Brookbury Farm – A Rare Place In Richmond
Figure 1: Brookbury, circa 1924. Source: Bemiss family
What makes a Place special, important or historic? Our answer is that it is the People who make it so.
Brookbury Farm is one of those special, important and historic Places that connects us across time to the lives of many People – men, women, children – Black and white, free and enslaved, known and unknown. Brookbury Farm’s land, once several hundred acres, just north of Falling Creek was home to these People. Today, Brookbury is home to one of the oldest houses in the City of Richmond and former slave quarters, likely built in the early 1800s, an era from which very few structures survive. Brookbury’s history extends from the time before English settlement in the Virginia colony, to its use as an agricultural plantation in the Colonial and antebellum periods, to Civil Rights Era significance as the home of the first Black judge appointed to a Virginia court since Reconstruction.
Brookbury’s People: What’s in a Name?
Little is known of the early history of Brookbury Farm and available archival records do not pass down the names of its earliest inhabitants. Situated at the confluence of Pocoshock Creek and Falling Creek in an area that was annexed by the City of Richmond from Chesterfield County in 1970, Brookbury was once densely wooded. Some of its hardwoods were rumored to have been “trained” as trail markers by Native Americans who, for centuries, used trails through Brookbury’s woods along these creeks. Nearby on Falling Creek, the first ironworks in America was established by early English settlers. In 1622, all settlers associated with the ironworks were killed when, threatened by encroaching English settlements, Powhatan Chief Opechancanough launched a one day series of surprise attacks on English settlements. Could Opechancanough’s warriors have found their way to the Falling Creek ironworks along Brookbury’s wooded trails?
Oral histories pass down the earliest names associated with the property. Reportedly surveyed by William Byrd II in the early 1700s, oral histories record that the property was owned by an Englishman named Brookbury who built the big house in the Colonial Era. Because he was in sympathy with the British, he returned to England around the time of the Revolutionary War.
Our research could not locate records of a “Mr. Brookbury,” but it is possible that Brookbury Farm’s name was derived from that of the “Brooking” family who may have owned land in the vicinity. General Thomas Vivion, was an English Royalist. His grandson, Colonel Francis Vivion Brooking, served during the Revolutionary War. His son, Thomas Vivion Brooking (1770-1850), served during the War of 1812. Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth Mary Anne Massie Sherwin (daughter of Revolutionary War Colonel Samuel Sherwin), resided at a home called “Bellevue” in Chesterfield County along Falling Creek from about 1800-1830. Our research has not been able to identify the location of a house named Bellevue in this area, so it is possible that the Brooking’s home once was on Brookbury land.
Figure 2: Excerpt from Edward Smith’s Will, 1864. Source: Chesterfield County Records
Deed research reveals the names of the owners of Brookbury from as early as 1834, when the property was transferred from Branch Cheatham to Robert Temple. During the antebellum period, there are limited records identifying the names of people of color associated with Brookbury. Recorded history often passes down very little information about communities of color and oral histories may be the only source of information about Virginia Indians or enslaved Africans and the places that are important to their communities. However, history has recorded the names of a few of the people enslaved by Brookbury’s owners during this period. Brookbury’s ownership was transferred multiple times over the next ten years, and Edward Smith purchased the property in 1844. At his death in 1864, his will identified an enslaved woman named Lucy Ann and her three children (who were left in the will to his beloved wife Maria Ann). In his will, he also instructed his wife that a man named Jacob and an old man named [Moses] “who in consideration of faithful services” be taken care of “as much as is consistent with continued good behavior.” His will also identified an enslaved man named Sam and a boy named Alex (who were left to others). Knowing their names, we wish we knew more about Lucy Ann, Jacob, Moses, Sam and Alex.
The property was first referred to as “Brookbury” in an 1882 deed transfer from Doolittle to Gillis. Brookbury changed ownership four more times by 1890 when it was purchased by Byrd Warwick, who owned the property until 1904.
