Morse. Businessman, Golf Course Owner, Concert Promoter. 1899-1983.

Born in the Quioccasin community of Henrico County, Clarence Edward “Eddie” Morse (Moss) was the fifth of 11 children born to Frederick and Lucy Houston Morse. Morse spent his early childhood working on his family’s farm, leaving the county’s segregated school after completing the sixth grade, to work the farm full time.

During his early adult years, Morse married Evelyn Juanita Jones of Glen Allen, Virginia, a gifted musician, and to this union two sons were born. They also raised a child whom they came to love and regard as their daughter. It was during the 1920s that Morse embarked upon a series of business endeavors that would enhance the leisure and entertainment experiences available to African American residents of Henrico County and surrounding locales during segregation. He became one of the owners of Echo Lake and its surrounding park in Henrico. Previously owned by Rev. Jacob Lewis, an African American preacher and farmer, the lake and picnic grounds became a major recreational site for African Americans and a place for baptisms used by churches from several counties. Morse next turned his
attention to the nightclub scene with the opening of Evelyn’s Place, a full-service club that was located in Zion Town on lower Ridge Road across the street from his home. The club was frequented by both African American and white patrons.

As the club increased in popularity, Morse launched his main venture, the C.E. Morse & Sons Amusement Company. The company leased and delivered jukeboxes to venues around Virginia for more than three decades. Morse also became a very successful concert promoter who filled leading venues such as the Mosque (now the Landmark Theater) with patrons to see popular performers such as Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and The Drifters.

To provide a venue accessible to African American golf enthusiasts, Morse purchased land in the 1940s and developed the Spring Lake Country Club. Located on Mountain Road near St. Peter Baptist Church, the nine-hole course afforded a rare opportunity for fellowship and golfing for African Americans.

Clarence “Eddie” Morse was also a dedicated member of Quioccasin Baptist Church where he served as a trustee. Morse’s pioneering business endeavors greatly enhanced the quality of life for African Americans in Henrico for several generations.

Katie May Brown Atkins. Humanitarian, Educator, and Home Demonstration Club Leader. 1903-1991.

Katie Brown Atkins was a community leader who enhanced the quality of life for her fellow citizens in the Gravel Hill Community in Henrico County. She was born to William Henry Brown and Texanna Martin Brown in the Gravel Hill community of the Varina district. She received her early education in one-room schools that were under the supervision of pioneering educator, Virginia E. Randolph. She boarded at a dormitory at the Virginia Randolph Training School and later graduated from the school in 1922.

After graduating, Atkins taught in several one-room schools for African American youngsters in Henrico. She served as a teacher at the Gravel Hill School, Sydney School and Boar Swamp School. In 1924 she married Spott Will Atkins, a farmer and descendent of enslaved ancestors who were freed by Quakers in the 18th century. To this union ten children were born. Atkins and her husband became pillars of their community. They assumed leadership roles that promoted the social, religious, and economic empowerment of members of the community. Following in the footsteps of her parents, Mrs. Atkins and her husband farmed and sold their products at markets in Richmond and Henrico County. As one of the few women in the Gravel Hill community with a driver’s license, Atkins transported members of the community to schools, grocery stores and medical appointments. She also provided clothes and food to those in need.

In 1950, Atkins became one of the organizing members of the Gravel Hill Demonstration Club. This organization would be pivotal in elevating the socio-economic status and quality of life for area residents. The Gravel Hill Demonstration Club was mentored by home economic extension agents from Virginia State College (now University). The Home Demonstration Clubs and Four-H Clubs learned valuable life skills associated with home and farm management. The subject matter included nutrition, textiles and clothing construction; family relations and child development; consumer education and community resource development. Katie Atkins excelled as a program and subject matter leader for the Gravel Hill Home Demonstration Club. Several of her daughters also served in leadership positions within the organization.

Katie Brown Atkins through her commitment to her church, family and community enhanced the lives of generations in the Gravel Hill Community and beyond. Her legacy and that of her husband are evident at the Gravel Hill Community Center, where this historic landmark continues to serve as an important social and educational resource for the community.

Willie Dew Cosby. Businessman and Entrepreneur. 1910-1982.

Willie D. Cosby, Jr., was born May 30, 1910, possibly in the Henry District of Hanover County to Willie D. and Rosa J. Cosby. The elder Cosbys were successful farmers. In an effort to help the family during the Great Depression, Willie Cosby, Jr. borrowed a mule from the owner of a Highland Springs dairy farm to plow gardens and grade yards. He would return to the farm and work to pay for the hours he used the mule.

