Stokes Brown and family

Abram and Nicey Brown, owned by James B. Ely and H.C. Watkins of Farmville, had three sons: Stokes (b. 1850), Marshall (b. 1849), and Albert. Stokes was owned by Farmville judge Asa Dupuy Watkins. Following emancipation, he and Marshall both worked at Hampden-Sydney as janitors and bell ringers. Marshall also worked as a waiter in the home of Professor William Whiting.This family has, perhaps, gained more recognition than most African American families associated with the college.

Robert Brock’s 1933 Record article, “Some Colored Celebrities of the By-Gone Days,” states, “There were many others whose names I do not recall at this moment. But two of these famous characters, at one time so familiar about the grounds and dormitories, now remain: Marshall Brown, in his younger days butler par excellence, Chesterfieldian in manner, who even now, though past eighty, stands behind Professor Whiting’s chair in that hospitable dining room; and Stokes Brown, his brother, who was janitor for a period close to fifty years but retired some ten years or more ago. He was the famous mimic, and it was the delight of the students to gather around him and have him ‘take off’ the various professors. He is still remarkably active for his age and his appearance has little changed. He has a nice, comfortable home near ‘Mercy Seat’ Church, and is frequently seen around the College. He must be now close on to eight-six years of age.”

Historian John Brinkley paid special attention to Stokes in his book On This Hill:

“Stokes Brown, Bellringer, Janitor, Factotum-in-Chief, who died 11 February 1939 at age 93 in his 75th year of working for the College.  He was proud of having been owned by the Watkins family, and regarded ringing the bell in the new [1934] Watkins Bell Tower as a personal honor.  His high place in student hearts came chiefly from his wonderful ability to mimic, to the most trivial mannerism, every professor he had known.”

Stokes Brown married Bettie (b. 1857) and the two had seven children: Matilda (b. 1872), Houston (b. 1875), Joe (b. 1887), Charley (b. 1889), Archer (b. 1888/9), Lancaster (b. 1891), and Napoleon (b. 1893). Charley served the college as butler in Minnie Lacy’s boarding house, now Hampden House.

Local historian Ray Gaskins took a special interest in Stokes Brown and chose to focus a recent newspaper article on his family.  He reports that Stokes worked at the college beginning in 1864 and lived on campus with his wife, Bettie, and their children, from 1880 on.  As his family grew, Stokes created a second job for himself away from the college to make ends meet; he started what was known as “Brown’s Store,” in the Mercy Seat community, where he sold gas to fuel the first cars at the college.  When Stokes died at age 95, he had worked at the college for 75 years. Lancaster took over his store, which served the Mercy Seat community as well as Hampden-Sydney students until it closed in 1968. Lancaster worked at the college for 50 years.

Lancaster also served in the army and navy during WWII, worked for the Chi Phi fraternity at Hampden-Sydney, married Victoria Bentley in 1925, and raised their nephew, William Bentley, and adopted son, Danny Morton. Danny and Vicky Morton still live in the Mercy Seat community, work in Farmville, and own Stokes and Lancaster Brown’s property.


*Photos courtesy Bortz Library, Hampden-Sydney College

One Response to Stokes Brown and family

  1. Richard McClintock says:

    The bell tower was named for the grandson of Stokes Brown’s owner. The younger Watkins (class of 1898) was an English professor at Hampden-Sydney, who died just before the bell tower was built in 1934. (His father, also Asa Dupuy Watkins, was class of 1878.)

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