Clark, Charles A.


Charles A. Clark

Charles A. Clark represents the generation of Black people who came of age in the aftermath of the Civil War. He would have been about ten years old when he was emancipated as a result of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which outlawed slavery. He would thus grow to adulthood during the tumultuous period of Reconstruction when political leaders attempted to restore the Union and imagine a place for newly freed Black people in the nation’s future. By the end of Reconstruction in 1877, former Confederate officials and their sympathizers had reasserted white supremacy. They ushered in a period of segregation dominated by Jim Crow laws designed to strip Black people of their newly granted rights. These political events formed the backdrop against which Charles’s life would play out. In the midst of such profound changes swirling around him, Charles would join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a teenager perhaps in a search for otherworldly answers to the complexities of the Reconstruction South.[1]

Charles was born in about 1855 to Lucy and Randall Rudolph Clark who were likely enslaved at the time.[2] Randall would have been about thirty-four when Charles was born and Lucy was roughly fifteen. Despite the constant threat of familial separation that was inherent in the slaveholding South, Charles likely grew up with both of his parents who presided over a large family of nine children, including Charles. After receiving their freedom following the Civil War, the young family established a home in Clearfork Township, in rural Tazewell County, in the southwestern portion of Virginia.[3]

It was likely there that Henry Green Boyle, a Latter-day Saint missionary, first met Charles and shared a gospel message with him. There is no indication what attracted Charles to Boyle’s preaching but on 19 April 1869 Boyle baptized Charles into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Charles was roughly 14 years old at the time. The baptism took place in Station Creek in a scenic upland valley known as Burke’s Garden. Boyle baptized five other Black converts that day, along with four white proselytes.[4] Boyle recorded the event in his journal this way: “Held a meeting today on the banks of Station Creek where I baptized Araminta Jane Hall, Mary Virginia Clark, Harold Peery Heninger, Jemima Henshaw and six collered folks or negroes, ten in all.”[5] He specified the white converts by name and then lumped the six Black converts together as “collered folks or negroes.” Fortunately, Boyle also kept a running list of the people he baptized over the course of his mission at the front of his 1867 journal. In that entry he wrote: “In Station Creek Burks Garden VA April 19th 1869, I baptized Araminta Jane Hall, Mary Virginia Clark, Harold Peery Heninger, Jemima Henshaw, Mary Jane Thompson, James W. Richards, James C. Thompson, John H. Cartwright, Charles A. Clark, Nicatie T. Richards. (The Last 6 are Collored).”[6]

It is not clear what religious life might have been like for Charles and the other converts. Boyle left Virginia by the end of 1869 and took with him those converts who were willing to migrate to Utah Territory. Those who remained were left on their own for worship and organizational structure. When missionaries returned to the area in the 1880s the records they created do not offer clues as to the whereabouts of the six Black people Boyle baptized nor do they indicate that the new missionaries were aware of Boyle’s six baptisms over a decade earlier.[7]

In 1870, Charles lived with his parents in Jeffersonville, the seat of Tazewell County, though they still received their mail at the Burke’s Garden post office. His father and oldest brother, Cartwright, worked as farm laborers, and his mother kept house. Charles and the rest of his siblings were all at home with no official occupation but likely helped their parents with the respective jobs that living in a large family entailed.[8] Due to the widespread use of sharecropping as a labor system in the era of Reconstruction, Charles likely worked as a farm laborer during his teenage years for one of the surrounding white families in the area.[9]

On 25 August 1890, Charles married Mary Emma Haden, in Tazewell County. The marriage register indicates Mary was about 24 at the time and Charles was 35. Charles worked as a “watchman,” or security guard when he married Mary, an occupation he maintained over the next ten years [10] The couple only had one child together, a daughter, Mariah, who went on to marry and have twin daughters of her own, Emma and Gladys.[11]

In 1894, Randolph Clark, Charles's father, passed away but he left a will which mentions Charles.[12] It seems that Charles only had two siblings, both sisters, who survived to adulthood. As the only surviving son, Charles received twenty acres of land. His sister Letty had passed away in 1886 but their father left another 20 acres to Letty's surviving children. The other surviving sibling, Sally, received five acres. This would indicate quite a leap in social status for Randolph in the post-Civil War era. In 1870 the family owned no land but by the time Randolph passed away, he owned at least 45 acres. It is unclear where this land came from or how Randolph acquired it.

Within six years, Charles likely sold his portion of the land when he relocated to West Virginia. Charles and his wife Mary moved to Bramwell, Mercer County, West Virginia sometime before June 1900. There Charles took advantage of the turn of the century jobs created in the region’s coal industry. He became a night foreman at a local coal mine and opened his home to his daughter and granddaughters, all three of whom lived with Mary and Charles in 1900.[13]

It is unclear what happened to Charles after 1900. The health problems associated with working in underground coal mines may have led to an early demise but no death record has thus far been found. It is also unclear if he maintained an affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after his initial conversion in 1869 or if any other members of his family embraced the faith of his adolescent years.

By Sarah Day

[1] Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1990); W. Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America (New York: Oxford University Press 2019).

[2] United States, 1870 Census, Virginia, Tazewell County, Clear Fork; United States, 1900 Census, West Virginia, Mercer County, Rock; Virginia, Tazewell County, Marriages, 1853-1935, Charles A Clark and Mary Emma Haden.

Charles had six siblings when he was freed: The oldest, a boy named Cartwright, born in 1852, a sister named Letty (1856), Amanda (1858), William Burrel (1860), Millie (1864) and Simon (1865). His parents would have two more children together, Mary (1867) and Sallie (1870).

[3] United States, 1870 Census, Virginia, Tazewell County, Clear Fork.

[4] Henry Green Boyle, diary, vol. 05, 1867-1868, p. 11, MSS 156, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[5] Boyle, Diary, vol. 6, 1869, MSS 156, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[6] Boyle, diary, vol. 5, 11, MSS 156.

[7] Boyle, diary, vol. 07, 1869-1870, MSS 156; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, North Carolina State (Part 2) CR 375 8, box 4727, folder 1, image 115, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[8] United States, 1870 Census, Virginia, Tazewell County, Clear Fork.

[9] Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction.

[10] Virginia, Tazewell County, Marriages, 1853-1935, Charles A Clark and Mary Emma Haden, 25 August 1890.

[11] United States, 1900 Census, West Virginia, Mercer County, Rock.

[12] Virginia, Tazewell County, Will Book, 1888-1895, Randolph Clark.

[13] United States, 1900 Census, West Virginia, Mercer County, Rock.


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