A Blot On History

Paw through enough manuscript collections, and you’ll eventually run across some advertisements printed on a thick, porous paper, usually with a pink or blue backing. For those not in the know, it’d be easy to dismiss these little items, which come in a variety of shapes and sizes–and often in bright colors– as simple promotional cards, but in fact, they had an ulterior and important function in 19th-century household and business environments.

This N&W Railway ink blotter promotes the company’s J-class locomotive no. 600, built in 1941 (from the Wayne Perkins Collection, Ms2010-078).

Through the 18th century, the best countermeasure that correspondents, clerks, and other writers had against the inconvenience of slow-drying ink was to sprinkle sand (or sometimes its more costly alternative, salt) over their handwriting to set the ink, then shake the page to remove the temporary coating. The early 19th century saw the invention of the blotter, a handheld device with felt attached to a curved base that could be rocked over the written page to absorb excess ink. About fifty years later, a soft, thick, porous paper was developed as an effective means to absorb excess ink and speed the drying process. Pressed against the written page, the blotting paper soaked up the surplus ink and allowed the writer to complete a task more quickly and with fewer smears and smudges. The paper was also used in used in removing the excess ink from the pen’s nib, making for fewer drips and stains.

Following its introduction, blotting paper quickly replaced sand as the method of choice in drying ink. As noted in an opinion piece within the July 6, 1883, edition of the Maryland Independent, lamenting the end of an era:

It is not so many years since blotting sand was an article of foreign export and domestic use. … Some of the merchants of to-day remember when, as clerks in stationery stores, they occupied leisure hours and rainy days in putting into convenient packages blotting sand that came from Block Island by the barrel … The use of blotting sand led to the manufacture of sand-sifters, which in itself was an industry of some magnitude. A piece of paper has displaced them, sand and all.

It was only a matter of time before some enterprising individual determined that desktop blotting paper would provide an excellent medium for commercial advertising, and in that same Maryland Independent piece, the writer notes that the sale of ink blotters would be even larger if the marketplace weren’t flooded with free blotters distributed by companies peddling their goods and services.

Among the advertising ephemera found in the papers of Fields M. Young (Ms1985-018) are ink blotters from several companies hoping to do business with the Grayson County, Virginia, merchant.

In a November 10, 1895 article about the role of job printers in a recent political campaign, the Omaha Daily Bee related the opinion of a printer who claimed that ink blotters were a much more effective form of advertising than traditional campaign cards: “Cards were thrown away, he argued, while blotters were kept for use on the desk and thus held attention of the voter to the name of the candidate. The blotters, good ones, could be furnished at $3.50 per 1,000, printed with the name of the candidates …”

As a free and useful item for household or business consumers, the blotters proved very popular. The Topeka State Journal of April 20, 1900 reported: “A man went through the court house a few days ago distributing advertising blotters. When he started he ahd two large bags full. When he escaped he had a few left, but very few.” At the turn of the 20th century, competition from blotter advertising led newspaper publishers nationwide–at least those not connect to job printers who benefited from printing the blotters–to denounce the medium as an effective form of advertising.

These blotters, all from businesses in southwestern Virginia, performed double duty by including a calendar, a ruler, a football schedule, and a list of early aviation records to insure that consumers would be less likely to discard them (click for full-sized images) (from the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, Ms1987-052).

The development of quick-drying ink and improvements in fountain pen design were harbingers of doom for the advertising blotter. In the 1940s, Parker Pens promoted a new design by claiming that it made the use of blotting paper unnecessary. Though blotters continued to retain their place among other promotional giveaways in the advertising world for several more years, the mass manufacture and ready availability of the ballpoint pen sounded the medium’s death knell. Blotting paper can of course still be purchased for many other uses, and I suppose it’s possible that there’s a manufacturer out there somewhere who’s churning out desktop advertising blotters for some niche retro market, but the day of the advertising blotter–like that of blotting sand before it–has long passed.

By the time this 1942 blotter employed patriotism and Mickey Mouse to sell Sunoco Oil, the advertising blotter was nearing the end of its popularity (from the O’Shaughnessy Family Papers, Ms1987-052).