Brookbury’s People In the Early 20th Century
Brookbury Farm was well documented beginning in 1904 when Eli Lockert Bemiss and his wife, Cyane Williams Bemiss, purchased the property as a country retreat. In 1924, Brookbury became the Bemiss family’s primary residence. At the time, the property consisted of 350 acres of woodland, streams, springs, cultivated fields, pastures where cows and sheep grazed, pig pens, pens for chickens, turkeys and guineas, and a duck pond.
The immediate Bemiss family consisted of 11 people: the parents, an aunt, and eight children. Mr. Bemiss joked that Brookbury’s major crop was “children.”
It is through Bemiss family oral histories and letters that we know more of Brookbury’s people – not only their names, but also some of their talents. Robert Ross farmed the land and resided there with his family before and during the Bemiss ownership. He and his wife, Alice, had a daughter Mary and three sons Coleman, Byrd and Stuart (called Ootchie). Oral histories note that “all children followed Mr. Ross around as if he were a Pied Piper” and that “Mr. Ross’ patience and understanding strengthened and comforted each of us.” Of Mrs. Ross’ cooking for her family, “the finest gourmet food in the world could not compare with it.” The Ross family lived in a house that is no longer on the Brookbury property and is believed to have been demolished.
Of Charlie Miller, who worked with the Ross family, we know that “he was an unerring shot and the wild things in the fields and the woods told him all their secrets.” He was “as strong as Hercules” and “his gentleness with children and animals was something to be copied.” Whenever there was anything to build, he built it. Charlie Miller helped to build a springhouse, reservoir and pump house on the property to introduce (cold) running water and two bathrooms to the big house. (Electricity and central heat were not introduced to the big house until 1923.)
Until World War I, several additional Black employees traveled with the Bemiss family to Brookbury and lived in the outbuildings that once housed Brookbury’s enslaved residents: John Venable (coachman and yard man), Robert Thompson (butler), and Annie Guy (cook). In 1911, the Bemiss family acquired an automobile and hired Charles Grant Paige as chauffeur. Of Charles Grant Paige, “each generation of little boys followed him and obeyed his every direction” and “he could make anything grow and bloom.” The Bemiss family was particularly impressed with his success at raising turkeys and ducks profitably. He stayed for 50 years, residing in one of the former slave quarters that survives on Brookbury’s property.
Figure 3: The Ross men. Source: Bemiss family
Figure 4: Charles Grant Paige at Brookbury, circa 1930. Source: Bemiss family
After World War I, other people worked at Brookbury, including the Brown family and Rose Brown Twyman (cook), Betty, Mary and Gladys, and Bessie and Annie White. According to oral histories, Rose Brown Twyman said when her ninth child was born: “The Lord sure has blessed me, but I hope he don’t bless me no more.”
The next owner, C.E. “Buster” Copley owned the property for eight years (1946-1954). The Copley family continued to live in the neighborhood after selling Brookbury. The Copley’s daughter, Carolyn Wake, lived two houses north of Brookbury at 5210 Beddington Road from 1956-1999. She served as a representative of this district on the Richmond City Council from 1978 to 1990. For at least part of the Copley’s ownership, Brookbury was rented out, and oral histories from one family who rented Brookbury’s big house briefly around 1952 recalled that the former slave quarters were occupied by John and Bertha Burrell and their family. John Burrell, a Black farmer, worked for Mr. Copley looking after Brookbury’s farming operations and cattle.
Brookbury And Its People In the Civil Rights Era
Over the next 30 years, the property changed hands and the land was subdivided in various phases (ownership transferred to the Copley family in 1946, the Armacost family in 1954, the Napotnic family in 1957, and Fraizer family in 1973). By the late 1970s, the residential neighborhood that was developed on Brookbury’s former acreage became one of Richmond’s prominent African American suburbs populated by doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians and prominent business leaders.
