On 'Henry Martin Day,' University Honors All Who Built It

The handbell choir of Charlottesville performing for a crowd

The handbell choir of Charlottesville's First Presbyterian Church performed "In the Bleak Midwinter."

The first time Henry Martin awoke before dawn, made his way through the darkness to the University of Virginia's Rotunda and, exactly at 4 a.m., rang the large bell signaling the start of the day, is not precisely recorded. It may have been in 1847.

From that day forward, though, Martin "was as true to that bell as to my God," according to a "dramatic monologue" submitted to Corks & Curls, the University's yearbook, by professor C. Alphonso Smith in 1914. Every hour on the hour – for 53 years – from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., first in the Rotunda and then, after the 1895 fire, in the Chapel, "Uncle Henry" pulled the rope, and folks throughout Charlottesville knew what time it was and who was keeping it.

On Wednesday, nearly a century after his death, the University took a day to focus on Martin's story – from his birth into slavery at Monticello on the day that Thomas Jefferson died, to his own death in 1915, to its echoes today – as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration.

An evening event in the Dome Room of the Rotunda celebrated Martin's service to the University. City Councilor Dede Smith read and presented to Martin's 87-year-old great-granddaughter, Ruth Fleming Hunt of Philadelphia, a proclamation declaring Wednesday  "Henry Martin Day" in Charlottesville.

In his remarks, local historian, alumnus and adjunct faculty member Coy Barefoot, one of the driving forces behind the effort to honor Martin, sought to place his service in a greater context.

"The University of Virginia has a unique and historic mission. It is a gift from the Founding Fathers," he said. "This place is the insurance policy for the Revolution. That's why it exists; it is to ensure that the principles that people fought and died for in the 18th century would survive.

"Every time he reached up and pulled that rope, he was participating as an important player in that historic mission. … There is much we don't know about Henry Martin. But we do know that – that he did something very important with his life."

It should not be glossed over that Martin did not choose to participate in the University's mission, at least initially, U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said in her opening remarks. Before gaining his freedom and going to work in the Rotunda, he came to the University as a slave working in a boarding house on Carr's Hill.

"To omit this fact, to romanticize his life, would be to refute what we know to be true: that the institution of slavery was unjust and inhumane, and that slavery is an inextricable part of our past at the University of Virginia," she said.

"We've come here tonight not to idealize Henry Martin's service to the University, but to express our profound respect for his important contribution. My hope is that each of you here tonight will be drawn to reflect on his story and what it means in the context of our university's history and our community's history."

Such reflections abounded at a lunchtime symposium in the auditorium of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, where a panel of scholars discussed Martin's life in the context of other African-American laborers, enslaved and free, who worked at the University.

Barefoot was joined on the panel by Larry Lee Rowley, assistant professor in the School of Education and in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, who earned his Ph.D. from U.Va.; Elizabeth R. Varon, associate professor of history in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences; and Corey D.B. Walker, associate professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University and former assistant professor of religious studies and African-American studies at U.Va. Derrick P. Aldridge, a professor in U.Va.'s Curry School of Education, moderated the discussion.

After Barefoot sketched Henry Martin's biography, Rowley discussed the "complex" relationships between universities and the impoverished black urban communities that sprang up around them, where the lofty democratic ideals of Jefferson ("All men are created equal") collided with the realities of African-American life. Children who grew up in those communities could not aspire to attend those universities, he said; the only blacks they saw there were workers.

Varon described the frustrating dearth of historical sources detailing the lives of black workers, enslaved and free. Most often – as in the case of the Corks & Curls "dramatic monologue," a purported oral history penned in dialect by a white professor – the sources that do exist are presented through the filter of a white intermediary.

She presented an alternative reading of the Corks & Curls narrative, which portrays Martin as the kind of deferential, faithful servant favored by those in power. She teased out themes of "pride" (in the status Martin achieved in white society) and "protest" (of his being born into slavery).

"He was keenly aware that he was the rare exception" to the harsh rules of everyday life that governed most blacks living in the late 19th century, she said.

Walker expanded on Varon's points, warning of the "politics of nostalgia." In choosing to honor Martin, whom we know mostly through the dominant white narrative, "we've actually frozen an individual out of history," he said. "We don't know Henry Martin."

"We have this idyllic image that it was different here" during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era, he said. But Charlottesville residents formed a "vigilance committee" to subdue restive former slaves at the end of the Civil War, he said. Lynchings occurred; in one case, in Crozet, a black man was hanged and shot 50 times, he said.

Walker called for the creation of new archives recording the true history of African-Americans in this country. "In my view, this event should be seen as a beginning," he said.

Dr. Marcus Martin, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, agreed, and said the work of investigating the life of Henry Martin and other black workers, and finding appropriate ways to remember their contributions, is ongoing.

"Henry Martin Day" concluded on a poignant note. Toward the end of the evening celebration in the Rotunda, the handbell choir of Charlottesville's First Presbyterian Church performed "In the Bleak Midwinter." As the piece concluded, the now-automated bells at the University Chapel tolled the 6 o'clock hour, the tones clearly audible in the Dome Room.

The audience briefly sat stunned before Marcus Martin led a round of applause.

"Wow – I think that was Henry, ringing the bell," he said.

— By Dan Heuchert

Media Contact

Dan Heuchert

Office of University Communications