Leonard R. Flemings was the son of Charles Flemings and Mary Flemings. He was born free in Lancaster County sometime between 1857 and early in 1861 according to what census enumerators recorded between 1860 and 1930. Flemings may have believed that he was born about January 1861, which is the date he provided the census enumerator in 1900 and that roughly agrees with his age as recorded when he first married and his age as given in a deposition in 1895, but at the time of his death a daughter stated that he was seventy-six years and eight months old, suggesting a birth date about August 1860. His first name appears once in the county records as Lemuel, and the family surname appears as Fleming and as Flemings in the local records, but he signed his name L. R. Flemings.
On March 11, 1883, Flemings, who was keeping a store, married Sarah Jane Griffin, of Lancaster County. They had thirteen children (including one set of twins) before her death on January 13, 1910. Three sons and three daughters were still living at the time she died. Sometime during the 1910s, Flemings married a woman named Alice, but extant records do not disclose her maiden name, when they married, or when she died. The 1930 census listed Flemings as living alone and owning and operating a retail grocery. During part of his life Flemings had an unspecified interest in oyster harvesting or marketing and in 1904 won election to the board of the newly created Lancaster County chapter of the Oystermen's Protective Union.
Beginning at the end of the nineteenth century he alone or with other men managed the county Afro-American Fair that was often held on his property until about 1911. The event was revived in 1927 when African Americans were banned from attending the county's Chesapeake Fair. Flemings served as manager of the exposition, which was held at a new location. He and members of his family were active in the Queen Esther Baptist Church. In 1908, on the first anniversary of his mother-in-law's death, he published in the local newspaper an eloquent tribute to her and her faith.
Local public records suggest little that was remarkable about Flemings's private life. His more remarkable public life is somewhat better, though still poorly, documented. About 1887 he became a justice of the peace in Lancaster County. By then justices heard minor civil and petty criminal cases and no longer presided over courts of record, so original documents concerning his service are scarce. But items that he signed were copied into the county's official records often enough to demonstrate that Flemings served continuously—he was reelected every fourth year—for at least thirty-two years.
Flemings was almost certainly the longest-serving black public official in Virginia's history prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If he served through the 1919–1927 period when his name is not included in published lists of magistrates, he was a justice of the peace for about a half century, and even if not, he very likely held office longer than any other African American during the first decades of the twentieth century. Flemings's unusual career, which is the exception that proves the rule, may be explained by circumstances particular to the locality.
Unfortunately, the local weekly newspapers did not report or comment on the relatively unnewsworthy campaigns for justice of the peace, nor did they report on what might have been regarded as shocking news elsewhere in Virginia, that an African American man repeatedly won election. Flemings was not identified as African American in the occasional newspaper reports of his being elected or in the state's lists of magistrates, even though his name appeared in the newspapers in other contexts that clearly indicated his race. That suggests that locally his elections were not regarded as remarkable, but it inadvertently concealed from white Virginians elsewhere and from historians and political scientists later that a black man repeatedly won elections in the state during a time when all black men were believed to have been effectively excluded from public office.
Flemings died at his home in Mollusk, of arteriosclerosis and myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, on April 6, 1937, and was buried in a nearby private cemetery. The Kilmarnock Rappahannock Record printed a notice of his death and an account of his funeral and characterized him as "a noteworthy citizen and justice of the peace for a number of years."
March 11, 1883 - L. R. Flemings and Sarah Jane Griffin marry in Lancaster County. They will have thirteen children.
ca. 1887–1919 - L. R. Flemings serves as justice of the peace in Lancaster County. He may serve in subsequent years but the records are missing.
1896 - L. R. Flemings serves as secretary of the Republican Party's First Congressional District and later in the year is a delegate the party's state convention.
January 13, 1910 - Sarah Jane Griffin Flemings, the wife of L. R. Flemings, dies.
1912 - L. R. Flemings is named a registrar of vital statistics in his magisterial district in Lancaster County. He serves for more than a decade.
1927–1937 - L. R. Flemings serves as justice of the peace in Lancaster County.
April 6, 1937 - L. R. Flemings dies at his home in Mollusk, Lancaster County.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Tarter, B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. L. R. Flemings (d. 1937). (2016, March 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Flemings_L_R_d_1937.
- MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "L. R. Flemings (d. 1937)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Mar. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 11, 2016 | Last modified: March 21, 2016