In 1970, after a controversial racially motivated decade long process, the City of Richmond annexed 23 square miles of Chesterfield County, including Brookbury. This was an area that was primarily populated by whites and the annexation was challenged as an effort to perpetuate white majority power by reducing Black voting strength in Richmond. Litigation enjoined city council elections. In 1971, the Virginia General Assembly prohibited further annexations, limiting the City’s tax base. In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the annexation violated the Voting Rights Act, but allowed the City to keep the annexed area if it changed the electoral system to recognize the Black minority’s political potential. In 1977, seven years after the last elections, city council was elected from a nine district single-member ward system resulting in a majority Black city council, which in turn elected Richmond’s first Black mayor, Henry Marsh (see below). The result of the annexation was thus Black control of Richmond city council and city government. That accomplishment was tempered by fiscal, sociological, racial, educational and political fallout from the annexation, General Assembly actions, and court decisions of the early 1970s. Elevation of Black leaders to positions of power at the state level was considered necessary to address a number of issues.
In 1976, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court decision relating to the annexation, Judge James Edward Sheffield and his wife, Patricia Allen Sheffield, purchased Brookbury. Judge Sheffield was the first Black judge to be appointed to a Virginia court of record since the Reconstruction era and was a significant figure in Richmond’s Civil Rights Era history.
Judge Sheffield was appointed by Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr. to the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond, Virginia in 1974, and subsequently served as Chief Judge supervising seven other judges. Born in Arkansas during the Great Depression, Judge Sheffield worked his way through college and post graduate institutions. He earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Illinois in 1955, and a law degree from Howard University Law School in 1963. During his time at Howard University, Judge Sheffield clerked for both Spottswood W. Robinson III (Dean of Howard Law School and a U.S. District Court Judge and Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals) and the chief counsel of the U.S Commission on Civil Rights. Eventually, Judge Sheffield opened his own law practice in Jackson Ward, at 14 ½ W. Leigh Street.
Judge Sheffield’s appointment to the Richmond Circuit Court in 1974 required him to reside within Richmond’s city limits. The Sheffield family had previously resided in Henrico County and had moved to Jackson Ward following the appointment. Homesick for the country, the Sheffields moved to Brookbury only two years later. At the time, the house had been sitting vacant and required significant restoration.
Figure 5: Sheffield family at Brookbury, 1976. Source: Richmond News Leader.
The Sheffields lived at Brookbury, restored and redecorated the big house, entertained frequently, and raised their two daughters there for the next several decades until their deaths in 2013 and 2018. During Brookbury’s heyday under the Sheffield ownership, many prominent Civil Rights leaders visited and dinner table conversation often involved strategizing how to elevate Black leaders, such as future Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder (see below), to positions of political power in Virginia. Frequent guests of the Sheffields at Brookbury included local, state and national Civil Rights leaders such as Judge Robert Cooley, pioneering Civil Rights lawyer Oliver Hill, Sr., Virginia Senator Henry Marsh, U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, and Governor Douglas Wilder.
The Honorable Robert H. Cooley III, the first Black judge for Petersburg District Court and first Black magistrate for the Eastern District of Virginia, was a frequent visitor to Brookbury. Cooley was born in Richmond but raised in Petersburg. He attended Howard Law School, had a military career, and established Petersburg’s first integrated law firm. He led the campaign to have his family recognized as descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.
Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree Oliver Hill, Sr. was a pioneering Civil Rights attorney who was both mentor and friend to Judge Sheffield. Hill attended Howard Law School and, working with Spottswood W. Robinson III (for whom Judge Sheffield would later clerk), took up the cause of segregated RR Moton High School students, a case that was consolidated as part of the Brown v. Board of Education case and ended the “separate but equal” doctrine. The Hills often visited the Sheffields at Brookbury.
Figure 6: Robert Cooley at Brookbury with the Sheffield daughters and their pony, Tonco. Source: Joi Sheffield.
