Holmes was born into slavery about 1838 in Charlotte County and was the son of Peyton Holmes and Nancy Holmes. When their owner, John H. Marshall, died in 1857 the family evidently became the property of his son, Hunter Holmes Marshall. Holmes learned to read and write and became a shoemaker, but little else is known about his childhood. He may have served as butler to Hunter Holmes Marshall before the Civil War and may have begun the study of law with him afterward. The circumstances of when and how Holmes gained his freedom are not recorded. On an unrecorded date he married Mary Clarke. They had three sons and one daughter. On May 29, 1868, Holmes purchased eleven and a half acres of land in Charlotte County.
Holmes introduced a resolution that his committee look into whether tax revenue was "being used by the disloyal officials of the Commonwealth, to whose office is attached the collection of taxes, as an engine of vexation and oppression to many of the loyal people" of Virginia. He also proposed that the Committee on Privileges and Elections report whether any delegates were legally disfranchised as a result of their Civil War service and therefore ineligible to serve. Holmes also offered a resolution to have the Committee on Internal Improvements require the Board of Public Works to call a meeting of the stockholders of the Richmond and York River Railroad Company to meet and consider consolidation with the Richmond and Danville Railroad Company, alleging that some stockholders had been "misrepresented by their proxies" at a meeting early in 1867. All three resolutions failed of adoption.
Holmes may have contemplated running for the House of Representatives or for a seat in the General Assembly in 1869. In March he was a delegate to the convention that nominated the Republican candidates for statewide offices. As a politically active African American, Holmes faced opposition from white residents in the county and attracted the ire of John Marshall, son of Hunter Holmes Marshall. On May 3, 1869, Marshall and other armed white men reportedly attacked one African American man and threated to kill Holmes. While Holmes sought an arrest warrant at the Charlotte County courthouse, a group of African Americans gathered there. A scuffle broke out, several men pulled their guns, and somebody shot and killed Holmes. A coroner's jury ruled that Holmes "came to his death by a pistol shot in the hands of some person unknown to the jury." The court ordered that Marshall and a cousin be arrested. Several Virginia newspapers published long accounts of the incident, and papers in more than twenty other states and the District of Columbia excerpted or reprinted them, giving Holmes's death an exceptionally wide notoriety among many reports of white-on-black violence during the years after the Civil War. None of the men involved in the deadly shooting was ever apprehended, tried, or convicted. Holmes was probably buried on his land in Charlotte County.
ca. 1838 - Joseph R. Holmes is born into slavery in Charlotte County.
1857 - John H. Marshall dies, making Joseph R. Holmes the property of Marshall's son, Hunter Holmes Marshall.
June 1867 - Joseph R. Holmes and Edward Nelson address a letter to the editor of the Daily Richmond Whig critical of moderate Republican proposals.
July 29, 1867 - Joseph R. Holmes is named a delegate to attend the Republican Party convention.
October 22, 1867 - Joseph R. Holmes is elected to represent Charlotte and Halifax counties at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868.
December 3, 1867–April 17, 1868 - Joseph R. Holmes, a representative of Charlotte and Halifax counties, serves on the Committee on Taxation and Finance at the constitutional convention.
May 29, 1868 - Joseph R. Holmes purchases eleven and a half acres of land in Charlotte County.
March 1869 - Joseph R. Holmes serves as a delegate to the convention that nominates the Republican candidates for statewide office.
May 3, 1869 - Joseph R. Holmes is shot and killed when seeking an arrest warrant against the man who had once enslaved him and who reportedly threatened to kill him.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Salmon, E. J., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Joseph R. Holmes (ca. 1838–1869). (2018, April 26). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Holmes_Joseph_R_ca_1838-May_3_1869.
- MLA Citation:
Salmon, Emily Jones and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Joseph R. Holmes (ca. 1838–1869)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 26 Apr. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: April 18, 2018 | Last modified: April 26, 2018
Contributed by Emily Jones Salmon and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Emily Jones Salmon is retired senior editor in the Education and Outreach Division of the Library of Virginia, co-editor of The Hornbook of Virginia History (3rd–5th editions: 1983, 1994, and 2010), and co-author with John S. Salmon of Franklin County, Virginia, 1786–1986: A Bicentennial History (1993).