Henry Martin

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A photograph of Martin taken by Rufus W. Holsinger and sent to Dr. Culbreth after the two men met in 1897. Reproduced from C-VILLE Weekly.
University Chapel: detail of a photograph by Rufus W. Holsinger, March 16, 1914. (The Holsinger Studio Collection) Note: bearded man sitting on steps leading to east vestibule at the bell tower -- Henry Martin?
View of the Virginia Chapel and bell tower, taken by Rufus W. Holsinger (March 16, 1914). The Great Fire of 1895 forced the bell ringing to later be moved the Rotunda to the University Chapel.

Henry Martin (ca. 1826October 6, 1915) was born a slave at Monticello. He was a free man when hired by the University of Virginia in 1847 as a janitor and to ring the bell in the Rotunda. He rang the bell at dawn to awaken the students, and rang it during the day to mark the hours and the beginning and ending of class periods. After a fire in the Rotunda, the bell was moved to the University Chapel. Martin was the university’s bell ringer from 1847 to 1909, a period of 62 years.[1]

Martin was believed to have been born on the day that Thomas Jefferson died. He worked for the University of Virginia before and after emancipation, and took over bell-ringing duties from Lewis Commodore. For more than 50 years, the responsibility of marking each hour fell to Martin, a man born into slavery who became a beloved figure among students and faculty during his time as the University’s bell ringer.


Martin was born around 1826 in a cabin at Monticello. His mother belonged to Jefferson, having married his body servant. After Jefferson's death, Martin was bought by Dr. Carr and grew up on the Carr plantation, where he worked worked in the corn fields and brought water to the other workers; he was said to have a commanding aurora and was respected by all.

In 1837, Martin was hired as a waiter for the UVA students living on Carr’s Hill. Ten years later, he was appointed as a janitor of the University and by all accounts fulfilled his duties rigorously; he later became a bell ringer as well.

On June 27, 1883, a report from the Committee on Grounds and Buildings stated that $50 should be spent in repairing and improving Martin’s home.

On January 9, 1890, Martin addressed a letter to the editors of that year’s volume of Corks and Curls per their request, recounting the history of his time at the university:

"I came in the year 1850, served first two years as a waiter in the dining hall on Carr’s Hill, managed by Mrs. Carr. Remained on Carr’s Hill until the War began, then served as waiter for the wounded Confederate soldiers in different hospitals around the University. After the close of the war, I was employed as janitor for the Rotunda and have since served in that capacity. During forty year’s connection to the University, I have been treated kindly and it has been my aim to treat everyone respectfully. I have known and served men who now occupy places of honor and distinction in government."

On March 19, 1890, following Professor Minor’s class in common and statute law, Martin was invited to the platform by the class president to receive a $2.50 English hat as a reward for his faithful service to the university. Martin thanked the class for his gift and reminded them that in his experience, black and white people were perfectly capable of getting along with each other when they put forth the effort.

On August 9, 1890, the Board of Visitors resolved that the salary of Martin would be increased to $25 a month.

Martin rang the bell to spread the alarm when the first wisps of smoke were discovered during the Rotunda fire of 1895. That catastrophe forced the bell ringing to later be moved to the University Chapel.[2] [3]

Sometime in 1897, Martin was approached by the wealthy white physician and UVA alumnus David Culbreth, who was visiting the university and recognized Martin from his time as a student. After speaking with each other, Martin offered Culbreth his picture as they were parting ways and promised to have some taken in the near future to give to the physician. True to his word, Martin sent a photograph of himself in formal clothing (taken by Rufus W. Holsinger) to Culbreth a year later in September of 1898, which the latter later reproduced in his memoir along with the story of their meeting. As stated by Professor John Edwin Mason of the UVA Corcoran Department of History, this incident served as a notable instance of a black individual utilizing portraiture to challenge misrepresentations of himself and express his own self-identity. This photograph was heavily featured in the “Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style and Racial Uplift” exhibit of Holsinger's photographs that was on display at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library from 2022-2023.[4]

On June 13, 1899, the Board of Visitors resolved that Martin was to be granted a vacation of two weeks without deduction of pay during the summer in appreciation for his services to the university.

On January 3, 1900, Martin was commended by the Daily Progress for having only lost eight days in his 53 years of service to the university.

On June 18, 1902, the Proctor was authorized by the Board of Visitors to purchase and present a suit of clothes to Martin at a cost not exceeding $25.

On March 23, 1909, the Board of Visitors resolved that Martin was to continue to hold his position as janitor but without having to actually perform any of his required duties due to his advanced age; this was in recognition of his long and faithful service to the university.

Martin died on October 6, 1915, being survived by his fourth wife and six children (as well as numerous grand and great-grandchildren); multiple notices for his death were posted in local news outlets such as the Daily Progress, with all of them commending Martin for his cheerful personality and long career in faithful service to the university. Reverend Clarence M. Long delivered the final sermon at Martin's funeral.[5]

Personal life

Martin’s first marriage was to Martha Bullock of Castle Hill, his second to Lucy Jane Speers, his third (after Lucy’s death) to Patsy Washington, and his fourth to an unknown individual. He had 9 children by his first wife, 1 by his second, and 11 by his third. According to the 1880 Census, Martin had 1 son and 6 daughters with Patsy. Neither Martin nor Patsy were able to read or write, although Martin by his own admission encouraged his children to learn how to do both.


  1. Web. University of Virginia Honors a Former Slave, Filed in African-American History, Honors & Awards on October 13, 2012
  2. Web. History of African-Americans at UVA, Kiera Givens, October 14, 2015, retrieved November 4, 2015.
  3. Web. Slavery at the University of Virginia, Brendan Wolfe, Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, retrieved November 4, 2015.
  4. Web. Though a Different Lens: Revealing Black Portrait Exhibition Opens at UVA Library, C-VILLE Weekly, 9/28/2022
  5. Web. Picture Me As I Am: Mirror and Memory in the Age of Black Resistance, The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center

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