Noah Brown of Amelia County (VA) and Metuchen (NJ)

Isaac Kremer/ February 2, 2022/ preservation, Writing/ 0 comments

Portraits of Noah Brown and Lelia Anderson

The origins of Noah Brown are not entirely clear, though a marriage record from 1888 gives a birthdate of 1860 in Amelia County, Virginia. Of interest in the same record is how his parents were listed as father “Johnson” and mother as “Betsy Ann Johnson.” Should this birth date be accurate, that means Brown was born before the first shots were fired in the American Civil War a year later in April 1861. To have a father with one-name only, and to be from a rural county in Virginia – would seem to indicate that Noah Brown was born into slavery.

Twenty-eight years after his recorded birth, Noah Brown was married on March 21, 1888 in Richmond, Virginia to Lelia Anderson who also had Amelia County roots. Their marriage in Richmond and removal from Amelia County, would seem to indicate they achieved freedom and gravitated to Richmond in the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction.

We know definitively by 1891 that Noah Brown and his wife Lelia were living in Richmond, Virginia. A City Directory from Richmond that year lists Brown at 1203 1/2 Moore St and his occupation as Sexton. What likely attracted them to this address was the Moore Street School. This school was opened near the southeast corner of Moore and Harrison Streets in 1887. This public school served African-American students. The Moore Street Missionary Baptist Church was organized a few blocks to the east of the school between Goshen and Gilmer Streets on a lot facing Moore Street. An old soap factory at this location was converted for use as a church.

1891 Richmond City Directory

Five additional city directories list Noah Brown living in Richmond between 1891 and 1904.

  • 1203 ½ Moore, sexton, 1891
  • 1203 ½ Moore, sexton, 1894
  • 1002 ½ W Leigh, sexton, 1898
  • 1002 ½ W Leigh, sexton, 1900
  • 1002 W Leigh, janitor, 1903
  • 1002 W Leigh, sexton, 1904
Moore Street Neighborhood Map, Richmond, Virginia.

A change in Noah Brown’s home address occurred between 1894 and 1898, with the address given changing from 1203 1/2 Moore Street to 1002 1/2 West Leigh St. Given that Leigh Street was parallel with Moore Street, either Brown changed his residence to the opposite corner of the same block that he had lived on, or he moved to a house on the opposite corner of this block. Supporting the theory of him moving to a new house is if he was serving as a sexton for the Moore Street Missionary Baptist Church, this would have placed him closer to the church location.

“Property Transfers,” Richmond Dispatch, October 26, 1898, p. 7.

A newspaper article in the Richmond Dispatch from October 26, 1898, reported how Noah Brown sold a lot with 20 feet facing Moore Street and 40 feet on the west side of Harrison Street for $555. This would be worth approximately $18,643 in 2022 dollars. Also of note is how sale of the property was done through Edward Schumacher who served as trustee in the transaction. Putting all of this together along with the city directories, should Moore have been the sexton and janitor for the Moore Street School he would have had an ideal location for a house at the corner of Moore Street and Harrison Street – property which he sold in 1898. Further, the West Leigh address is also in close proximity to the church, indicating that he perhaps had another residence in this immediate vicinity.

Approximate location of property owned by Noah Brown at Moore Street and Harrison Street which he sold in 1898 for $555.

By the time of the 1900 U.S. Census, Noah and his wife Lelia were living with four kids between age 2 and 11. Their address was given as 1002 1/2 Leigh Street, corresponding with city directories. Occupants of the house by age in 1900 were:

  • Noah Brown, Age 43
  • Lelia Brown, Age 35
  • Mary A Brown, Age 11
  • Alice V Brown, Age 6
  • Augustus N Brown, Age 5
  • Julia A Brown, Age 2

Next, Noah Brown and his family moved to Metuchen, New Jersey. The 1905 New Jersey Census shows Noah and his wife living six kids.

  • Noah Brown, Age 48
  • Lelia Brown, Age 40
  • Mary A Brown, Age 16
  • Alice V Brown, Age 11
  • Augustus N Brown, Age 10
  • Julia A Brown, Age 7
  • Della C Brown, Age 4
  • Wrayfield C Brown, Age 1

Their house was directly behind the Presbyterian Church, near where there is a playground today. When robbers showed up at the house in 1911, Brown “got out his old muzzle loader shotgun and loaded it as fast as he could.” When the robbers heard him stirring, they “took to their heels.” Later in a newspaper article it was reported “Noah says he thinks the men thought his house was occupied by Parson Mason.”[1] At this time Brown was serving as sexton for the Presbyterian Church.

The 1920 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Sheet 6, showing the house Noah Brown and his family lived in northeast of the Presbyterian Church. The Presbyterian Church Cemetery is the large open space to the right of the house and church.