The Future’s Past

Electric Vehicles of the Early 20th Century and the H. H. Skinner Papers

 

With all of the attention that electric vehicles have received in recent years, it may seem at times that they’re a new invention, a product of the same 21st-century march of progress that has brought us smartphones, 3D printing, and virtual reality. But in fact, battery-powered vehicles have been around since the 1800s. According to the Department of Energy’s website, electric vehicles accounted for about a third of all vehicles traveling the nation’s roads and streets in 1900, and sales remained strong into the 1910s. This first heyday of the electric vehicle is documented in the H. H. Skinner Papers (Ms1988-061), a small but fascinating collection in Special Collections & University Archives.

A native of New York state, Herbert Harold Skinner (1886-1971) had worked for several electric companies before becoming an engineer/salesman with the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company of Providence, Rhode Island, around 1909.  Three years later, the company became interested in electric vehicles, attracted by their potential as a source for additional sales of electricity, and Skinner’s papers suggest that the young engineer oversaw the company’s foray into electric vehicles. Included in the collection is an in-house report describing how the company would directly benefit from its own use of electrics and how it might realize as much as $188,000 ($5.5 million in today’s dollars) in additional sales per year through the use of such vehicles by its customers. In arguing for electrics, the report delves into their history, technology, and economy.

The Baker Electrics coupe (top) and Buffalo Electric Company roadster (bottom) were marketed to upscale residential customers.
While emphasizing luxury or sportiness when marketing electrics to residential customers, manufacturers focused on utility when promoting the battery-powered vehicles to business and industry. This electric truck (which looks like something from a post-apocalyptic movie) was manufactured by Boston’s Eldridge Manufacturing Company and  was owned by the Metropolitan Coal Company.

Although the gasoline-powered vehicle’s eventual and complete dominance of the automotive market may appear to have been inevitable in hindsight, such an outcome couldn’t be foreseen at the advent of the 20th century. The horse, as it had for millennia, continued to serve as the primary choice for personal transportation and short-distance haulage. (Steam-powered cars, relying on a long-familiar technology, also maintained a small place in the market during this era.) Early gas-powered vehicles were difficult to start and operate, and they emitted fumes, smoke, and noise. Battery-powered electrics, in contrast, were simple, clean and quiet–advantages that offset their higher price tags. The electric vehicle was particularly well suited for urban, short-distance driving, and many of the ad campaigns for electrics targeted women; others promoted the technology’s use for commercial delivery or for public services.

In marketing electric vehicles to Providence residents and businesses, Skinner and the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company performed a number of cost-analysis studies, several of which are contained within the collection. In late June, the H. M. Phelps Company conducted a five-day demonstration to determine the cost-effectiveness of an electric delivery truck for the Shepard Company’s local parcel delivery service. The report includes complete details for the demonstration routes and the power used  during the five-day period, determining that delivery by electric vehicle would cost the company between $.059 and $.061 per mile and between $.014 and $.019 per delivery. (Supplementing the figures are images of several electric truck and wagon options.) In concluding the report, Skinner extols the virtues of the electric vehicle and its battery, claiming that a full night’s charge would provide sufficient power for a 60-mile route in Providence under ordinary circumstances. Interestingly, one of the benefits listed by Skinner relates to labor. Knowing the desire by businesses to keep all costs low, Skinner asserts: “The electric does not require a chauffeur. When a man has learned to operate the car, he has learned nothing that will justify him in asking for a higher salary. “

A fleet of Baker electrics employed as parcel delivery trucks by Halle Bros. of Cleveland, Ohio. According to the promotional blurb on the back of the photo, use of the electrics had halved the company’s annual delivery expenses.

Skinner’s customer files contain many smaller studies and reports on electric vehicle performance and cost. In some cases, the reports provide head-to-head cost comparisons with other modes of transportation. A 1913 letter to the Outlet Company, for example, compares the costs of a 1-ton electric delivery truck to those of a horse and accompanying equipment, concluding that the truck would be 51% cheaper to operate. Elsewhere, in a study comparing costs of an electric 4-ton Baker truck with a 4-ton gasoline-powered Packard, the figures show that while the $4500 price tag of the Baker was $1000 higher than that of the Packard, the Baker would cost $1500 less to operate per year. The collection is full of such data and would lead anybody reading it to conclude that electric vehicles were fated to be the mainstay of personal transportation and short-distance haulage for years to come.

An electric armored vehicle used by a trust company of Newark, New Jersey. A note on the back of the photo claims that the vehicle was “absolutely burglar proof.”

