East School Street Origins: A Judge, an Irish Immigrant, a Segregationist Dairy Farmer, and a Landlord

By Anne Dobberteen

The following case study focuses on one small parcel owned by members of a Black community that lived in an area known as Providence, which is now part of the jurisdiction of Fairfax City. The story features Henry Thomas, a local Confederate judge-turned-Reconstruction Republican, and the two men – one Irish immigrant, one “mulatto” man – whom he sold pieces of land. A different man, a white lawyer and dairy farmer named John Barbour, continued selling land to the Black community in that area in the early and middle twentieth century. Frederick Murray, a white Fairfax local who was also a DC landlord, sold a nearby piece of land that another white lawyer, John Rust, would subdivide for Black families. This chain of transactions, overseen by Fairfax lawyers, facilitated purchases of property by members of a settled Black community.

The Judge: Henry W. Thomas

Judge Henry Wirt(z) Thomas (20 October 1812-22 June 1890) served Fairfax and the Commonwealth of Virginia. He supported the Confederacy during the Civil War.  After the Union victory, he joined the Republican Party and sustained a successful legal and political career in the majority-Democratic South. By 1880s, he had arranged to rent and sell parcels of his property to two “colored” families in what became the School Street neighborhood.[1]

Henry W. Thomas, 1812-1890, Image courtesy of the Hon. John T. Frey, Clerk, Fairfax Circuit Court


A General Warranty Deed giving Robert Hunter the full title to the land from Judge Thomas. DB I-5 p 69, August 1, 1889.

Henry Thomas was born in Leesburg, Virginia, on October 20, 1812. His parents were John and Margaret Thomas.  Henry attended college in the District of Columbia and then moved across the Potomac to live in Providence (Fairfax) around 1833, where he opened a law practice.  Court records show that he was retained for a substantial sum ($500) to defend a group of young men charged with a minor offense, possibly horse racing on sabbath Sunday. This case, he later remembered, convinced him that a profitable future lay in Northern Virginia. Henry Thomas married Miss Julia M. Jackson in 1839; the couple had five children.[2]

Before Southern secession, Thomas was an active Whig, serving multiple terms in both houses of the Virginia legislature during the 1840s and 1850s. He made an unsuccessful bid to run for the U.S. Congress in 1855. Initially opposed to the Civil War, he changed course and took his family to Richmond, Virginia, where he worked for the Confederacy as Second Auditor of the State. After the war, he became a Republican and by at least one account, advocated strongly for reunion and reconciliation. According to his obituary in the Fairfax Herald, he was appointed to a delegation that called on President Lincoln in April 1865 to “urge the importance of re-establishing civil government in Virginia.” No account of their meeting survives. Lincoln would be assassinated days after Thomas’s White House visit.[3]

In 1866 federal authorities appointed Henry Thomas Judge of the 9th Circuit. He remained on that bench until 1869. During his tenure, he was arrested by the U.S. Grand Jury for violating the Civil Rights Bill of 1867. Charges stated that he had refused to allow African American woman Jane Taylor to testify in his court during a May 1866 proceeding. Later, he was elected the 12th Lieutenant Governor of Virginia. His term, 1875-1878, spanned a period in which Reconstruction formally ended. Thomas’s late-life judgeship on the Fairfax County Circuit Court concluded with his death in 1890.[4]

Henry Thomas had made it possible for pioneers of the Providence Black community to gain title to property they owned on the east side of School Street. Although he violated the legal rights of Jane Taylor in 1866, by 1883 he willingly conducted business with Robert Hunter, listed in the 1870 U.S. Census as a “mulatto” and “fireman,” or fire stoker on a steam locomotive engine. Hunter bought one acre of Judge Thomas’s land for $125 on a type of layaway plan that entailed renting this small property; Hunter’s payments, which included interest charges, went toward the purchase price of his plot. The arrangement resembled a mortgage, with Thomas as the lender. It is unclear how much he collected each month and whether his interest rate would be considered unfair or predatory today. Hunter officially received title to his land on 1 August 1889, when he paid his remaining debt, $91.80.[5]

Thomas offered a similar rent-to-purchase arrangement to an Irish immigrant named John Morarity who had children with a Black woman. Morarity was a janitor at the Fairfax Court House, according to his obituary. He may have known Judge Thomas because they both frequented the same place of work. In a small town it is almost certain that Thomas was aware of Morarity’s family. Shortly after Thomas’s death, his heirs formally deeded Morarity’s land adjoining the property of Robert Hunter. Morarity’s deed acknowledged that he had paid in full, was already living on his purchased plot, and requested title when Thomas died in 1890. Crucially, Morarity’s family would inherit, or purchase, more land nearby during and after his lifetime.[6]

Judge Thomas was responsible for facilitating at least two land transactions enabling Black families to secure a place for themselves in today’s Fairfax City. The Rosenwald and Eleven Oaks Elementary Schools, the Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, and the lot where the Payne Street Methodist Church intended to build its house of worship all stood on what was once Henry Thomas’s land. Was this an entirely unique development or were similar transactions sealed in the 1880s and subsequent decades? Future inquiries by Black Lives Next Door researchers seek to trace these property trends and uncover relevant illustrative community histories as well.

This plat from 1909 shows how the Thomas Estate had been divided at the time of Barbour's purchase.

[1] Deed Book (DB) I-5 p 69, Fairfax Circuit Court Historic Records Center (FCCHRC).

[2] “DEATH OF JUDGE HENRY W. THOMAS,” Fairfax Herald, June 27, 1890, 2.

[3] “DEATH OF JUDGE HENRY W. THOMAS,” Fairfax Herald, June 27, 1890, 2.

[4] “Historical and Biographical Information on Henry Wirtz Thomas Collection,” A Guide to the Henry Wirt Thomas Collection, 1834-1952, Fairfax County Public Library Virginia Room, https://ead.lib.virginia.edu/vivaxtf/view?docId=fcpl/vif00131.xml; Virginia Humanities, “Lieutenant Governors of Virginia,” https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/lieutenant-governors-of-virginia/.

[5] DB I-5 p 69, FCCHRC; “Fireman (steam engine),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fireman_(steam_engine).

[6] DB I-5 p 69; DB J-5 p 524, FCCHRC; US Census 1870; “John Morarity Obituary,” Fairfax Herald, February 26, 1904, 3, accessed through Fairfax Public Library Virginia Room.

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