The incredible story of Suffolk, Virginia native Thomas Riddick.
One of the most interesting gravestones in the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (est. 1879), Portsmouth, Virginia, is for Thomas Riddick. Located in the northwest corner of Mt. Olive Cemetery, the oldest in the complex, it features an interesting inscription regarding Thomas’ occupation.
Erected To the Memory of Thomas Riddick – For fourteen years the faithful janitor of Norfolk County Court.
Family research first brought me to the cemetery complex in 2007, where I’ve documented over fifty ancestors. During the course of that research, I came across Thomas’ headstone, while photographing the cemetery on a crisp November morning in 2010. The headstone bears none of the typical biographical information that can be found on gravestones, including dates of birth and/or death, the name of a potential spouse, or parents’ names. As a result, Thomas had remained “a faithful janitor,” and little else, until I finally asked myself, just who was Thomas Riddick?
“Riddick“, sometimes spelled “Reddick,” is one of the most common surnames to be found in many African American cemeteries in lower Tidewater, Virginia, a legacy of the large numbers of enslaved African Americans held by the Riddick Family of Virginia and North Carolina. My own family tree contains many “Riddicks.” most from Como/Maneys Neck district of Hertford County, North Carolina. who were enslaved by the Abram Riddick family. Eight years ago, we visited the remnants of the former Abram Riddick plantation, taking a back road into Hertford County. The plantation house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Could Thomas Riddick have had some connection to the same plantation as my ancestors? It is certainly possible. According to his marriage record, Thomas Riddick was born enslaved about 1855, in Suffolk, Virginia. He was the son Edmond and Martha Riddick. His wife, Sophia Williams, was the daughter of Harriett Thorogood. The couple married on June 4, 1882, in Portsmouth, Virginia.
In the 1880 U. S. Census, Thomas Riddick was documented in a home on Queen Street, Portsmouth, as a common laborer. His household included his wife, Sophia, age twenty-four, his son, William, age four, and daughter, Mary J., age one. Two other sons were born to Thomas and Sophia between 1880 and 1884. Their son Thomas Garfield was born on November 18, 1880, and son Charles Blaine on June 2, 1884. The family resided in Lincolnsville during this period.
In addition to his custodial duties, Thomas Riddick also served as a prisoner escort between Portsmouth and Richmond, Virginia.
Thomas’ role as the custodian of the Norfolk County Court House may have afforded him a position of prominence within the African American community. In 1884, the Norfolk Landmark reported that Thomas had been chosen as the chief marshal for the Emancipation Day parade of 1885.
Thomas was not documented in the 1900 Census. His wife, Sophia,age forty, was documented on Queen Street in a home with her mother, Harriett Thorogood, age fifty-five, second husband, Henry, age thirty-eight, and sons William, age twenty-four, (Thomas) Garfield, age nineteen, and Charles (Blaine), age fourteen. Sophia’s husband, Henry, and sons William and Thomas Garfield worked as oystermen.
Noting that Thomas was not a part of the household in the 1900 Census, and his wife, Sophia, had apparently remarried, I looked to other records to help explain Thomas’ absence. I located his lengthy obituary in the Norfolk-Virginian.
On Sunday morning about 6 o’clock, a prominent colored man named Thomas Riddick, died suddently at his residence on North Green street. The particulars as near as we could gather them are, that on Saturday night he stayed at the courthouse until 12:30 o’clock, when in company with one of the clerk he left, stating that he would go to the barbershop, get shaved, and then go home.
He arrived at home about 1 o’clock and his wife fr some cause began quarreling with him. He left home saying that he would not return again, and from there went to a saloon kept by another colored man named Miles Foreman, and remained a short while. About 2:30 o’clock he complained of feeling unwell and leaned back in a chair. Becoming worse a physician was sent for, who had him conveyed to his home, where he died at the hour stated above.Mayor Baird being notified that foul play was suspected, acted as a coroner and summoned the following jurors: R. A. Brown, Adolphus Meginly, Charles Reigar, Charles Dunham and A. H. Only. After viewing the body, the jury rendered the following verdict, ‘that the deceased came to his death from natural causes.’ Tom had been janitor of the Norfolk County Court for sixteen years, and during that time had won the esteem not only of his employers, but of all who had any business in the office. He was well known by the bar of Norfolk and Portsmouth. So well did he study the interest of is employers that he knew where every book or paper connected with the county clerk’s office were kept. Not only will he be missed by the lawyers, who have saved considerable time by asking of him where certain papers could be found that they were in search of, but by the newspaper reporters who have gathered many a live item from him. So good was his judgment in regard to juries, that after hearing the evidence he could invariably tell you how a jury would stand. In conversation with the clerk of the court yesterday he stated that during his term of sixteen years, that he had never had occasion to reprimand him. The writer of this article can testify to his good character, he having served in his family for three years. His funeral took place yesterday afternoon from the Zion Baptist Church, of which he was a member. He was also a member of the Masons, the Vanguards of Freedom and the Lodge of Love and Charity, which attended in a body. There were also quite a number of white persons present, and it was one of the largest colored funerals that has ever been in PortsmouthThe Norfolk Virginian, February 15, 1886
For all of his duties, official and otherwise, it sounded as though Thomas might not have been paid enough for his work. Curious as to what his salary may have been, I did a little more digging, and found one reference to his income.
The average salary for a Virginia employee during this period was a little over a dollar per day for a sixty hour week. After Thomas’ death in 1886, his widow, Sophia, was granted one month of Thomas’ salary as a pension. There is no record to indicate that this supplement lasted beyond one month.
Joshua Davis (b. ca. 1861) was appointed court house custodian after Thomas‘ decease in 1886. In the 1880 Census, Joshua was documented as the cousin of Thomas Davis (ca. 1833-1917), a grocer. The family lived on Carroll Street in Lincolnsville.
A popular young man in Lincolnsville, Joshua was a member of the Union Literary Society, along with James H. Ash and other luminaries of Portsmouth’s African American community. By all accounts, Joshua was an efficient worker. Unfortunately, he was later diagnosed with severe mental health issues, and after only a few years of service at the court house, was eventually committed in 1888, and sent to Central State Hospital in Petersburg, Virginia. A resident of the institution for the remainder of his life, Joshua Davis passed away on January 14, 1928, and was buried in the hospital’s cemetery.
Today, the only indication of Thomas Riddick’s life and service to the Portsmouth community is his gravestone in Mt. Olive Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex), which is why I decided to share his little-known story. Several members of Thomas‘ family also rest in Mt. Olive. His wife, Sophia Williams Riddick Jones, died sometime between 1901 and 1910, and is possibly buried there. Her mother, Harriett Thorogood, Thomas‘ mother-in-law, passed away on October 22, 1915, and was buried on the following day. Thomas’ son William passed away on September 8, 1910, and was buried on September 10th, and son Thomas Garfield died on December 12, 1914, and was interred on December 14th. The burials of Harriett, William, and Thomas Garfield, were performed by undertaker William Grogan. To date, none of their gravestones have been located in Mt. Olive Cemetery.