As it happened, the Narragansett Lighting Company’s venture into the electric vehicle market was ill-timed, as the confluence of several developments would soon cause the collapse of the electric vehicle industry. Ford’s introduction of the Model T in 1908 further reduced the initial cost of a gasoline-powered vehicle, while the development of the electric starter simplified the starting process. Moreover, as rural road conditions improved, long distance personal transportation became more feasible and demanded a cheap, easily accessible fuel source. Few rural areas had electricity at the time, and gasoline had become a cheap, readily available and inexpensive. Internal combustion technology also continued to advance, somewhat reducing complaints about noise and exhaust.

Its use limited to haulage over very short distances, this lift, manufactured by the Automatic Transportation Company of Buffalo and owned by Atlantic Mills of Providence, illustrates the somewhat unglamorous service to which electric vehicle power would be relegated for several decades.

Of course, none of this happened overnight, and electrics continued to be a significant part of the automotive market for several more years. Soon, however, the battery-powered vehicle virtually disappeared from the nation’s roads and streets. While electricity continued to power such niche vehicles as forklifts, it would be decades before concerns over the environment and the availability of fossil fuels would again spur serious interest in electric and hybrid vehicles as a viable mode of transportation. None of that was obvious to H. H. Skinner and the Narragansett Lighting Company in 1912, however, and in this small collection we can see an optimistic outlook for a then-flourishing industry.

More on H. H. Skinner and his papers may be found in the collection’s finding aid.

An Incident of Reconstruction

Very often when reading old letters, it’s easy to lose a large part of the writer’s meaning, even when the penmanship is perfect and the grammar impeccable. Being far removed from the writer’s time and place, we lose a great deal of the context, of the experiences and culture shared by the correspondents, and may, in our ignorance, overlook accounts of significant events. The C. L. Porcher Letter (Ms1988-072) relates an event in Black history–albeit from the perspective of a white woman–but that aspect of the letter could easily be missed without a careful reading of its contents.

A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Clelia Lightwood Porcher was living and working as a teacher in that city when she sat down to write a letter on September 12, 1876. After briefly discussing a family matter, Porcher remarks that “Isaac was summoned and was out until after one, but Sunday + Monday night the rain was so steady that no disturbance was even looked for …” (“Isaac” was probably Isaac Mazyak, or Mazyck, who appears in the 1880 census as a 24-year-old clerk, boarding in the Porcher home.) Later, Porcher adds that “[t]he Mayor’s and Governor’s proclamation has only had the effect of making them more determined than they were before.” She continues by noting that the city is well protected and the danger likely over, then describes a large meeting of women at the Confederate Home, held for the purpose of organizing refreshments for men serving guard duty throughout the city. (She’s not optimistic about the women’s organization, however: “We were there three blessed hours and came away as wise as I went about what was to be done.”) Porcher also expresses her feelings about the mood in the city: “I have never been so excited in my life before + every body can think and talk of nothing else … We hear the slightest unusual sound during the night, so as you may imagine our sleep is not very profound.” But the following day, Porcher reports that the unrest has been quelled: “[I]t is thought that everything now will be quiet, the only thing is, our men cannot relax their vigilance.”

     

All of this hints at some civil disturbance experienced in Charleston, but what was it? Who were the “them” to whom Porcher refers? Why were they “more determined” after hearing the mayor’s and governor’s proclamations? A few online searches reveal that Porcher’s letter relates to politics and race relations in Charleston near the end of Reconstruction.

Early in September 1876, Charleston saw two Democratic Party meetings in which several local Black residents spoke about their reasons for abandoning the Republican Party. In a Black Democratic Party club meeting held on King Street on September 6, two Black speakers spoke against the Republican Party. Afterward white Democrats escorted the speakers through a crowd of Republicans that had gathered outside the Democratic meeting. Violence between the two groups ensued, and the intervention of federal troops and an integrated local police force was of little consequence. (Not on hand that first night were the city’s many “rifle clubs”–essentially local militia–which were the clubs to which Porcher refers.) Windows were smashed, stores were looted, a number of people were assaulted, and one white man was accidentally killed.

