The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He was killed on the courthouse steps. Now, a Virginia county honors its first Black elected leader.

In 1869, Joseph R. Holmes was murdered on the steps of the Charlotte County Courthouse in what is now Charlotte Court House, Va. The new marker about Holmes is in the center, still covered in plastic. Behind the sign is a monument to Confederate soldiers and a cannon installed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. (Kathy Lee Erlandson Liston)

The Charlotte County, Va., courthouse has a long history, with plenty of historical markers to show for it. There’s one for Patrick Henry‘s last public debate, which took place there in 1799. There’s a statue honoring Confederate soldiers, and a replica of a 19th century cannon to commemorate veterans. There are two big bronze plaques in front of oak trees planted to memorialize the 1902 Virginia Constitutional Convention.

The small town surrounding the courthouse is itself a kind of historical marker, renamed Charlotte Court House to highlight the 198-year-old brick building, designed by Thomas Jefferson himself.

But look around for a sign marking the 1869 murder that took place on the courthouse steps — a murder that made international news — and, until recently, you would have come up empty.

That will change Saturday, with the unveiling of a new historical marker honoring Joseph R. Holmes, the first Black man to win an election in Charlotte County, who was born enslaved and shot down in broad daylight.

The unveiling ceremony will include a choir singing spirituals and remarks by his descendants.

“[The ceremony] is recognition of his accomplishments,” said Kathy Lee Erlandson Liston, a local resident and retired archaeologist who has spent years delving into Holmes’s story after a request from one of those descendants. “It is justice for him — revealing the names of his killers — and it’s a homegoing for a man who never received the proper funeral and what he should have received.”

Holmes was born enslaved around 1838. Liston’s research indicates he was likely enslaved by the Marshalls, a wealthy White family — possibly by Judge Hunter Holmes Marshall, who owned the Roxabel plantation, or his cousin, John H. Marshall.

It is unknown how exactly Holmes gained his freedom, but by the late 1860s, records show he was working as a shoemaker and had married and started a family. He could read and write and even bought 11.5 acres of his own land, not far from where he used to toil unpaid.

He also became active in the Republican Party. He served as a delegate at party conventions, wrote op-eds pushing White Republicans toward more radical reforms guaranteeing Black civil rights and was elected to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868.

Formerly Confederate states were required to pass new state constitutions guaranteeing civil rights before they were allowed to be readmitted to the Union, and Holmes helped write Virginia’s. He reliably voted for the most radical reforms, and as a member of the Committee on Taxation and Finance, he probed and tried to stop corruption, earning him vocal enemies in White newspapers.

(The Constitutional Convention of 1902 — the one with the two plaques and the memorial oaks at the Charlotte County courthouse — was held largely to take back all the rights Black people had gained in the previous one.)

In early 1869, Holmes was back in Charlotte County, working on getting schools built. On May 3, four local White men were heard bragging that they had shot a Black man and threatening to kill Holmes. When Holmes found out, he went to the courthouse to get warrants for the men’s arrests.

Instead, he encountered the men there. One struck him with the butt of his pistol and then shot him in the chest. At least two more shots rang out from the group of four men. Holmes crawled from the steps and died just inside the courthouse doors.

Lisa Henderson is a direct descendant of Holmes’s brother, Jasper Holmes, who fled the county shortly after the murder. While growing up in North Carolina, she heard about the distant relation who was killed in Charlotte County. She tried to learn what she could about him online, but she suspected there was more.

Liston, the archaeologist, moved to Charlotte County in the 1990s after purchasing a former plantation there. As she went through old papers that came with the property, she noticed the last names of people enslaved there were the same as many of her current neighbors. She started gathering their oral histories and sharing what she could find. She worked with community members to identify people buried in the Black cemetery on her property.

Liston, who is White, posted her discoveries on Black genealogy websites. She began to be contacted by African Americans across the country looking for details on ancestors from Charlotte County. That’s how she heard from Henderson in 2012.

Within two days, Liston had found the original statements made by witnesses of the murder, which had been misplaced for more than a century. She went on to discover most of what’s known about Holmes’s life and death, and even what happened to his killers.

The killers, according to witnesses, were the brothers John Marshall and Griffin Stith Marshall, their cousin William T. Boyd and a friend named Macon C. Morris. The brothers were the sons of Judge Hunter Holmes Marshall and grew up on the Roxabel plantation.

Three of the men were eventually indicted for Holmes’s murder, but none ever stood trial. They all fled, and authorities never looked too hard for them, Liston said.

News of the killing made headlines throughout the country, and even reached Australia, Liston has found in her research, but most people she knows in Charlotte County had never heard of it.

Charlotte County has fewer than 12,000 residents and just one stoplight, Liston said, “which we’ve only had for a few years.” For the most part, county residents have supported her efforts to get the marker put up, she said.

But there has been some pushback.

A few residents have questioned why she is bringing up such an unflattering moment in the county’s history. And at a March 2020 board of supervisors meeting where Liston had requested a letter of support for her historical marker application to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, one board member, Gary Walker, suggested the courthouse lawn had enough plaques and monuments already.

“I’m just wondering how many other requests we open the door to, that Uncle So-and-So or Granddaddy So-and-So did a lot for Charlotte County 160 years ago, too?” Walker can be heard saying on an audio recording of the meeting. “Not that he’s not a worthy recipient, don’t anybody get me wrong, I’m not saying that.” Walker was the only board member to vote against the letter of support for the marker.

In 2006, Walker was among the board members who voted to approve the cannon’s placement on the courthouse lawn by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a fact first reported by Cardinal News. He is also a co-owner of the Roxabel plantation — where two of the killers were raised — which is now being marketed as a wedding venue.

Reached by telephone, Walker said his co-ownership of the plantation did not influence his decision on the Holmes marker. Rather, he felt there were other Black residents who were also worthy of a marker, including Dabney N. Smith, who was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1881.

“I certainly think Mr. Holmes is worthy, and I think he’s fine, but what are we going to do about Mr. Smith?” he said. “Other than the fact that Mr. Holmes was killed on the square makes it exciting to talk about, that doesn’t mean he meant more to Charlotte County than Mr. Smith.”

Walker said the community is discussing what to do about its Confederate soldier memorial, and at a recent meeting, Walker requested the board get a price quote on what it would cost to move it behind the courthouse.

Holmes died on the courthouse steps because he believed in American ideals like the rule of law, Henderson said. He was “working within the system” and was at the courthouse trying to obtain a warrant when he was killed, she noted.

Liston said Holmes’s murder wasn’t the only thing that made him noteworthy. “He was so much more than that. That murder should not define Joseph Holmes,” she said.

Fittingly, the unveiling coincides with the anniversary not of Holmes’s death, but of the day he won election to the constitutional convention.

Walker said he’ll be there Saturday “with bells on,” ready to “celebrate this plaque.”

Henderson said she is grateful to Liston for her work, and her family is proud of the marker. But the marker also makes a broader statement, she said: that while Black history and its national heroes are important — Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the like — there are a lot of other heroes people don’t ever hear about.

“Everywhere that we lived, everywhere we were enslaved, everywhere we were freed, there are these incredible stories, and men and women who made choices and risked their lives to make a better way,” she said.