By 1930, he was married and living in the Fairfield District of Henrico County. At some point, he was able to obtain his own mule and plow; next, he secured two mules and finally a truck to haul them from job to job. By 1938, he had formed the Cosby Landscaping Company. Before he ran the company full time, he worked at a tobacco factory and plowed at night with a lantern attached to the plow handle. With the support of his wife Della K. Miller Cosby and later their six small children, Willie Cosby, Jr. plowed gardens, dug basements with a mule and scoop pan, tore-up stumps, and sold wood. The 1940 census records show that he was employed as a brick laborer at a brickyard on 28th Street, but it is known that he was also operating his own business at the same time. By 1946, Cosby’s company was securing jobs with contractors; and with hard labor and necessary bank loans (although he tried to avoid debt all his life), the company grew to a firm of more than a dozen trucks, tractors, and front-end loaders and employed 12-20 people during the course of a year.

With the sale of the Nine Mile Road and Laburnum Avenue property to developers in 1960, for what became Eastgate Mall and later Fairfield Commons, Cosby relocated his business to 26 Virginia Avenue. The business was later moved to its current location on 60 acres of land on Evergreen Avenue in the Bungalow City community.

Willie D. Cosby, Jr., a man with only a third grade education, could not read or write, built the family business through hard work, perseverance, and determination. His family credits “divine intervention” with protecting the company and preventing him from ever signing a faulty contract. By 1980, the family-owned Cosby Landscaping Company approached $500,000 in business and was assessed at over $1 million.

In 1978, at the age of 68, Willie D. Cosby, Jr., was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He died November 8, 1982, and is buried at Oakwood Cemetery. His son, Willie D. Cosby, III, managed the business during his illness, and upon his death, assumed responsibility for the operation of the company his father founded in 1938 as Willie D. Cosby, III, Contractor. After the untimely death of Willie D. Cosby, III, on January 31, 2010, the legacy of the Cosby Company continues under the management of his wife, Shirley Cosby as Willie D. Cosby, III LLC.

Mary Melton Jones. Educator and Pioneering School Administrator. 1911-1994.

Mary Melton Jones was a pioneering educator who dedicated more than 40 years of her life to fostering the educational opportunities for youngsters in Henrico County and across Virginia.

A native of Henrico County, Jones was one of four children born to Ira V. and Adelaide Wingfield Melton. She attended Henrico’s segregated schools, graduating from Virginia Randolph Training School in 1929. She continued her education, earning a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University in 1935 and a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1956. Jones also conducted post- graduate studies at New York University and Rutgers University.

Jones firmly believed that education was the key to success and strove to help educate others. She taught youngsters in Louisa, Hanover and Suffolk counties, before returning to Henrico County and joining the faculty and staff at her alma mater, Virginia Randolph. Serving there from 1934-1954, Jones worked as a teacher, guidance counselor and girls basketball coach. In 1935 Jones married Newton F. Jones and to this union one son was born. Outside of school, she assisted her husband with the Jones Mobil Gas Station on U.S. Route 1 in Glen Allen. The couple also raised and sold turkeys during the 1950s.

Following her tenure at Virginia Randolph, Jones was named principal of the Vandervall Elementary School which is now Pemberton Elementary School. When Henrico County schools were desegregated, she was named assistant principal of Central Gardens Elementary School. In 1968, Jones was appointed principal of Central Gardens Elementary, becoming the first African American to become a principal in the desegregated schools of Henrico County. She served as principal at the school until her retirement in 1974.

Jones was a member of the Henrico Teachers Association, the Virginia Teachers Association and the National Education Association. She was an active member of the NAACP and the Second Baptist Church in the West End of Richmond.

William Darl Cosby, Sr. Educator, School Administrator, Credit Union Manager. 1912-2006.

William Darl “Dee” Cosby Sr. was the youngest child of Mercy Hugh Cosby and Priddy Jasper Cosby. He grew up in the Glen Allen area of Henrico on the family farm with his four siblings and several cousins. Cosby received his early education at the old Springfield School on Shady Grove Road in Short Pump and graduated from the Virginia Randolph Training School in 1931.

After serving in the U.S. Army on the borders of France and Germany during World War II, Cosby returned to Virginia and earned his college degree from Virginia Union University in 1951. He earned a master’s degree in elementary education in 1957 from Virginia State College.

After college, Cosby embarked upon a career in education that would span 26 years. He served as a teacher at Vandervall Elementary School for a decade before becoming principal of Henrico Central Elementary School in the Varina District. Once the county schools were desegregated, he served as an assistant principal at Varina Elementary School. After he retired Cosby became the curator for the Museum In Memory of Virginia Estelle Randolph. He held this position for 28 years until his death. He also served for 52 years as a charter trustee and past president of the Virginia Randolph Foundation.