That Porcher’s letter was written six days after the incident suggests that the unrest continued for some time. In response to the violence, Republican South Carolina Governor Daniel Henry Chamberlain issued a proclamation promising to “secure to every man, of whatever political party, the right to speak, act and vote freely and safely …” Neglecting to state what actions he would take to restore order, Chamberlain called on all citizens to do their utmost in preserving the peace: “The spirit of poiltical intolerance, in all its forms,” he wrote, “is the direst curse which now oppresses our State, and peace and prosperity will never come until that foul spirit is finally exorcised.” Despite his lofty ideals, Chamberlain was seen as ineffective in suppressing the violence. A lack of voter confidence in his ability to quell the violence, coupled with suppression of Black voters and the defection of others to the Republican Party, led to Chamberlain’s defeat in November.

The feelings aroused that fall in Charleston and elsewhere would play out in the national election. Losses by Republicans in November, together with the Compromise of 1877, which led to the withdrawal of the remaining federal troops from the South, ended the promises of Reconstruction. A close reading of the Porcher Letter provides a look at this incident of Reconstruction.

 

Deadly Obsession

Homer Davis and His Unusual Legacy

With the Halloween season upon us, our thoughts naturally turn to the eerie and macabre, and so I thought I’d tell you today about the morbid souvenirs collected by a creature who once haunted American cemeteries from coast to coast.

Okay, Homer Davis was no ghoul. But if I’d opened by saying that this would be a post about somebody who enjoyed visiting cemeteries as a pleasant past-time (as many people do) and took photos of the noteworthy graves that he found within them, you’d have been less inclined to take a moment to read about a nice  little collection here in Special Collections and University Archives that deserves some attention.

The Homer E. Davis Papers (Ms2001-051) contain materials collected by a Civil War enthusiast and amateur historian, including Civil War maps, memorabilia, and publications—the types of things found in any number of other such collections. Born in 1922 and a veteran of World War II, Homer Davis was working as a stockbroker when health problems forced him into early retirement in 1971. It was this forced retirement that led to an unusual component of his collection.  In his newfound leisure time, Davis began visiting and photographing the gravesites of Civil War generals. Because that’s a relatively short list of people, Davis’s interest soon expanded to the resting places of other Civil War veterans, and eventually he began documenting the graves of other noteworthy individuals, including  politicians, entertainers, authors, and others. And so the Homer Davis Papers include photographs documenting approximately 12,000 gravesites in all 50 states.

Davis was hardly alone in his interest in graveyards. Cemeteries have long been frequented by those seeking a tranquil retreat or a link with our shared past. The hobby of visiting cemeteries with a view toward preservation of gravesites through photography is a relatively recent one, however. Today, millions of gravesites are photographically preserved on findagrave and other websites through the efforts of “gravers,” but during Davis’s active years, 1971-1982, few people were making a systematic effort at photographic preservation, and it’s a good bet that some of the gravesites visited by Davis have since fallen into ruin or have even disappeared, with his photographs being their only surviving record.

 

 

A few random gravesite images from among the thousands photographed by Davis: poet-author Carl Sandburg, abolitionist-statesman Frederick Douglass, and actress-singer Lillian Russell.

Though without attention to craft, seemingly composed in haste, and sometimes lacking in sharpness, Davis’s photographs preserve the setting and appearance of the subject matter. He often took multiple photos of a single gravesite, attempting not only to document the entire monument, but the inscriptions thereon. Like a good hobbyist of any kind, Davis was a stickler for details, and the verso of each photograph contains the name of the interred, the location of the grave, the date of the photograph, and a brief description of the deceased’s claim to fame. Complementing the photo collection are Davis’s cemetery research folders (one for each state and the District of Columbia), including research notes, correspondence, local maps, and—most significantly—information on individual cemeteries.

Among the lesser-knowns memorialized by Davis is Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) of Newburyport, Massachusetts, identified by Davis on the verso as an “[e]ccentric merchant and author of a humorous autobiography. The town clown.”

The back of the photograph documenting the grave of Philip John Schuyler contains a mini-biography of Philip John Schuyler, Revolutionary War major general and congressman.

Tragically, Homer Davis’s life was cut short as a result of injuries received in an automobile accident during a Michigan graving excursion in 1982. When Peggy Davis, his wife and graving companion, died in 2000, Davis’s papers (and a sizable Civil War book collection), were donated to Special Collections and University Archives. (A selection of Davis’s gravesite photos from southwestern Virginia were scanned soon after the donation and may be found in our Imagebase.)

