In 1907, Frank B. Barnes, a porter from Como, Hertford County, North Carolina, rescued Ashley Bassett Miner, a wealthy businessman, from certain death, and risked his own life in the process.
The Richmond Times Dispatch carried perhaps the most detailed account of the incident.
Frank B. Barnes was born on September 11, 1887, in Como, Hertford County, North Carolina. He was the son of Fletcher Barnes (b. ca. 1861) and Mary Eliza Britt (b. ca. 1870), the daughter of Albert Britt and Margaret Smith of Como. Fletcher Barnes and Mary Eliza Britt were married on November 21, 1886, in Murfreesboro, Hertford County, North Carolina.
Frank’s family relocated from Como, North Carolina, to Suffolk about 1891, and were documented in the 1900 U. S. Census in the Holy Neck District of Suffolk,Virginia. The household included father Fletcher (48), a wagon driver, son Frank (12), and daughters Fletcher Mae (8), and Mary Eliza (2). Two female cousins of Frank, Eunice Britt (19), and Lucy M. Britt (15), were also documented in the household.
I noticed that Frank’s mother, Mary Eliza Britt Barnes, was not a part of the household by 1900. After a little research, I came across her sad story.
When Frank B. Barnes was only ten years old, his mother Mary Eliza Britt Barnes was committed, and sent to Central State Hospital, located in Petersburg, Virginia.
Central State Hospital was established on March 17, 1885, as a segregated mental health facility for African Americans. Some of its first patients were initially provided care at Howard’s Grove General Hospital, a former Confederate hospital that had been converted into an “asylum for the colored insane” on December 17, 1869, according to an 1897 article in the Richmond Dispatch.
In 1885, the Richmond Dispatch reported that the patients had been transported in covered wagons from Howard’s Grove to the railroad station, and there borne by “special train” to the new hospital. A historical marker, located on Boydton Plank Road in Petersburg, reads “Established in 1869 in temporary quarters at Howard’s Grove near Richmond. In 1870 it came under control of the state. In 1885 it was moved to the present location, the site of ‘Mayfield Plantation’, which was purchased and donated to the state by the City of Petersburg. The first hospital in America exclusively for the treatment of mental disease in the Negro.”
By 1910, three years after his famous rescue, Frank had married, and was documented in a residence on Washington Street, Suffolk, Virginia. The household included Frank (23), a coal wagon driver, his wife, Mamie (23), Andrew Harris (74), and Sarah Harris (70), noted as Frank’s granduncle and grandaunt.
Frank’s father, Fletcher Barnes, and sisters Fletcher Mae, Mary Eliza, and Molly, were documented in a home on Smith Street. Fletcher worked as a street cleaner for the City of Suffolk, and Fletcher Mae and Eunice Britt worked as cooks for private families.
In 1913, Frank became a Pullman Porter with the Norfolk and Western Railway, much like my paternal grandfather, Horace L. Orton (1921-1973), who worked as a Pullman Porter on the Seaboard Air Line Railway.
In the 1920 Census, Frank’s family was documented in a residence in the Cypress Borough of Suffolk. The household included Frank (32), a railroad porter, wife Mamie (32), daughter Mamie (2 1/2 years), and sons Frank, Jr. (6), Morris D. (3 1/2 years), and Joseph F. (8 mos.).
Frank B. Barnes passed away on December 6, 1926, from complications of heart disease. He was interred in Oak Lawn Cemetery on December 10, 1926. According to the death certificate, William H. Crocker handled the arrangements.
Interestingly, Frank B. Barnes and Ashley Basset Miner, the wealthy businessman Frank saved in 1907, died within a year of each other, yet under segregated racial and economic circumstances. Ashley B. Miner passed away on December 29, 1927, and rests in well-tended Cedar Hill, a historically white cemetery in Suffolk, Virginia.
The other individuals involved in the runaway incident in 1907, Katherine Beamon West, daughter Katherine West,Gertrude Vivian Langston Palmer, son Thera Omar Palmer, Jr., and daughter Katherine Riddick Palmer, also rest in Cedar Hill Cemetery in marked graves.
Frank B. Barnes, his father and mother, Fletcher and Mary Eliza Britt Barnes, and his maternal grandfather, Albert Britt, all rest in Oak Lawn, a historically African American cemetery established in 1885, in unmarked graves.