Cosby’s leadership in civic and professional organizations left a legacy for the community. He served as president of the Henrico Teachers Association and later served for 32 years as treasurer and manager of the Henrico Teachers Association Federal Credit Union, the first federal credit union in Henrico County. He was also active in the Henrico Civic League, the Abner Baptist Church of Hanover County and the NAACP.

Cosby married Hilda Johnson and to this union one son was born. Throughout his adult life, he continued to manage the Cosby Farm, which had been in the family since the 1880s. Currently run by his son William D. Cosby Jr., the farm is believed to be the oldest continuously run working farm owned by an African American family in Henrico County. The farm house on the property is listed as a historic landmark in “The Inventory of Early Architecture, County of Henrico.”

Warner Magajar Jones, Sr. Historian, Educator, and Humanitarian. 1912-2005.

Warner Magajar Jones Sr. was one of four children born to William Franklin Jones and Josie King Jones in the Glen Allen community of Henrico County. His family once owned more than 1,000 acres of land in the county in addition to a saw mill and lumber company.

As a youngster, Jones attended Coal Pit, a one-room school in western Henrico County and Springfield Elementary School. He graduated from the Virginia Randolph Training School in 1931. Pioneering educator Virginia Randolph inspired in him a love of education that would last a lifetime. Jones earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Virginia Union University in 1939 and a Master’s degree from Virginia State College in l955. He also completed postgraduate work at the University of Virginia where he was elected to membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Jones married Carol Carney in 1939 and to this union four sons were born.

Upon completion of his studies at Virginia Union University, Jones embarked upon a career in education that would span over 40 years in Henrico County. He joined the faculty of Virginia Randolph High School as a history teacher in 1940. He would later serve as an assistant principal at the school and as a principal at the Virginia Randolph Elementary School.

Jones is remembered for his extraordinary knowledge of history, government, the Civil War and the history of the education of African Americans in Henrico County. In addition to being an outstanding educator, Jones also taught his students the importance of perseverance, good moral character and integrity. Generations of students were inspired and influenced by Jones. Outside of his teaching duties, Jones and his sons would make electrical and home repairs for local residents.

Jones was active in many civic organizations. His memberships included the Virginia Randolph Foundation; Henrico Teachers Federal Credit Union; the Board of Directors of the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens; the Association for the Preservation of Henrico Antiquities; the Historic Preservation Advisory Committee and the Henrico County Historical Society. He was also a devoted member of Abner Baptist Church in Hanover County.

In honor of Jones’ dedication to education and the preservation of African American and civil rights history, he was awarded the Walking History Millennium Award from the Henrico County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Association in 2000.

Sadie Lucille Carter Sears. Educator, Volunteer, Civic Leader, Music Instructor. 1919-2010.

Mrs. Sadie Carter Sears was born February 19, 1919, to Grant and Esther Dandridge Carter in the Ziontown community of Henrico, Virginia. Mrs. Sears died April 20, 2010, in Suitland, MD, where she moved to be near her sister, Josephine C. Norrell, both of whom were raised on the lower end of Ridge Road.

Mrs. Sears was educated in the two-room segregated school in the building that later became known as the Ziontown Hall. She graduated from Virginia Randolph High School in 1936 and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree from Virginia Union University (VUU); Richmond, Virginia, in 1940.

Mrs. Sears volunteered with the (USO) United Service Organization at Fort Lee, Petersburg, Virginia, where she helped to entertain the troops during WWII. While volunteering she met, dated and married William Sears, a soldier stationed there before he was deployed to Germany. As an outstanding educator, she held membership in prominent civic and community organizations. Notably, she was one of the founders of the Henrico Teachers Federal Credit Union which was chartered May 1957. This organization allowed African American teachers to have banking available to them, both checking and savings. Of equal importance, she was a founding member of the Virginia Randolph Foundation, Inc. that began in 1954. In the community, she was actively involved with the Delver Women’s Club. She taught many students including the writer of the narrative, private piano lessons from her home in Henrico, Virginia.