Because the Davis papers were the first that I processed at Virginia Tech, I have a bit of a soft spot for them, and I hope they’ll see more use in the future. Certainly, they’d be of interest to anybody researching general burial practices and specific burial places, or possibly the nature of celebrity, or somebody exploring graving as a hobby or even the compulsive world of hobbyists. In fact, Special Collections and University Archives and our researchers have been the ultimate beneficiary of the disparate passions of a number of hobbyists, from the collections of amateur ornithologists Eugene Law and Harold Bailey, to the railroad memorabilia collected by Wythe County’s Wayne Perkins, and from the research notes of several family and local historians to the scrapbooks of many Virginia Tech students. But none are quite as unusual as the legacy of Homer Davis.

Change in Operations

August 2021 Update:

  • Beginning August 9, 2021, Special Collections and University Archives will be open Monday-Friday from 8am to 5pm
  • Appointments will not be required, but strongly encouraged (**see below)
  • Appointments can be made by visiting the SCUA Seat Reservation page (instructions are included on this page)
  • Virtual reference help remains available at specref@vt.edu or by phone at 540-231-6308
  • Newman Library hours of operation and those of other University Library branches are also available online

**By making an appointment, you will help us limit the number of researchers using our Reading Room at any one time for health and safety; guarantee you a seat at the requested time; and help us plan for your visit, for example, making sure materials needed are onsite and available.

We are pleased to be able to return to closer-to-normal services, but we also appreciate your patience during changing times. If you have questions about our operations or policies, please feel free to contact us at specref@vt.edu or by phone at 540-231-6308.

We kindly ask that all visitors to Special Collections and University Archives comply with the current university mask policies, available online. Our staff are happy to provide you information on the current policies and expectations. Please contact specref@vt.edu or by phone at 540-231-6308.

Wading Through a Life: Processing the M. Rupert Cutler Papers

Rupert Cutler with a group of volunteers on a park clean-up day

For the last 5 months, I have been kept busy with processing the recently acquired papers of Rupert Cutler, a prominent environmentalist and activist who has lived and worked in Roanoke since 1991. He was Assistant Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Jimmy Carter, and since has served in leadership roles in several environmental organizations such as the Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, and The Wilderness Society, among others. He has also served on Roanoke City Council and on the boards of Opera Roanoke, The Western Virginia Land Trust, the Western Virginia Water Authority, and the Nonprofit Resource Center of Western Virginia. He was also the executive director of The Explore Park, and has been instrumental in establishing a number of conservation easements and parks in the New River Valley.

Two awards and a name badge illustrating Dr. Cutler’s service to his community.

Processing this collection has proved challenging on a number of levels. The first, and most pressing of these are the time restrictions caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In order to create as much distance between employees as possible, I only have access to the building that houses the collection three days a week. When the grant that funds this project was written, a five day work week was assumed. In order to keep the project on track, I need to spend every moment that I am onsite processing, which is intense and draining. I’ve needed to plan my work very carefully to make the most of my time on campus and at home.

The second challenge has been the size of the collection. It spans 142 boxes and 6 decades. Cutler was and still is an extremely active and engaged figure, and he saved a great deal from his life. It is wonderful to have such a deep and broad look into his life, but the scope of materials is also a little daunting.

Finally, the third major challenge of working with this collection has been the need to categorize materials that resist easy sorting. Cutler blended personal, professional, environmental, and political on many occasions in his correspondence and works. It can be difficult to decide where to put a letter that references his environmental activism, his service on City Council, and casual news about mutual friends in the same missive. Based on the evidence of his papers, Cutler made friends easily and had a knack for bringing his many interests together, which has proven somewhat troublesome when neat descriptions are called for.

The time constraints of working on this collection have limited the amount of time I can spend with any one document, and expediency demands a balance between the materials being loosely sorted in a way that will mostly allow researchers to find what they’re looking for, and putting each item in its own folder with a thorough description of its themes. I think I’ve found a good compromise of specificity and generality, but the process has really driven home for me the importance of critical thinking and decision making skills to the work of an archivist. I hope I’ve made the right calls, but only time can tell.

