“Scott Willis.” (obituary) Daily Press (December 18, 1962), pg. 28.

Scott Willis

Scott Willis was born in 1896 and raised in Danville, Virginia. During World War I, he served in France with the 312th Service Battalion, Quartermaster Corps (Colored), a segregated unit.  Not much was discovered about Willis until he appears in public records in Phoebus, Virginia in the mid-1930s. He marries Elizabeth Hammond in 1937 and they have one child, Inez E. Willis, later Crocker.

Page showing Willis Family, 1940 United States Federal Census.

In 1940, Scott, Elizabeth, and Inez are all listed in the federal census as living in the household of Gordon B. Welch, an ordnance officer living on Ruckman Road. Elizabeth is listed as a servant in the home, while Scott and Inez are listed as servant’s husband and servant’s daughter, respectively. Under Scott’s occupation however, he is listed as a cook and butler in a hotel, most likely the Chamberlin Hotel within walking distance of the Welch household.

By 1950, Scott and Elizabeth are separated; Elizabeth and Inez having moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Scott, however, is listed in the census as lodging in Phoebus, his occupation listed as bellman at a hotel. He passed away in 1962, and both his death certificate and obituary state that he was a bell captain at the Chamberlin Hotel for over twenty years. A bell captain supervises all bellhops and porters in a hotel, and must be especially in tune with the needs of the guests. In their position of management, they often take on other hospitality roles as well.

Research Trail:

Scott Willis was unknown to our staff until, in recognition of the gap in Black stories from the mid-20th century, we browsed through federal census records to see who was living on Old Point Comfort. The Willis family caught our attention and provided context on the domestic roles filled by Black men and women approximately 80 years following emancipation. After locating the 1940 census showing the Willis family on ancestry.com, we continued to search public records for more information on Willis, finding his death certificate. This provided the information regarding his career and indicated he was a veteran of World War I, allowing us to locate him in Army records. While finding him in the 1950 census was a little more difficult, due to his separation from Elizabeth and Inez, the record confirmed his role as bellman at the Chamberlin. Despite limited job opportunities for Black men, many in some kind of service industry, Willis fills a management position of respect and honor. Regardless, it’s important to notice that his race is included in his obituary. This is indicative of the idea that whiteness is the standard by which others are defined.  The default, neutral United States citizen was – and often still is – a white man. Regardless of his long, well-respected position in the local community, attention is immediately called to his race.

Researching Willis’ story shows that sometimes genealogical investigation requires many different searches. Searching Willis in connection with his wife and daughter never brought up his military service, as it was before his marriage, or his occupation as a bellman, because he was separated from his family. A good tip is to keep track of every different search combination you’ve tried, so you know what you’ve already done! Still, much of Willis’ story remains unknown to us. We’d love to learn more and update this biography if his story is one familiar to you!

Preferred Citation:

Fort Monroe Authority. “Scott Willis.” Illuminating Shadows, May 3, 2023. [access date]. [URL].

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