Her first teaching assignment was in Goochland, Virginia, for one year. In 1943, she began her Henrico County career at Springfield Elementary School teaching grades 1-4 and continued on to Union and Vandervall/Pemberton Elementary Schools. She taught English and history at her alma mater, Virginia Randolph High School and 7th grade reading and English at Fairfield Middle School. She retired in 1981. With a 41-year career span, her career began in segregation and ended in integration. Still not finished, she returned to Virginia Randolph from 1992-94 and participated in the volunteer program as an English tutor. As an educator, she was a strict disciplinarian who did not tolerate misbehavior in her classroom but peppered this stance with helpful kindness and encouragement. After retirement, many of her former students would call to inquire about her and to “sing her praises.”

Mrs. Sears, affectionately called “Seale,“ sang in the church choir and participated in the senior citizens’ activities. Her life was celebrated April 24, 2010, at Quioccasin Baptist Church. She was buried in the church family cemetery.

Pvt. Warren Gamaliel Harding Holmes. United States Marine, Church and Community Leader. 1921-1983.

Warren Gamaliel Harding Holmes was born June 10, 1921 in the historic Westwood community of Henrico County, Virginia. He was the sixth of nine children of Oscar W. and Ethel Coles Holmes. He attended the two room Westwood School and graduated from Virginia Randolph High School in 1939. He joined the Westwood Baptist Church at an early age.

June 1, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that a segregated unit of the United States Marine Corps be established. Along with thousands of African American men eager to serve, Warren Holmes enlisted in the Marine Corps to fight in WWII. There were more than 20,000 recruits from 1942-49. Private Holmes was one of 1,200 men who received basic training at the segregated Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina. They lived in prefabricated huts on the base.

According to, United States Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958; Master Data, he served the following: October, 1943; Headquarters. Co., Recruit Depot Battalion; October, 1945; Private, Third Colored Replacement Detached, Third Marine Force; July, 1946: Rank GY SGT., Stationed, First Casual Co., M. P., Camp LeJeune, North Carolina.

He was honorably discharged having served his country and returned home to the Westwood Community. In July 1948, despite strong opposition from Democrats of the segregated south, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 which required the desegregation of the military. In 1949, Montford Point was deactivated and new recruits were sent to Parris Island and Camp Pendleton. In 2011, those who served in the segregated Montford Point Marines, and their families, were invited to the White House as guests of President Barack Obama to be honored and presented a plaque for their services rendered.

Warren Holmes was employed at Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company for 25 years until his retirement. He married the former Robinette Tinsley in December 29, 1951, and was later employed as a security guard by the State of Virginia, Health and Welfare Department with the Metropolitan Security Agency.

Having been ordained a deacon in November 1976, he continued to be active in his church as a bass soloist with the senior choir, and in the community, as a scout master from the late 40s into the 50s. He also was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and the uncle to the writer of this narrative.

Warren Holmes died August 18, 1983, his funeral was held August 22, 1983 at his church and he is buried in the church cemetery, Quioccasin Road in Henrico County, Virginia.

Tommy Edwards. Singer, Songwriter, and Pianist. 1922-1969.

Thomas (Tommy) Jefferson Edwards, Jr. was born one of six children of Thomas J. and Buena Vista Edwards in Henrico County, Virginia. The elder Edwards, a distinguished Hampton Institute graduate, held teaching posts in Alabama and Henrico County, and was superintendent of Hanover County’s Virginia Manual Training Schools for Colored Boys. The family farmed vegetables and poultry on their homestead near Pemberton and Quioccasin Roads. Tommy Edwards attended the segregated schools of Henrico County, graduating from Virginia Randolph Training School.

The household was very musical. By his teens, Edwards, his sister Harriet, and brother Nathan performed as a trio on local radio stations. By age twenty-two, Edwards sang and played piano in New Jersey, New York, and Chicago and several of his compositions had been published by at least two music publishers. Edwards’ songwriting gained notoriety in 1946 for “That Chick’s Too Young to Fry,” a hit recorded by Louis Jordan. In the later 1940s he performed individually and as part of the Tommy Edwards Trio under the Top and National music labels.

Edwards recorded songs with several music labels before signing with MGM Records in 1950. His recording of “It’s All in the Game” reached #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1951. This song was later covered by several noted performers including Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore, and The Four Tops. He continued to record songs in the 1950s. His updated rerelease of “It’s All in the Game” in 1958 skyrocketed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and remained on top for six weeks. This reprised version also soared on several European charts and reportedly stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for nineteen weeks. Simultaneously, his recording “Love Is All We Need” flew into the Billboard Hot 100 chart’s Top 20. Edwards appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, Your Hit Parade, and The Dick Clark Show, among others, in 1958 and 1959. His reprised version of “It’s All in the Game” sold over three million copies.

