Two articles from The New York Times: April 12, 1879 and October 16, 1879 discuss the most famous court case held in the Patrick County Courthouse. The Patrick County Courthouse joined the Virginia Landmarks Register on September 17, 1974, and the National Register of Historic Places on December 27, 1974. Patrick County came into existence on June 1, 1791. Twelve days later, the first court met at the home of Jonathan Hanby. Partitioned from Henry County in 1790, Patrick County included 458 square miles. Later land was lost to Franklin, Grayson and Carroll counties.
In 1792, Eliphaz Shelton donated ten acres including the land where the Patrick County Courthouse now sits. In April 1793, the “Gentlemen Justices” of Patrick County authorized the construction of the building. The structure was to be thirty-six feet long and twenty-four feet wide with two twelve foot jury rooms heated by fireplaces with plastered walls and eighteen “lights” of glass in the windows. Contractor Charles Vest completed his work before the deadline and the courthouse opened for court in October 1794. For the next twenty-five years, that building served the county.
In 1819, the county authorized a new building, but two years passed before construction began. Abram Staples, one of the justices, built the new courthouse had the new structure ready one year and one month later on July 11, 1822. Four major renovations have occurred since 1822. In 1928, saw the Sheriff’s Office and jail added. Remodeling occurred in 1936 and 1972. In 1982, another renovation began to relocate the General District Court, Juvenile and Domestic Court Relations Court, the Circuit Court Judge’s secretary and to add space for the Patrick County Clerk of Court’s office.
The building is of Roman Revival or Jeffersonian Neo-Classic in style and made of red brick with a “central three bay blocks and two flanking wings.” There are four Tuscan columns and a large stairway leading from the ground to the portico. This reflects the “high basements” of the Roman Revival. There is a small bell tower and semi-circular opening in the pediment of the portico. The doorway on the portico probably comes from the 1928 renovation.
The county seat named Taylorsville for George Taylor, a hero of the American Revolution, but throughout the history of the county the site of government was Patrick Court House. In 1884, the town was renamed Stuart in honor of Civil War General James Ewell Brown Stuart, who was born and raised in Ararat. J. E. B. Stuart’s father Archibald Stuart served as Commonwealth’s Attorney of Patrick County.
The most famous court case held in the building occurred in January 1878 as part of Ex Parte Virginia. Burwell Reynolds age nineteen and Lee age seventeen were children of Kitty Reynolds. On November 29, 1877, at the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War the Reynolds brothers got into a fight with the white brothers Green and Aaron Shelton near the present day site of the Patrick County Schools bus maintenance garage. The cause of the altercation was verbal harassment by the Shelton boys directed at a school for former slaves at the site overlooking Campbell’s Branch.
Aaron Shelton knocked Lee Reynolds over a log near the road and Burwell stabbed the former with a knife resulting in Shelton’s death the next day. In April 1878, Patrick County tried the two Reynolds brothers separately. Judge William Treadway presided and with all white juries even though attorneys for the brothers Andrew M. Lybrook and William Martin asked the juries to be one third black. The court found Burwell guilty of first degree murder after a second trial. Lee received an eighteen-year sentence for second-degree murder after a second trial. The attorneys petitioned Judge Alexander Rives of the Federal District of Western Virginia to move the cases to federal court because the state court denied the defendant’s rights due to a lack of blacks on the juries and they could not receive a fair trial in Patrick County due to their race.
On November 18, 1878, Deputy U. S. Marshall O. R. Wooten arrived in Stuart to take the Reynolds brothers under his protection. This set off a chain of events that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Editorials in newspaper and Resolutions in the Virginia General Assembly said Judge Rives actions were a "Federal usurpation of power" and "unwarranted by the Constitution." Virginia’s Attorney General asked Congress to pass legislation to prevent Federal courts from "usurping" the power of state courts. Newspapers as far away as Baltimore and New York commented on the case that began as a senseless killing in Patrick County.
Judge Rives responded by calling two grand juries that included black men that eventually indicted judges in Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford, Botetourt, Buckingham, Campbell, Charlotte, Franklin, Fluvanna, Halifax, Henry, Nelson and Roanoke counties including Judge James D. Coles of Pittsylvania County and Judge Samuel G. Staples of Patrick County for excluding African-Americans from juries violating the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guaranteed "equal protection of the law."
Of all the judges arrested only Judge James Doddridge Coles of Pittsylvania County refused bail and petitioned the U. S. Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus claiming he had not violated any law becoming a case forever known as Ex Parte Virginia. On March 15, 1880, the Supreme Court denied the petition, thus upholding Judge Rives actions as part of decisions on three separate cases commonly referred to as "The Civil Rights Cases" that set precedents for the protection of rights for the former slaves. The courthouse in Chatham received National Landmark status in 1987 due to this case instead of Patrick mainly because the National Park Service did not dig deep enough to find the roots of the case were in Patrick County.
Further information can be found in the writings of Herman Melton’s Pittsylvania County’s Historic Courthouse: The Story Behind Ex Parte Virginia and "Thirty-Nine Lashes-Well Laid On:" Crime and Punishment in Southside Virginia 1750-1950. Burwell Reynolds received a sentence of five years for manslaughter for killing Aaron Shelton. Patrick County did not prosecute Lee Reynolds and released him.
In the kitchen of the Reynolds Homestead hangs a picture of Kitty Reynolds, the slave that traditions says saved the life of Hardin Reynolds. She distracted a raging bull along enough for the father of R. J. to escape danger, but it as a mother than she should be more famous.
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