Henry Martin

Dates Alive: 1826-1915

Family: Other

Occupation: Waiter; Janitor; Bellringer

According to oral history, Henry Martin, whose parents have not been identified, was born at Monticello; Jefferson, he said, was his father. 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.

Related People

Hear Their Stories

“I Knew He Was A Bell Ringer”

Yes, I knew he was a bell ringer, and I knew that he carried these, oh that's coming back to…
“I Knew He Was A Bell Ringer”

Ruth Hunt remembers what she heard about her great-grandfather Henry Martin.

“Yes, I knew he was a bell ringer, and I knew that he carried these, oh that’s coming back to me now. I remember Daddy talking about these buckets of coal that he carried to fire, whatever he had to fire. He was very good at ringing the bells without a time piece. I remember Daddy saying that. And I remember him saying he was always there, you know like he wasn’t, he was on time and he wasn’t absent, that sort of thing. And I know my Grandmother Patsy Martin, great‑grandmother, was a very religious person. The two of them seemed to have been religious people from what I recall. And my Grandmother Patsy would not allow anybody to come in her house with a hat on. My father told me about a man who came to her door, I don’t know whether it was insurance or what he was, but she invited him to take his hat off and the way she invited him was like, this was the impression I got, no nonsense kind of thing.”