Second Plat for J.C. Asbury’s Hotel, January 1891; Fort Monroe Authority Collection, FIC.2021.13, Engineering Petition Collection, Folder 12.

John Cornelius Asbury

John Cornelius Asbury was born free on April 9, 1862 in Washington County, Pennsylvania.  He attended Washington & Jefferson College for two years, before graduating from Howard University.  In 1885, he received his LL.M. from Howard.  After graduating, he married Kate E. Allen and they traveled to Norfolk, Virginia in 1887 where he served as Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Richmond Dispatch, February 6, 1890.

In 1890, J.C. Asbury was approached by several Black men hoping to build a hotel on Old Point Comfort, specifically for the accommodation of Black visitors in a time of segregation.  John B. Jones, keeper of the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse, had unsuccessfully petitioned to build a hotel the year prior, but had been refused by the Secretary of War.  Having failed in his proposal, it seems likely that Jones might have reached out to other prominent Black entrepreneurs in Virginia for support, including Beverly Freeman Turner, Sr. and J.C. Asbury.  Turner, a veteran of the Spanish American War and a prominent real estate agent in Richmond, Virginia, was knowledgeable about the Real Estate market, while Asbury could support Jones’ venture through knowledge of the law.

In February 1890, Asbury requested permission to “erect a frame house containing about forty rooms ten by twelve, two story with a basement and a dining-room on a pavillion [sic] connected with the main house, about thirty by sixty feet in dimensions.”  He went on to say that “[i]t would be of great convenience to colored people visiting that place, and also to the great number of parents and guardians who visit their children at the Hampton Normal School and are compelled now, to seek accommodations in private families.”  With Asbury’s backing, this hotel was approved by both the federal government and the Virginia General Assembly.

Fort Monroe Authority, FIC.2021.13, Engineering Petition Collection, Folder 12.

In July 1890, Asbury was given two years to complete construction on the hotel.  Between October 1890 and February 1892, at least three different designs were drawn up for the proposed hotel.  Asbury gave several different reasons for the need to alter plans, including defects in the original design, financial setbacks, and the threat of war with Chile.  The final plan of February 1892 received pushback from the Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, who stated that “it would be a serious injury to the post of Fort Monroe” and erecting this cheaper building “would almost certainly result in its [sic] becoming a common drinking saloon, if not something worse.” It is hard to read words such as those, and not think that the Adjutant General was prejudiced towards a hotel set to welcome Black visitors.  Regardless, the Senate agreed to extend the time permitted for construction to July 1893.  Unfortunately, not much is known about the construction of the hotel after this extension was given in 1892.  While Asbury spent several more years as a practicing attorney in Norfolk, there is no evidence that the hotel was ever completed.

In 1897, Asbury relocated to Philadelphia.  In a 1901 Norfolk Landmark article, a Captain R. C. Marshall remarked that “he liked the negro, or colored man, in his place, as well as any one, but in the year 1891 the county had a black negro carpet-bagger from Pennsylvania, J.C. Asbury, for Commonwealth’s Attorney, and that by forming a fusion with white Republicans, the Democrats had been enabled to…rid the county of this obnoxious negro.”  While Asbury might have received some pushback from people regarding a hotel which encouraged larger numbers of Black visitors to Hampton, it appears his work in the uplift of the Black community threatened residents of Norfolk as well.

In 1898, his wife, Kate, passed away, and he married Ida Elizabeth Bowser in 1901.  During the early 20th century, Asbury organized the Keystone Aid Society and Industrial Insurance Company, founded the Keystone Bank, led the Bureau for Colored Children, and co-founded the Eden Cemetery and Downingtown Industrial School.  He was also nominated to serve as the Director of Negro Activities for the 1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition – or the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence – hosted by Philadelphia.  When not lobbying for equal rights as a politician and attorney, it is obvious that Asbury dedicated his humanitarian efforts to helping other Black Americans through providing educational, financial, and career opportunities.

Asbury continued to work as an attorney in Philadelphia, becoming the Assistant Solicitor of the city from 1916-1920.  He was elected to the Pennsylvania State Legislature in 1920, sponsoring what papers referred to as the “Asbury equal rights bill” the following year.  The bill provided for the “protection of all persons ‘in their equal rights, regardless of race, color or creed in places of public accommodation, entertainment, education or amusement.’”  It passed in the Pennsylvania House in March 1921, but was halted in the Senate.  In 1928, he was the first Black man sworn in as Assistant District Attorney of Philadelphia, a position which he held until resigning in 1932.

By 1938, Asbury had stepped down from most of his professional and humanitarian roles, citing a “desire for complete rest from all strenuous duties.”  He died in September 1941 and is buried in Eden Cemetery.

Research Trail:

Luckily for us, Asbury’s prominent public role means that there was a huge amount of information available during our research, but shamefully we were unaware of his story before discovering his connection to Old Point Comfort through engineering files which contain documents pertaining to his proposed hotel.  His was simply one file of many proposed private enterprises filed in the Fort Monroe Archives, without individual descriptions of the separate cases.  With the nature of archival description, it is not unexpected for BIPOC stories to go unrecognized and unprioritized in collections.  The file piqued our curiosity in Asbury, and we located his connection to the Pennsylvania State Legislature through a simple google search.  Much of the above information was found through information in contemporary newspaper articles.

Additional Sources:

For more information on John C. Asbury, please contact the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Archives.

Preferred Citation:

Fort Monroe Authority. “John Cornelius Asbury.” Illuminating Shadows, April 18, 2023. [access date]. [URL].

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