How do we learn about the past? So often the items that are passed down to us are random and incomplete – chance often has a role to play. That is what happened in 2014 when Jim Page found a packet of letters concerning the Mary Snider Sullivan family of Christiansburg in his father’s papers. Though the Sullivans had no relationship to the Page family, the letters survived and were donated to the Montgomery Museum. These letters have an important story to tell.
Letter to Lake Sullivan from her mother, Mary Snider Sullivan, 1869.
(Montgomery Museum Collection)
Two of the letters give a window into the Reconstruction era between April 1865 and 1870 when Virginia was readmitted to the Union. The first letter was written by Mary Sullivan on June 9, 1869 to her daughter, Lake, a teacher in Tennessee. Buried in Mrs. Sullivan’s rambling, gossipy letter is an account of an inflammatory re-election speech made by then-Governor Henry H. Wells, a Union general who was appointed as provisional military governor in 1868.
. . . Governor [Wells] spoke here about ten days ago you never heard of anything that could equal the advice
he gave the negroes. . . He told them to let the plow rot in the furrow . . . the grain rot in the field rather than
be kept from the poles [polls] and if needs be whet there [their] daggers and use them . . .
Mrs. Sullivan goes on to say that in the evening, there was nearly a “row” after Rice D. Montague was struck by a black man. In response, “white men and boys flew to his rescue with clubs and anything they could get in their hands and made the negroes fly. . .”
Without the benefit of a second eye-witness account for this event, we must remember that Mrs. Sullivan’s own attitudes may have affected her descriptions. History adds only that Rice D. Montague was highly respected among the local white community and served as Montgomery County Clerk of Court between 1831 and 1858. A former slave owner, he held 28 slaves in 1860.
The story of a community bristling with racial tension is continued in a second letter on July 25, 1869 to Lake from her brother Arthur O. Sullivan, who was a wounded Confederate veteran. Like his mother, he informs his sister of local happenings, but he also discusses the tense racial and political atmosphere reporting that “I have not been able to find a white man that voted for Wells – he will say that he did not.” Governor Wells was soundly defeated by his opponent, Gilbert Walker, in the July 6, 1869 election. Of even greater interest is Arthur Sullivan’s mention that the runner-up in the political race for the Montgomery County representative to the Virginia Legislature was a widely respected Montgomery County African American blacksmith, Minnis Headen. Dr. Dan Thorp found, in the research for his book Facing Freedom, that this letter is the only known evidence that Headen was the first Montgomery County African American to run for office.
How easily these stories could have been lost! The preservation of these letters by the Page family has added to our understanding of the past and serves as a reminder of what you can do by thinking of the museum as a repository for historic things.
Learn more about the history of Montgomery County African Americans in Facing Freedom, now on sale in the museum book shop.
Roy Kanode, Christiansburg, Virginia
Dan Thorp, Facing Freedom