There is only one plaque on grounds that recognizes a specific early African American laborer at the University, and it is for Henry Martin, the man who worked as the University’s bell ringer and janitor for more than 50 years. Martin was born a slave at Monticello on the same day Jefferson died, but was freed by the time he was hired at UVa. He lived most of his life near the University on 10th street. He had four daughters with his second wife, Patsy Washington Martin, and was a member of the Charlottesville First Baptist Church. Martin was beloved by the university community, and the student newspaper in 1915 claimed upon his death that he knew the name of every student.
An alumnus commented, “He knew his part in life and played it well… He also fully recognized that he was neither a professor, a student, nor a white man; that he did not own the University and that he could get along satisfactorily with someone else in his stead. To serve was his delight.” Another blatantly racist student wrote, “It seemed to me he was a worthy tenant of whiter clay.” It is important to remember that Martin was admired for being loyal to the university and particularly competent at his bell-ringing duties, not for any individual personality traits or actions.
Though UVa may be lauded for recognizing an African American worker, Martin’s story lies uncomfortably close to the “jolly, faithful slave” narrative that romanticizes the institutionalized racism and violence that free blacks faced after emancipation, particularly in the South.