Henry Martin tolling the bell in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia. He reportedly said, “All the folks ‘round here listened for my bell and went to work by it.” Holsinger Studio Collection, University of Virginia
Henry Martin tolling the bell in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia.
Holsinger Studio Collection, University of Virginia
Henry Martin, whose parents have not been identified, was born at Monticello. Jefferson, he said, was his grandfather. Enslaved until 1865, he was a waiter at a University of Virginia student boardinghouse and worked in hospitals for wounded Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
Generations of University students after the war knew Henry Martin as the man who rang the bell that roused them in the morning and called them to lectures throughout the day. As head janitor, he was responsible for the lecture rooms, library, and chapel, and he rang the Rotunda bell every day for four decades. "I've been as true to that bell as to my God," he is reported to have said. An imposing figure over six feet tall, Martin was described in many accounts as a man of "quiet humor," "true dignity," and "intelligence, firmness and diligence."
He had three wives and more than twenty children, was a deacon in his Baptist church and, although not literate himself, made sure his children were.