Processing the personal papers of almost anyone can raise significant moral quandaries, and this collection is no different. It is a great privilege to rifle through the records of another person’s life, and the resulting information needs to be treated with respect and care. There is a constant need to balance accuracy with sensitivity. Historically, archivists were meant to be unbiased and without emotion, simple conveyors of fact into posterity. However, it is crucial for the modern archivist to recognize that such impartiality is actually impossible to achieve, and to make the best of it. The simple act of choosing to promote one collection and allow another to fall into obscurity is biased, and such decisions cannot be avoided, nor can the many hundreds of more fraught choices. 

Nowhere are these tricky questions of right and wrong and justice and accuracy and kindness more common and immediate than in personal papers. We all must do our best, and sometimes we fall down. Growth is the important factor, for collection creators and the archivists who work on their legacies. Erasing our mistakes doesn’t make them go away, and just as important as evidence of our successes is that of our failures, and how we respond to them. It would be unfair to the collection creators and the world to deify or demonize people who were just being human. I find the humanity of the people represented in the collections I work on to be the most valuable part of the record, and that reflecting my own humanity in the decisions I make about the collection is the best way to move forward. I hope posterity agrees.

Pulaski’s Calfee Training School

As often happens while looking for something in Special Collections and University Archives’ Historical Photographs Collection, I recently ran across an unexpected item that caught my interest. In this case, it was a school photo that I’d never seen. Captioned “Calfee Graded School, Pulaski, Va., 1917,” the photo features students and teachers of Pulaski County’s segregated school for African-American children. The caption identifies the principal of the school, more formally known as Pulaski Training School, as M. E. W. Buford.

I was unable to find much information on the school’s early history, unfortunately. Conway Howard Smith’s The Land That Is Pulaski County (1981) tells us that the two-story, brick school was built on the west side of Main Street in 1894. A 1921 education report records that year’s enrollment of the school as 276 students.

By the 1930s, the 40-year-old Calfee Training School had fallen into a state of disrepair, and leaders in the African-American community were pushing for an accredited replacement. Local physician Percy C. Corbin and others called for a school that would be of equal quality to that of its counterparts for local white students.

The need for a new school became more urgent in 1938, when the school pictured above was destroyed by fire. Ultimately, the school board funded a new elementary school, to be located across the street from the original location. The new facility, featuring eight classrooms, was completed the following year at a cost of approximately $35,000.  

Rather than investing in a new facility for students of high school age, however, the board chose to bus the county’s older Black students to Christiansburg Industrial Institute in neighboring Montgomery County. (At the time, Pulaski County was served by three high schools for white students.) Because the bus ride of approximately 30 miles was so time-consuming, it deprived the transported students from participating in after-school activities, limited their study time at home, and created untold additional problems. The unsatisfactory arrangement ultimately led to a 1947 lawsuit,  Corbin et al., v County School Board of Pulaski County, Virginia, which became part of a larger collection of local class-action lawsuits initiated by the NAACP Legal Defense fund to equalize the education of the races. According to the National Archives website, the Pulaski County suit ended in a victory for the plaintiffs on appeal in Baltimore’s U. S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1949. A hollow victory, however, the case’s conclusion apparently brought little change in practice, and it became the last in the NAACP’s efforts toward equalization, as civil rights activists soon began to instead focus their energies on the goal of school desegregation.

The Pulaski County school system finally became integrated in 1966, and the Calfee School closed. Through the succeeding decades, the school building has served several different purposes and has gradually fallen into disrepair.

Today, the Calfee Training School—the school built in 1939—is again in the news, as efforts are underway to restore the building and give it a new purpose. If existing plans are realized, the new Calfee Community & Cultural Center will include a museum, a childcare center, a community kitchen, and office space for non-profits, all while preserving a significant piece of local history.

Where Sporty Beat His Drum

Remembering Charles Owen, a Beloved Early Campus Figure

Last year, while helping to assemble images for a photographic history of the Roanoke and New River valleys, I ran across a wonderful photo of Charles Owen, known to the students of Virginia Agricultural & Mechanical College (today Virginia Tech) as “Uncle Sporty.” Sometimes a photo really captures your interest and makes you want to learn more about the person shown.

