GILBERT HUNT AND THE RICHMOND THEATER FIRE
Was Gilbert Hunt treated like a hero?
On the evening of December 26, 1811, many Richmonders were attending a play in a new theater on Shockoe Hill. A candle was left burning on a chandelier as it was raised to the ceiling when a scenery change was made. When the error was discovered and the chandelier was lowered to extinguish the candle, the flame made contact with a canvas backdrop. Flames quickly spread, setting the building on fire. Many people were killed as they tried to escape. Those who were saved were helped from inside by Dr. James McCaw, who dropped them from a window to Gilbert Hunt, who caught them enough to break their fall. He had hurried to the fire scene when he realized what was happening. Because so many lost their lives at this theater, they were all buried on this site in a common grave. This location became the Monumental Church, built in their honor between 1812 and 1814, which still stands on the site today.
Gilbert Hunt was a slave born in King William County, Virginia about 1780. During the War of 1812 he worked for the army as a blacksmith. After purchasing his freedom for $800, he opened his own blacksmith shop.
Blacksmith—a person (called a smith) who works in iron, including the making and fitting of horseshoes.
Shockoe Hill—located in Richmond on E. Broad Street – where Monumental Church stands.
• CAUSE AND EFFECT: Have students read articles about Gilbert Hunt. Students should then write cause and effect statements about Gilbert Hunt in a graphic organizer.
• ORAL EXPRESSION: Have student uses the picture of Gilbert Hunt and record new facts learned. Later have students write a summary based on the new information.
• FIELD TRIP: Have students travel to the Valentine Richmond History Center, in Richmond, Va, and take the Nation's Beginning Tour. In addition have students travel to Shockoe Hill/Bottom and see the Monumental Church in Richmond (the church is closed to the public but can be viewed from the street).
• MAPPING: Have students pinpoint Monumental Church, the site of the theater on a Virginia map with flags and labels.
Research and Discussion Questions:
• Have students research and discuss other slaves who fought during the Civil War.
Tyler-McGraw, Marie, and Gregg D. Kimball, In Bondage and Freedom: Antebellum Black Life in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond, Va.: Valentine Museum, 1988.