Virginia Senator Henry L. Marsh was elected the first Black Mayor of Richmond in 1977. A Howard Law School graduate, Marsh practiced Civil Rights law with Hill in Richmond. Marsh was a close friend of the Sheffields. First elected to Richmond city council in 1966 when council members were elected at large, following the contentious and racially motivated annexation from Chesterfield, in 1977 Marsh won a single-member ward seat to council and was elected by council as Richmond’s mayor. He served as Mayor until 1982 and City Councilmember until 1991 when he was elected to the Senate of Virginia.
U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) was the first African-American Chair of the influential United States House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He and his family spent many Thanksgivings with the Sheffields at Brookbury.
Governor Douglas Wilder was Virginia’s first Black Governor. Another Howard Law School graduate, Wilder served in the Virginia Senate at the time the Sheffields acquired Brookbury and was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1985 and Governor in 1989. Wilder later served as Mayor of Richmond. The Sheffields and the Wilders were very close family friends. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Brookbury’s stables housed a pony named Tonco, a gift from Wilder to the Sheffield girls.
Judge Sheffield also played a significant role in the erection of the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson Monument in Jackson Ward, which broke down racial barriers in Richmond and paved the way for more monuments and statues dedicated to African Americans.
Brookbury, The Place That Speaks of These People
Today, Brookbury is situated on an 8.278-acre tract of land. The big house is centrally located on the property and faces north towards a large, flat, grassy lawn. It is accessed by a paved circular driveway from the north, as well as a service entrance from the east, both are lined by a simple wooden fence. The property edges are wooded, creating a sense of privacy on the grounds. Dense bamboo covers many of the outbuilding located southwest of the big house. South of the house is an in-ground pool. Outbuildings and structures on the property include a garage, gazebo, playhouse, former slave dwellings, cistern, and an inground pool. There is horse paddock with a stable building on the east side of the property.
The building materials and construction methods of Brookbury’s big house suggest that it was constructed in the first half of the 19th century. Oral histories indicate that the center of the main house may date to as early as 1720, but neither a visual inspection nor documentary evidence have been able to validate this assertion. It is possible that an earlier house could have been elsewhere on the property or even have been replaced in the same location. The original two-story Colonial style house is typical of early 19th century agricultural plantation homes in the area. It was built with a symmetrical façade that is five bays wide with a central entrance. The brick was laid in a Flemish bond pattern and originally was unpainted (it was painted white in the 20th century). Paired paneled doors are covered by a front gable portico with a simple entablature and supported by Tuscan columns. Early photographs reveal that this front gable portico was constructed in the early 20th century. Above the doors is a transom with a double row of small rectangular panes. Each door has three raised panels and brass knockers. A simple wood frame door surround is adorned by fine bulls-eye molding surrounds. Five brick steps lead to the entrance. The windows on the first floor are nine-over-nine double hung sash, and the windows on the second floor are six-over-nine double hung sash. All are wood and flanked by louvered shutters. The house is covered by a side gable, standing seam metal roof. Exterior end chimneys are located at either end. The interior of the house has a center hall plan with a large rooms on either side.
Figure 7: Map of Brookbury by Maria Bemiss Hoar, drawn 1988 as she recalled the property during the Bemiss family ownership. Oriented west.
Also known to date from the late 18th or early 19th century was a row of six former slave quarters, two of which survive today, and a smokehouse (now demolished). It is very rare for frame structures dating from this period to survive.
The Bemiss family made several additions and alterations to Brookbury. In 1918, they added to the big house the east wing with a dining room, pantry, and kitchen. The addition has nine-over-nine double hung wood windows and is covered with a hipped standing seam metal roof. The design of the addition reflects that of the original building. A central wood panel door is topped by a transom light and covered by a front gable portico with Tuscan columns. In 1923, a large southwest wing was added to the big house, replacing “the oldest wing” which “was rolled back and made into servants quarters,“ according to oral histories. The date of the smaller wing is unknown but consisted of four bedrooms and two long porches. Oral histories indicate that the 1923 wing was designed by Eli Lockert Bemiss and renowned architect Henry Baskervill (1867-1946). The addition creates a second side gable roof that mirrors the gable end of the original house, complete with exterior end chimneys. A projecting front gable entrance is centrally located on the west façade and features modillions, dentil work, square pilasters, large side light transoms, and curved iron railings. Central heat and electricity were installed at the same time as the 1923 addition. The 1923 addition includes a large rear kitchen and dining room on the first floor and two large bedrooms on the second floor.