Edwards’ recording career continued to have moderate success into the mid-1960s. During the 1950s and 1960s, at least ten of his recordings reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart’s Top 50. He died in 1969 at age forty-seven. In 2009 a state historical highway marker honoring Edwards was unveiled near the corner of Pemberton and Quioccasin Roads in Henrico County close to his burial site in the Quioccasin Baptist Church cemetery.

Reverend Dr. Benjamin W. Robertson, Sr. Pioneering Preacher, Humanitarian, Civil Rights Activist, Author. 1931-2011.

Reverend Dr. Benjamin William Robertson, Sr. was born April 6, 1931 to Clarence and Anna Mary Holland Robertson of Roanoke, Virginia. He was one of fourteen children. Dr. Robertson attended the “colored” public schools during Roanoke’s segregated school era. In 1948, at the age of 17, he preached his fist sermon. He attended the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, VA, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Virginia Union University in Richmond, VA, and enrolled in the Graduate School of Theology at Virginia Union University.

Rev. Dr. Robertson gained prominence in Richmond as pastor of the Cedar Street Baptist Church of God, a position he held from 1955 until his retirement in 2007. After retiring, he continued to serve as Pastor Emeritus. People who knew Dr. Robertson considered him a pioneer among leaders and preachers, a visionary, humanitarian, organizer, renowned scholar, masterful teacher, charismatic preacher’s preacher who filled his sermons with great stories of God, and an advocate for social justice and grass root citizens. For more than 52 years, he was dedicated to preaching the gospel. A giant of a man, he possessed the personality and leadership qualities which equipped him to win souls for God. Under his leadership, the Cedar Street Baptist Church of God grew from a congregation of hundreds in 1955 to thousands by the 1970s.

Dr. Robertson used his education to serve God and to uplift his community. He was founder of the Richmond Virginia Seminary and the National Christian Education Convention and served as President of the Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, where he earned his Master and Doctor of Divinity degrees. He authored two books: “Just as He Promised” and ‘Lead by the Spirit of God. ‘ In 1961, Dr. Robertson was part of a small group that broke away from the National Baptist Convention to establish the Progressive National Baptist Convention in order to support the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Civil Rights Movement.

A Renaissance man, he appeared in the film documentary “A Perfect Candidate,” and on the cover of “National Pathways,” a magazine that has featured articles on the legendary Harriet Tubman, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall. He was awarded the first Virginia State Baptist Convention Lifetime Achievement Award.

Dr. Robertson was a long time resident of the Varina District in Henrico County, the husband of Delores Wallace, and the father of one son, Benjamin W. Robertson, Jr., who preceded him in death, July 10, 1974. The Reverend Dr. Benjamin William Robertson died on February 20, 2011.

Louis Hansel Draper. Notable Photographer, Educator, and Humanitarian. 1935-2002.

Louis Hansel Draper, the oldest of three children, was born on September 24, 1935 in eastern Henrico County to Hansel and Dorothy Taylor Draper. He received his early education at Van de Vyver Catholic Institute in Richmond, and graduated from Virginia Randolph High School in Glen Allen, Virginia. He attended Virginia State College (University) in the late 1950s for a short time and took photos for the college newspaper. It was the college experience that triggered a passion for photography when a copy of the book, “The Family of Man,” containing photographs by Edward Steichen, was left in his dormitory room. The faces in the book were powerful images that sealed his desire to capture photos of everyday Black people.

In 1957, Draper decided to pursue a photography career in New York City, where he freelanced, before enrolling in Thomas Edison College of New Jersey and earning a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Photography. He taught photography in New York City and New Jersey secondary schools and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from New York University’s Institute of Film and Television in June 1970.

He received the Distinguished Teacher Award from Mercer Community College in New Jersey where he was head of the Photography Department from 1982 to 2002. As a teacher and freelance photographer, his career took him around the world, taking photos of notable people such as Langston Hughes, who was his mentor; Jacqueline Kennedy; Malcolm X; Fanny Lou Hamer; Miles Davis; Michael Jackson; and James Baldwin.

Louis Draper established himself as one of the more prominent African American photographers of his time. He was a founding member of the Kamoinge Workshop in Harlem, a Black group of photographers formed in 1962. The workshop has produced several lauded portfolios documenting the lives of African Americans. In 1959, he gained national attention when his work was included in the exhibition “Photography at Mid-Century” at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. He worked for publications including Essence Magazine, Camera Magazine, and Black Photographers Annual. His works have been exhibited in collections at various museums, including the Schomburg Museum in New York, where it is part of the permanent collection of works by notable Black photographers. Louis Hansel Draper died on February 18, 2002, in New Jersey and is buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Henrico County.

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