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Tales of Old Nansemond: Frank Barnes, Pullman Porter

Pullman Porters, courtesy the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, via Timeline.

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.

Frank Barnes, a negro, proved himself a hero today when at the peril of his own life he rescued Mr. A. B. Miner, who is blind, from a runaway horse.

Mr. Miner could not see to jump, and was groping aimlessly for the reins as the horse dashed through Suffolk’s most crowded thoroughfares. All attempts to stop the team proved futile until Barnes made a flying leap and grasped the bridle, which broke. He saved himself from the horse’s hoofs by throwing one arm around its neck and gripped its nostrils with his free hand.

Barnes was dragged 30 feet and was badly bruised. Mr. Miner rewarded Barnes with a banknote.

The runaway was a sequel to another, in which Mrs. J. C. West, Mrs. T. O. Palmer and three small children were thrown to the pavement. Mrs. West’s left arm was broken, one of the children bit off a part of its tongue, and other members of the party were bruised and incarcerated. The ladies’ carriage collided with the street hack and frightened the horses attached to the hack.

The Washington Post, 1907

The Richmond Times Dispatch carried perhaps the most detailed account of the incident.

A serious runaway accident occurred here today. A horse, drawing a carriage containing Mrs. J. C. West and daughter, Miss Katharine, and Mrs. T. O. Palmer and two children, Katharine and T. O. Palmer, Jr., became frightened on Saratoga Street.

None of the children is over three years of age.

As the runaway team dashed into Washington Square it collided with a street hack immediately in front of the post-office. The carriage was overturned, and all the occupants thrown out.

Mrs. West was thrown against an iron post. One arm was broken, and there are other injuries. She was picked up unconscious, and later was carried to Lakeview Sanitarium.

The Palmer boy bit entirely through his tongue. All the others were bruised and cut. In the meantime the horse, hitched to the street carriage became frightened. Its only occupant was A. B. Miner, a wealthy manufacturer, who is blind.

The horse ran madly through Washington Street. Mr. Miner could not see to jump, and he could not find the reins.

All efforts to stop the team proved futile until an attempt was made by Frank Barnes, a negro, who risked his life to save the blind man, whose own life was in peril.

Barnes made a flying leap at the bridle, which broke. He was about to fall under the horse’s hoofs, but saved himself by throwing one arm around the animal’s neck. With the free hand he grasped its nostrils and stopped respiration. Barnes was dragged some distance, and was badly bruised. Mr. Miner gave him a $5 note for his heroism.

The Times Dispatch, 1907

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.

The Norfolk Virginian, 1895

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, 1915.

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.

A depiction of Howard’s Grove General Hospital, Virginia Commonwealth University.

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.

Pullman Porters, courtesy the Chicago Tribune
Courtesy the National Museum of African American History and Culture

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.

Mr. Frank B. Barnes died December 5th, at Lakeview Hospital, after an illness of three months. He served as Pullman porter on the N. & W., for thirteen years. He was also a member of the Macedonia A. M. E. Church and was faithful to all of his duties. His body was in charge of the Pullman Porter Union of Norfolk. Interment was made in Oak Lawn Cemetery by T. E. Cook and Co.

Norfolk Journal and Guide

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.

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