Charles Owen, 1910

Charles Owen’s longstanding presence at the university began in 1890, when he was hired as a janitor for Barracks Number One (today Lane Hall). (Note that while some sources, including his own daughter’s death record, provide his surname as “Owens,” campus sources invariably identify it as “Owen,” so that is what I’ll use here.) Soon afterward, Owen assumed an additional duty that he’d perform for many years to come: according to Col. Harry Temple’s The Bugle’s Echo, an exhaustive history of the university’s early decades, Owen “took charge of a large snare drum which he attached to a leather belt about his waist. Ten minutes before Reveille each morning he would parade the area in front of the barracks, beating his drum. Sporty could actually beat out tunes on that drum; where he learned the art no one knew.” For nearly 20 years, Owen’s was one of the most familiar faces on campus and likely one of the first to be recognized by new cadets. Reminiscing on his years as a VAMC cadet,  Henry Harris Hill (BS, 1907) recalled his first morning at college:

Very early in the morning I was awakened by a far off rumbling sound. For the life of me I couldn’t imagine what the noise was. It gradually came closer, so I got up and went to the window to look. Out on the parade ground was an old colored man beating a drum that looked like it was about five feet deep. The colored man was Uncle Sporty who was waking the boys preliminary to Reveille.

Unfortunately, despite some rather in-depth searching, I could learn little about Owen. The 1900 census recorded a Charles Owens living in Blacksburg with wife Ellen. The Owens’s sizable household included three daughters, Bell, Lucy, and Nellie; the daughters’ husbands, Lev, Hiram, and Reuben (all with the surname Collins); four Collins grandchildren; Charles and Ellen’s adopted son John Hickman; and niece Ella Collins. The census describes Charles Owen as a janitor but fails to record his and Ellen’s ages.

(To throw some confusion on the matter, the census lists a second Charles Owens living in Blacksburg and also working as a janitor in 1900. Later census records indicate that this Charles Owens also worked on campus, but following this man’s documentary trail we learn that he is not the man who came to be known as Uncle Sporty.)

Owen’s photo first appears in The Bugle (the college annual) in 1899. He is shown in a composite photo of other maintenance staff and is identified only as “Sporty Sam.” Given the time period and the fact that another African-American campus employee is referred to as “Smoky Sam,” we can infer that the name “Sam” was almost certainly being used here as a diminutive of “sambo,” a derogatory term that, even if used in jest, showed a flagrant disrespect.

Charles Owen, 1899 Bugle

Owen’s photo would again appear in the 1908 Bugle. By that time, he’d picked up the nickname “Uncle Sporty,” and while the term “uncle” when applied to African-American men of that era was also unquestionably derogatory, its use by the cadets in referring to Owen would seem to indicate an improvement of sorts in his status and the affection that they held for him. (We might also bear in mind that the cadets invariably referred to William Gitt, a white man who succeeded Owen as a worker in Lane Hall (and about whom I posted three years ago), as “Uncle Bill.”)

Illustrating the standing that Owen held in the cadets’ minds, his photo appears near the front of the annual, preceded only by the volume’s dedication page.

Charles Owen, 1908 Bugle

Below Owen’s photo is a poem, attributed to “J.D.P., ’08” (John Dalrymple Powell of Portsmouth, Virginia), written in the “Negro dialect” commonly used by white writers of the day. While the delivery is demeaning, the sentiments seem heartfelt:

Bein’ as I’se de fust to see yo’ when yo’ come,

And as I says Good-bye to every one,

And since I takes most painful care

Of all my boys throughout the year,

It seems to me most sartin’ sure

Dat I should be right here befor’

De folks of all dese friends of mine

And gib’ a greetin’ which dey’ll find,

Dat dough dey lib’ to be past forty,

Will make dem tink of “Uncle Sporty.”

According to The Bugle’s Echo, Owen continued to perform his campus duties until mid-1909, when,  due probably to age and failing health, he retired and left Blacksburg. “He took with him,” writes Temple, “the great well-wishes and gratitude of the cadets.” The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times) of March 2, 1910 reported that Owen had suffered a stroke, leaving his entire left side paralyzed. Just three weeks later, the newspaper announced Owen’s death. In eulogizing him, the editor offered what he considered high praise, but even here the newspaper could not resist inserting a backhanded “compliment”:

Charles Owen, the old negro janitor who for years has been known by the familiar name of “Uncle Sporty,” and who was loved and respected by hundreds of students and alumni of V. P. I., died at his home last week after a lingering illness. Owen had for many years been janitor of Number One barracks and his sterling honesty and respectability as well as his never-to-be-forgotten duty of awakening the sleepers each morning with the rumbling of his ancient drum, had made him a familiar and unique figure here. He was of the old order, now seen no more among the negroes, and his death is sincerely mourned by everyone who knew him. He is survived by several children, two of whom occupy positions with the college.