In 1912, Rev. Ezra F. Mundy, then a Presbyterian pastor in Leavenworth, Kansas, returned to his former home of Metuchen, New Jersey. Mundy owned two plots in the cemetery. In one were buried his father and mother, and the other his wife Abbie Coddington Mundy who died July 15, 1911, a daughter Ella who died in 1888, and town sons Charles W. who died in 1859 and William who died in 1874. Three graves in the Presbyterian church cemetery were opened. Mundy had the bodies of his wife and three children exhumed without permission. When diggers hit a skull they ceased digging. “With a yell the man leaped from the grave and declined to turn another spadeful of earth.”[2]

This is when Noah Brown who lived in the sexton house behind the nearby Presbyterian Church heard the noise and went to investigate. He found Rev. Mundy trying to persuade the grave diggers to keep digging. Mundy explained “that he wanted all the bones of his relatives in one grave and the sexton agreed to help him.” [3] Brown was paid $7.50 to finish the task of exhuming the bodies.[4] His wife’s coffin was still intact and placed in a grave in another plot. The bones of his three children were gathered. A packing case was purchased at Edward Kramer’s store on Main Street. All of the bones of the dead were placed in it and lowered into the newly dug grave for his wife[5] in another area of the cemetery.[6] This was to give room for Mundy to be buried on the same plot by his wife and children. Mundy ordered a tombstone with the inscription, “Rev. Ezra F. Mundy, ordained, 1856; born, 1832; died, ___” leaving the date of his death blank.[7] The cemetery objected because of the removal of a body within two years of burial, and the internment of more than one body in a grave. Mundy had also asked to preside over services in the local church, but upon hearing of the opening of the graves, church authorities turned down his proposal.[8]

A month later after Rev. Mundy returned to Kansas, his hastily buried wife and children were exhumed a second time. Family members bought a new lot, obtained permission to move the bodies, and hired an undertaker to open four new graves and procured four new coffins. “Noah Brown, the cemetery grave digger, was obliged upon opening the dry goods box to sort out the bones of the three children, who had died in 1859, 1874, and 1888 respectively.” The task was eased as the children had been of widely varying ages. The bones were each placed in a separate coffin and reinterred. On July 12 a brief graveside services was held with family members and their minister, though Rev. Mundy was absent. Heavy rain, thunder, and flashes of lightning made the service all the more challenging.

In 1913, the youngest child of Noah Brown contracted diptheria. Mr. Hageman served as acting sexton in Brown’s absence.[9] The case spurred wild rumors while earlier being reported as “seriously ill” instead had only a very mild case. According to his mother, the boy is “up and around the room in which he is confined.”[10]

The 1920 U.S. Census showed Noah Brown, his wife, and son Rayfield living on Home Street in Metuchen. Lelia died a year later on May 8, 1921. Noah Brown lived for over a decade longer when he tragically died in 1933 while crossing the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks in Metuchen. By this point in his life Brown was blind and needed help from a cane to navigate. He apparently misjudged the speed of the oncoming train which struck and killed him. His death spurred actions to improve the safety of the train tracks in Metuchen.

Obituary for Noah Brown, The Daily Home News, October 2, 1933, p. 9.
Obituary for Wrayfield Brown, The Daily Home News, September 23, 1931, p. 9.

Of his many kids, Wrayfield Brown predeceased Noah Brown by two years. Wrayfield died on September 22, 1931 from “a complication of diseases.” He was survived by his wife and a son. Wrayfield had been the janitor for the Edgar Clay Company in Metuchen at 10 Station Place. The building was completed in 1925 by designs of John Noble Pierson & Son. Wrayfield was buried at the Presbyterian Church Cemetery which his father and family had such a close connection with.

Registration Card for Augustus Brown, June 2, 1917.

Another son, Augustus Nathaniel Brown also served as a janitor for the Edgar Clay Company. Augustus lived in a house he bought at 68 East Walnut Street. At a meeting on May 13, 1954, the Edgar Brothers Company and the Attapulgus Minerals and Chemicals Corporation discussed a merger. Following the merger the Edgar Brothers office building on Station Place was put up for sale in 1955. Augustus died January 11, 1960. He was survived by a wife and three daughters.

Obituary for Augustus N. Brown, The Daily Home News, January 13, 1960, p. 2.

[1] Robbers at Noah Brown’s, May 4, 1911.

[2] Former Preacher Digs up his Dead and Mixes Bones, The Leavenworth Times, May 31, 1912, p. 6.

[3] Former Preacher Digs up his Dead and Mixes Bones, The Leavenworth Times, May 31, 1912, p. 6.

[4] Open Graves Led to Ghoul Scare, Asbury Park Press, May 31, 1912, p. 9.

[5] Former Preacher Digs up his Dead and Mixes Bones, The Leavenworth Times, May 31, 1912, p. 6.

[6] Odd Reburials are Given Four, The Morning Call, July 13, 1912, p. 5.

[7] Open Graves Led to Ghoul Scare, Asbury Park Press, May 31, 1912, p. 9.

[8] Kansan Opened Wife’s Grave, The Kansas City Times, May 31, 1912, p. 2.

[9] Reception Given by W.C.T.U. A Notable Event, The Daily Home News, January 25, 1913, p. 7.

[10] Brainy Borough News and Gossip of Interest, The Daily Home News, January 30, 1913, p. 9.

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About Isaac Kremer

A nationally recognized downtown revitalization leader, downtowns Isaac managed achieved $350 million of investment, 1,300 jobs created, and were 2X Great American Main Street Award Semifinalist and a 1X GAMSA winner in 2023. His work has been featured in Newsday, NJBIZ, ROI-NJ, TapInto, and USA Today. Isaac is a Main Street America Revitalization Professional (MSARP) with additional certifications from the National Parks Service, Project for Public Spaces, and the National Development Council.

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