The History of African Americans at Poplar Hill
Currently, little is known about the history of African Americans at Poplar Hill. The Dunnington Mansion Foundation is actively researching to add depth to this history and encourages anyone with information, stories, and the like, about African American ancestors of Poplar Hill and Prince Edward County to please contact us!
Anecdotal history suggests that the last person born into slavery at Poplar Hill died in 1935 while still residing there. His name was Jim and he is likely buried in the farm worker cemetery that is now part of the Manor Golf Course property. We also have anecdotal evidence that a nanny for the Dunnington family, who died in 1904, was a resident of the nearby Israel Hill settlement. (Please read Israel on the Appommatox, by Melvin Patrick Ely, to learn more about Israel Hill).
Walter and India Dunnington had a large number of African American employees who labored on the Poplar Hill farm and worked in the house. Many of these employees lived on the property, and several of the original outbuildings were used as employee housing during the time of Dunnington ownership. As the story goes, India Dunnington had the original Woodson house moved from his Briery River (now creek) property to the Poplar Hill grounds for employee housing.
A small photographic history of African Americans at Poplar Hill is represented below. Through these photographs, we hope to offer a rare glimpse into the lives of those seldom recorded in this period of history. We offer thanks to Dunnington family members Kathy Goebel and India Pruitt Trice and historian Jimmy Hurt for photograph contributions!!
Mr. Lester Bigger
Of all the employees at Poplar Hill, the Dunnington children were most fond of India's chauffeur, Mr. Lester Bigger. Lester began as an employee sometime after Mr. Dunnington passed away in 1922 (we are searching for an exact date) and was an integral part of running both the house and the grounds of Poplar Hill.
Lester was born in Prince Edward County on October 16,1900, one of Alexander and Katie Hudson Bigger’s ten children. Lester married Ellen Henry Richardson on August 19, 1937. Ellen received her B. S. and M. S. degrees from Virginia State College, and further studied at Ohio University, the University of Virginia, and Longwood College. Ellen taught school in various localities including Prince Edward, Appomattox, and Charlotte Counties. She served as an assistant principal and supervisor of Elementary Education in the Prince Edward County Public Schools.
Following his graduation from the Trade Department of Hampton Institute, Lester taught for one year in the Prince Edward County Public Schools. Lester was a member of the Randolph Lodge No. 30 of Free and Accepted Masons and of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After working in New York for a short time, Lester returned to Prince Edward County where he was employed by the Dunnington Family until his retirement.
Dunnington great-grandson Frank Orgain tells of the beaten biscuits that Mr. Bigger used to bake. Granny (India Dunnington) used to keep them in a basket on the radiator. As children they would fill their pockets with the biscuits and head out to play on the farm's 1000 acres. Mr. Orgain saved a copy of the original recipe written by Mr. Bigger himself and he still makes them to this day.