The Bugle’s Echo notes that Owen’s standing at the university was such that students proposed providing the pallbearers and a firing party for his burial service, only to find that the funeral had been held before these arrangements could be made. Still, the cadets collected a “substantial sum of money,” according to Temple, “and a huge spray of flowers was ordered to be placed upon his grave.” Shortly thereafter, The Virginia Tech published a poem by M. W. Davidson (BS, 1901) entitled “Uncle Sporty’s Drum,” the third stanza of which reads:

No matter where roams Hokie’s man, his memory never failing;

He ponders on the long ago, though often rough the sailing.

The strife is long, the fight grows hot, and is ever lost by some,

But not by them who learned the way, where Sporty beat that drum.

A memorial also appeared in The Bugle for that year, featuring Owen’s photo and another poem.

Though the newspaper mentioned that two of Owen’s children continued to work at the university in 1910, nothing about them could be found. The 1910 census shows Ellen “Owns,” Charles’ 35-year-old widow, still living in Blacksburg, together with son-in-law “Rubin” Collins and two grandchildren. The census-taker noted that Rubin was working as a janitor in the “VPI Halls.” That same census shows another son-in-law, Hiram Collins, working as a janitor in the “YMCA Hall” (today the College of Arts and Human Sciences Building).

It isn’t easy, given the length of time that’s elapsed since his death and the little information at hand, for us to draw conclusions about Owen’s daily life, to put it in the context of the times, to know how he felt about his work at VPI and the students with whom he regularly interacted. (We haven’t even managed to conclusively identify his surname.) The little that we’ve learned of Charles Owen and his term of service here illustrates the larger, complicated topic of race relations of the era. It may be naïve and overreaching for us to say that Owen’s legacy was one of a slowly evolving, growing acceptance of and respect for African Americans in the campus community, but there can be no doubt that his work contributed to the university’s growth in its early decades, that his longstanding presence helped to instill in the students an affection for their school,  and that he continued to be fondly remembered by university alumni for many decades following his death.

The Life of Andrew Oliver, Virginia Tech’s Little Known First African American Worker

Guest Post by Juan Pacheco

Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery. 

Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Continue reading “The Life of Andrew Oliver, Virginia Tech’s Little Known First African American Worker”

Make some women in architecture more visible to the worldwe promise its easier than you can imagine!

ArtWikipediaEditGraphic

WHEN: March 2019 (and beyond)
WHERE: Wikipedia (see the project page)
EXPERIENCE: None, just get started!

We love getting together to collaborate on editing, but we also realize everyone is very busy! Fortunately the highly connected world we live in allows us to bolster the sense of community that we can create through online collaboration.

Enter Wikipedia.

As the worlds most popular online research tool, serving as the firstand oftenonlystop for many people looking for information on a wide range of topics ranging from general to technical subjects, biographies, and so forth. Frequently touted as an unbiased resource, analysis has shown that there is an alarming gap in content by and about women and other underrepresented groups, falsely suggesting that their contributions to their respective fields are either unimportant or non-existent(read more about that here). Lets help fix this!

Even if you have just five minutes between meetings you can update a resource. Add some images to a page, add a link back to the archival holdings or finding aid from a university, update the citations, proofread a paragraph, or add in-article links to other relevant Wikipedia content.

Have a few more minutes? Add a bio box, create a translation in another language, significantly edit an article, find and upload copyright-free images to Wikimedia Commons, add significant sections such as Career, Early Life, and Seminal Works, or add a completely new article entry.

ArchitectPortraits

You dont necessarily need to set up a Wikipedia account to edit! You can get started just by opening an article page and clicking edit at the top of the page. That said, we’re working through the annual Art+Feminism initiative and the important work of tracking statistics is only possible if we all register and use the project dashboard.

To get started. weve created a page with articles to edit, suggestions for areas of enhancement, links to relevant resources for adding content and citations, and links to images in Wikimedia Commons.

Lets spend the remainder of March 2019 updating resources together. Let us know about your progress on the project resource page and make sure to tag @VT_SCUA and #ArtAndFeminism on Twitter or reach out to the IAWA page on Facebook to let us know what youre working on!

Lets make it social and build a community around this important work. Looking forward to seeing the change that we, together, can create!