This collection, including the photo album of tintypes, was received by the SHC in 1954. Very little is known about the album’s origins. Actually, not much is known about the album’s connection with the greater Lester-Gray collection. The album holds 17 tintypes and one carte-de-visite picturing African Americans — women, men, and children — well-dressed and formally posed. The album arrived with this curious label: “Negroes, born and Bred on Gen. Lee’s Land, 1862.”
Over the years, many people have inquired about the accuracy of this description and date on the album. More importantly people have often asked us about the identity of the individuals portrayed in these photographs. Could these individuals really have lived at Arlington House (the historic home of the Lee and Custis families of Virginia, and home to the Robert E. Lee Memorial)?
In fact, it was one of our researchers who helped us more accurately date these photographs. Several years ago a researcher, who is a maker of historically accurate dolls, agreed to give us her expert opinion of the dress and hairstyles. Her assessment dated the majority of these images to the time period between 1880 and 1900. Following additional research and consideration, our staff then updated our description to include the following statement: “Despite the label on the album, most of the images appear to date from 1880-1900, and there is no direct evidence of connection with Robert E. Lee.”
We have long believed that someone else out there might have additional knowledge that could help to identify some or all of these individuals. Or, perhaps, with some work between the archives at the Arlington House and these materials here in the SHC, more could be unearthed.
Individual collections of manuscript material preserved in the Southern Historical Collection range in size from giant collections of more than half a million items all the way down to single-item collections. Our smaller collections, due to the way that they have been cataloged over the years, are referred to as “z-collections” (or simply “z’s”). Often, these z-collections contain items with extremely rich content – lots of bang for the buck. Some researchers enjoy these collections because they are so digestible, especially if your time in the SHC is limited. In fact, they’re great for student projects too! However, because of their small size, our lil’ z’s often get the short shrift. So, through this blog, we intend to highlight some of these great z’s from time to time so that others may enjoy them as much as we do.
It may not be the most representative of the z’s, but here’s one that jumped out at me today – as z’s are wont to do sometimes (“Pick me, pick me!”). It’s cataloged as “The Mrs. Charles W. Bain Letter, 1917” (Collection #1327-z). A note dated July 1947 written by SHC staff gives this endearing description of the letter:
“September 17, 1917, A letter to Mrs. Bain from Mrs. Elizabeth W. Blackwell, whom she met in 1917 at Atlantic City. Mrs. Blackwell was a young Northern woman living in Chapel Hill during the War between the states. She left in 1862, through the kindness of Southern friends, to join her relatives in the North. In the intervening years she had longed to meet someone from Chapel Hill, which she had always loved and hoped to see once more. Mrs. Bain was the first person she had ever met from Chapel Hill since. This letter gives a brief account of her sojourn and departure. At that time she was Mrs. Fry.”
Transcript of the letter:
September 17, 1917.
My dear Mrs. Bain
Your picture postals of the University Buildings, gave me a great deal of pleasure; and I thank you sincerely for remembering me so kindly.
I received also a synopsis of ‘Battle’s History of the University,’ which I have read repeatedly; and each time with interest; seeing always some reminiscence of that long ago; I think I told you, that I left here in July 1862.
My son, Mr. James Woods Fry, was born in December 1862. I was then, just twenty-three years old; so, you can imagine how deplorable my situation would have been, to have been down there among strangers; in, at that time, a hostile country.
I owe my restoration to my home and family, to Mr. John Pool who lived on the Chowan River, Mrs. Joseph Pool, whose home was in Elizabeth City, was a refugee resident of Chapel Hill. Mrs. Pool had a daughter in the North, from whom she could not hear; this fact, made her sympathize with me, separated from my home.
She loaned me her horse and buggy, with which we drove through the state; leaving the team at Mr. John Pool’s handsome home.
In all these years, I have met with very few connecting links with Chapel Hill, although in my travels I have always scanned the registers in the hotels thinking I might see some familiar name. This time, at Atlantic City, I neglected to do so; but, my niece, knowing my interest, told me of your name, for which I was very glad.
Some years ago, I spent six weeks at Palm Beach. I thought then, I might possibly meet some one from North Carolina, or, see the name of some student on the Register: I have the Catalogue of the period I tell you of; but as usual, I was disappointed.
My niece sends her regards to you; and I wish to present mine to your sister. Thanking you again for your kindness, I am, yours most cordially,
Elizabeth W. Blackwell
…[additional sheet inserted]…
I inferred from some remark you made, that Mr. Samuel Phillips’s mother was still living; if that be the case, she must be a very old lady. I, myself am in my seventy-ninth year.
When I was seventy-six, I was as active as a much younger woman; but unfortunately a paralytic stroke made me, as you saw me; is affected my speech, and also my left foot; but I am thankful that I still have the use of my hands; otherwise I would not be writing this.
If I was sure, Mrs. Phillips was living, I would certainly write to her.
Elizabeth W. Blackwell.
In July 1888, I was married to Mr. John G. Blackwell, after being a widow for many years.