The Bemiss family, with Charlie Miller, constructed several additional structures on the property. In 1909, a small guest cottage was built (now demolished). In 1917, an eight room pre-fabricated “Minter” house was built (no longer included on property as boundaries have changed). A playhouse was also constructed prior to World War I. Gardens and tennis courts were located to the east of the big house.
Figure 8: 1923 addition, 2020. Source: Department of Historic Resources.
We Could Learn So Much More Through Archaeology at Brookbury!
Brookbury’s surviving structures are among the oldest remaining agricultural farm dwellings in Richmond. While many questions remain about Brookbury’s early history and its people, the site exhibits excellent archaeological potential in several areas for answering many types of questions, such as:
- The standing frame structures some 75 feet to the south of the big house reportedly represent the last surviving of several former slave quarters that once were located here. The areas in and around these structures will help tell us the stories of the lives of their residents, stories that have not been passed down to us through documentary evidence. In which dwellings did Lucy Ann and her three children, Jacob, Moses, Sam and Alex reside? Might there be more tangible connections to them discovered through archaeology?
- Archaeology can help locate the original kitchen yard, which will likely be in the area between the big house and the quarters, as well as the smokehouse, laundry, dairy, and the well. This combination of structures has the potential to inform us in many ways about the operation of the house, the diet of the residents, the financial status of the home, their buying habits for not only food and drink but also of ceramics and other cooking and serving vessels and potentially other treasured personal objects.
- Areas around the big house also have potential to inform us about the dates and methods of construction for each of the sections of the house. It may be possible through archaeology to answer questions about the earliest construction date of the first house at Brookbury Farm. For example, might there be evidence of a circa 1720 house in the area behind the big house?
Figure 9: Slave quarters, 1968. Source: Department of Historic Resources
Figure 10: Surviving former slave quarters, 2020. Source: Department of Historic Resources.
As We Begin To Learn More About Brookbury’s Past, Its Future Is Uncertain
Brookbury connects us across time to the people who once owned, built, worked and inhabited this place – Black, white, free and enslaved. Notably, Brookbury is the rare antebellum plantation house with surviving antebellum slave dwellings, a property made all the more historically significant by the ownership of, and residence in, the “big” house of a prominent Black jurist from the Civil Rights Era.
Recently, Historic Richmond wrote a Preliminary Information Form, which is the first step in listing a property on the National Register of Historic Places. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources evaluated and determined Brookbury to be “eligible” for listing on the National Register. Listing on the National Register is an honorary designation, but listing also allows a property owner to utilize the historic tax credit for rehabilitation work that meets certain standards. The recent determination of eligibility permits Brookbury to receive the state historic tax credit (25%) for qualified expenses in connection with any restoration or rehabilitation work. Formal listing on the National Register would permit a property to also receive the federal historic tax credit (20%) if the property were to be income producing.
Brookbury is currently scheduled to be auctioned by Motleys on August 19, 2020. Historic Richmond has been working with the Sheffield family to develop positive preservation solutions for Brookbury and to ensure that it is appropriately documented as one of Richmond’s most significant historic, architectural and cultural resources for not only its age but also its association with the Sheffields and Civil Rights Era history. If the property is ultimately sold at auction, we would dearly love to see Brookbury in the hands of people who appreciate that Brookbury is an important, special and historic place because it connects us to so many people who made it so.
Figure 11: Brookbury, 1968. Source: Department of Historic Resources
A NOTE OF THANKS – We are grateful to the Sheffield family and the Bemiss family for sharing their oral histories, letters and photographs to assist with our research regarding Brookbury. Their assistance has helped to provide a fuller picture of Brookbury and its people than is obtainable through available documentary and archival resources.
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Historic Richmond Foundation
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