The legacy of Oliver “Buey” Robinson

Published 2:37 pm Friday, February 16, 2024

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By Clark Curtis, For the Washington Daily News

The only known picture of Oliver “Buey” Robinson was taken around the turn of the century. In the photo are Robinson and two children, John Havens Moss and Beverly Havens Moss, the grandsons of one of Washington’s most prominent shipping merchants, Benjamin Franklin Havens. Standing in the background by the large Oak tree is John. Beverly, is sitting on Robinson’s lap, adoringly hugging him around the neck. 

“My two uncles, John and Beverly, were constant companions of Buey,” said Bettie Bonner, who has gifted a lot of her familys’history through photos, personal letters, and other documents to the Brown Library. “The same photo hung in my Uncle Johns’ bedroom his entire life. After his passing, I was fortunate enough to receive the photo which continues to hang in my living room.”

In the genealogy provided by Bonner, Robinson was born around 1830, and as a free Black man, worked for Benjamin at Havens Mill and resided near the Havens’ home at the corner of Main and Van Norden Streets. When Benjamin’s son Leroy enlisted in the Confederate Army at the age of 18 in 1863, Robinson was charged by Benjamin to look after his son, and became his gun bearer during the war. “It was very common in those days for wealthier soldiers or higher ranking officers to have gun bearers,” said Brown Library historian, Stephen Farrell. “Their duties were almost butler in nature, as they would carry their guns during marches, and would cook for them. However, Robinson is the first person that I know of from this area that was ever assigned to be a gun bearer.”

In one of the personal memoirs provided by Bonner, Robinson is quoted as saying, “Mr. Leroy never shot that gun. If a Yankee showed up, I was the one who aimed the gun and I was the one who pulled the trigger, and I was the one who killed the damned Yankee.”

Robinson would remain close to the Havens family, not only as a mentor, but an adored friend of Leroy’s children John and Beverly, particularly John, who loved him dearly.  Bonner said her grandmother, Mary Bonner Moss, once shared a story with her about a trip she took with John and Beverly, when they were three or four years old. 

“My grandmother said Bueys’ language would oftentimes turn your hair blue,” said Bonner. “So it came as no real surprise while on the ship, when some of the sailors came up to her and said “‘those children sure look like little angels, but they can cuss just as good as we can.’” 

“When they got home my grandmother said she and other family members made sure to pray over the little boys because they cussed so bad,” Bonner said chuckling. 

Robinson remained in Washington his entire life, but little is known about him from the turn of the century until his passing in 1931.  “He lived to be 100, and was pretty sick towards the end,” said Bonner. “My grandmother would always check on him and take him food, as he was just like another member of the family to them. When he passed, my Uncle John, that little boy standing in the photo, signed his death certificate and took care of all of the burial arrangements at Cedar Hill, including the headstone that remains standing today.”

Added Farrell, “What an outstanding piece of our history that has been uncovered, thanks to the personal donation of Bettie Bonner. This is a very unique story in that we have personal narratives, photographs, and those alive today who still remember the stories shared with them about Oliver ‘Buey’ Robinson and Johnathan Havens Moss. One can only imagine what all Robinson must have seen and experienced between 1830 and 1930. Stories such as this continue to add volumes to what we already know, and begs the question of how many others are out there. One day, our hope is to fill this library or a future history center with all of these stories, which will bring our community even closer together as we gain a better understanding of where we came from.”