On Wednesday night in the Dome room of the Rotunda, City Councilor Dede Smith read a proclamation declaring Jan 25th 2012 “Henry Martin Day” in Charlottesville. Who is Henry Martin?
Mr. Henry Martin was a life-long resident of the Charlottesville community, having been born enslaved at Monticello on July 4, 1826, the day Thomas Jefferson passed away. He spent his youth in slavery, working at a boarding house on Carr’s Hill, and as a young man about 1845, was sent to work as a janitor and as official bell-ringer at the University of Virginia. He rang the bell in the Rotunda and later in the University Chapel for 53 years, marking each hour, from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., and served as a nurse and doctor’s aide during the U.S. Civil War as part of the Charlottesville General Hospital, helping to comfort and save the lives of thousand of wounded and sick Confederate and Union soldiers.
A long-time member and a noteworthy figure in the life of Charlottesville’s historic First Baptist Church, Henry Martin lived much of his life on Tenth Street, and had four daughters with his second wife Patsy Washington Martin. He passed away at age 89 on October 6, 1915, and was laid to rest in Charlottesville’s historic Oakwood Cemetery. It was reported that his funeral was among the largest Charlottesville has seen since the death of Thomas Jefferson. At the time of his death, it was also reported that Mr. Henry Martin “was known personally to more [University of Virginia] alumni than any other living man.”
It was a great honor to have Mr. Henry Martin’s 87-year-old great granddaughter, Ruth Fleming Hunt of Philadelphia present at the evening event. It was amazing to realize that the moment we are living now is the continuity of history – people in the past were once no less vividly living their lives as we are now, and we are the history in process. Some people questioned the mission of our Committee whether it would be more helpful to spend money on solving current problems than building a new memorial, or if the new memorial would deepen the wound left by history. The University’s recognition of Henry Martin’s enduring legacy is a hint to such worries: the establishment of a new memorial is not to draw a conclusion to the history, but to provide a more humane perspective on the often too abstract social problems by animating the history. Our Committee will meet with the University Faculty Senate members next week in seek of faculty support. At the same time, we are looking forward to establishing regular connections with organizations in Charlottesville community. We are one!
To watch the video of “The Enduring Legacy of Henry Martin” Symposium and read detailed report on Wednesday’s events, please visit:
To read more about Henry Martin and the legacy of enslaved laborers in the building of the University and Charlottesville community, please visit: