The United States conducts a census survey every 10 years. The most recent one—as you probably know, was taken earlier this year in 2020. The primary use of census data is to adjust Federal programs to meet the needs of the population. As a result, censuses have important impacts on changes to government funding, the number of representatives in the U.S House of Representatives, and whether legislative districts need to be redrawn. When made public, these surveys also provide a wealth of historical information. The 1940 US Census data was made available this year. In regards to Agecroft Hall, the data helps us piece together information about the modern families who lived here after the house was rebuilt on the banks of the James River in the late 1920s. It is fascinating to look at the information pertaining to Agecroft itself and paint a fuller picture of the people who lived and worked in Agecroft.
Thomas C. Williams, Jr., spearheaded the efforts to save Agecroft Hall. He bought the manor house, sight unseen, at auction in England and had it rebuilt in the Windsor Farms neighborhood that he was developing on family property in his hometown of Richmond. Born in Danville, VA, during the Civil War, Williams spent all but the very early years of his life living in Richmond. He is first listed in the 1870 census living in Monroe Ward (near Monroe Park) with his family. By 1880, he was living at 816 W. Franklin Street with his family: Thomas C., Sr., a tobacconist, Ella Peatross, his mother, a homemaker, his four siblings and his Uncle Adolph, who worked in real estate. They employed five, live-in, African American servants: Alfred West, the butler, Mack Muma, the coachman, Julia Smith, the cook, Fannie Smith, the nurse, and Sarah Harris, the washer woman.
While much of the street has been subsumed by Virginia Commonwealth University in recent decade, West Franklin Street was one of the most prestigious areas of Richmond during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. T.C. would spend most of his life living on West Franklin, moving down the block to 824 W. Franklin Street before 1920. There he lived with his younger, unmarried, sister, Mary and five, live-in servants, four of whom were African American. (The fifth was an Irish immigrant.) In the 1920 census, T.C is listed as a manufacturer. His male neighbors, including his brother, Adolphus, were of similar professions—railroad president, stock broker, lawyer, etc. While a few of his neighbors were widowed women who took in boarders or taught music lessons, seemingly all were of the wealthy, upper class of Richmond.
In contrast, Marion Elizabeth (Bessie) Booker, who would go on to become T.C. Williams, Jr.’s wife, was born in 1892 in Amelia County, a rural county southwest of Richmond. She is first mentioned in the 1900 census as living with her father, mother, five siblings, and her maternal grandparents. Since the census is formal government document, Bessie is always listed with her formal name, Elizabeth rather than by the nickname, Bessie. In the 1920 census, Elizabeth, her mother, and five of her siblings, including two who had been
born after 1900, are now living in a rented space on Floyd Avenue in Richmond. Her father had presumably died leaving her mother as the head of household. Elizabeth was a stenographer, working with her sister at the same company, which is, unfortunately, illegible. Her youngest sister is still in school at age 15. Unlike T.C.’s family, they had no live-in servants. It is obvious that the Booker family was a less wealthy family that had moved to the city from a rural area, probably for more opportunity. But how did T.C. and Elizabeth meet?
Thomas and Bessie were married in October of 1921. T.C. died of heart disease a mere eight years later in 1929, so they are never listed together on a census. While no evidence has been found to prove this story, Agecroft institutional oral history tells the story that Bessie’s sister was a secretary at the business T.C. founded and that was how T.C. and Bessie met before ultimately marrying.
Agecroft Hall was built in Windsor Farms in the late 1920s and so appears for the first time on the 1930 federal census. Elizabeth Williams is listed as the widowed head of household living with her youngest sister, Catherine, and her brother-in-law, Glover. She employed four live-in servants—two butlers, a maid and a cook. In comparison, the closest neighbors have anywhere from zero to three live-in servants, but, by this time, it was common for servants to come in and work at a home during the day and leave for their own homes in the evening, so some of the neighbors likely employed more people than those counted with their household.
Interestingly, the 1930 census asks if there is a radio at each dwelling. Agecroft Hall, worth $65,000, did have a radio set. A radio was still considered a luxury item, but the federal government saw it as a means of mass communication and also a reflection of the nation’s growing consumerism.
In the most recently released census (1940), Agecroft Hall has four inhabitants—Bessie and her second husband, Dr. David C. Morton, a cook, Alice, and a chauffeur, Russell. Dr. and Mrs. Morton had wed in September 1930, after the 1930 census had been taken. In 1930, Dr. Morton is listed at his home in Kentucky, and he is the president of a flour mill. Interestingly, in the 1940 census, he is listed as a retired medical professional. How these two met and ended up marrying is a story that needs more research.
The U.S Census opens up great research opportunities. Not only can we learn more about Agecroft’s twentieth-century residents, but we can also compare the Williamses/Mortons to their neighbors and to those in the broader Richmond region, and we can discover how African Americans were vital to the building, maintenance and day to day functioning of Agecroft Hall.