Paulina Ruffin Eps was born into slavery under the household of Richard Eppes on Eppes Island to James Madison Ruffin and Harriet Ruffin. Paulina’s father Madison was bought in 1847 by Richard Eppes from a Dr. Lockwood and her mother Harriet was born on the Eppes Plantation in 1816 serving as personal house servant to Mrs. Mary Eppes Cocke. Before the Civil War, Madison would be a most trusted servant to Dr. Eppes and would serve as Sexton to St. John’s Protestant Episcopal Church. Mr. Eppes would require Madison to clean and make ready the church for worship on Sunday mornings or any other time the congregation might gather.
Richard Eppes wrote in his diary dated Sunday, December 21, 1856, “Quite surprised this morning to find the ground quite white with snow the first fall this season wind N. E. very cold. Madison made no fire in the church this morning, thinking it was the 4th Sunday in the month, consequently service did not commence until after 12 o. c. there being very few persons present had no sermon but only the service.” Mr. Murray [Rector at St. John’s] returned and dined with us & spent the night.” Richard Eppes relied heavily on Madison and trusted him as much as any of his acquaintances. The Vestry would give him a small cash gift for his services from time to time. In the diary, dated May 2, 1858 (Richard Eppes’ 34th birthday) the Vestry met after church, Richard Eppes writes “Mr. Batte moved that a collection be requested of the congregation by Mr. Zimmer [St. John’s Rector] next Sunday to be taken up Sunday after next Sunday for the benefit of the Sexton Madison.”
Harriet had a number of children by other fathers, Robert Moody (born 1835), George Gilliam (born 1838), Richard Gilliam (born 1840), and Patty Rud (born 1845). Madison and Harriet had a number of children of their own. They are Paulina Ruffin (b. 1848), James Ruffin Jr. (b. 1850), Agnes Ruffin (b. Dec. 21, 1851), John Williams Ruffin (b. 1853), Samuel Welsh Ruffin (b. 1855), and Indianna Ruffin ( b. 1858). James Madison Ruffin died on 19th of February, 1876 of pneumonia and was buried on the 21st Feb. 1876 by the Rev. Edward Valentine Jones.
Paulina (called Pau – lī ´-nə) most likely left with her family May 20, 1862, ending up in Hampton and Norfolk throughout the remainder of the Civil War. Paulina married James Henry Eps who was a sailor in the United States Navy. Their children were Mary Elizabeth (born abt. 1871). Harriett (Hattie) Ruffin (born abt. 1873), Robert Henry (born abt. 1875) & William Henry. Mary, Hattie, and Robert were baptized at St. John’s on 17 June, 1877 by the Rev. Edwin Valentine Jones. Paulina was baptized and confirmed at St. John’s in June of 1879 at age 31 by the Rt. Rev. F. M. Whittle, thus becoming a member of St. John’s.
Mary Nelson Neblett (now living in Chester) recalls that she and the other children called her “Aunt Paulina.” Paulina came to church every Sunday sitting on the back row near the entrance to the church. If it were a Sunday when the Holy Communion was served, Paulina would wait until everyone had taken communion and then she would proceed to go to the altar rail to receive the sacrament. Mrs. Mary Catherine Pruden (St. John’s Organist Emeritus) recalled that Paulina would come to church every Sunday until she could not walk to church anymore. Paulina is also remembered and described to have been a very kind and lovable person. Paulina and her husband lived in a small house on the top of the hill leading to the waterfront (now extinct) to the right of the house at the end of Prince Henry Street.
Paulina’s husband Henry became the church sexton after Paulina’s father Madison Ruffin died in 1876. When Henry died at the end of September 1889, Paulina appealed to the Eppes family to have him buried next to her father in the St. John’s cemetery. Richard Eppes writes in his Diary Tuesday, Oct: 1st 1889, “Henry Eps, husband of Paulina Eps sexton of our church (P.E. St. Johns City Point) a seaman employed on the United States ironclad fleet, stationed a few miles below Richmond Va died yesterday
and his wife applied to my wife + self for permission to bury him in the churchyard of the P.E. church by the side of her father Madison the old sexton though neither my wife or my wife have any personal objection we have been forced to refuse, as the race feeling between the whites + negroes is so strong that the church would be seriously injured thereby moreover as he was a seaman in the employ of the U.S. Government his family have a right to bury him in the National Cemetery located near here, where several seaman, who died, when the fleet was stationed here, were buried…...The funeral will take place in St John's church + from there transported to the negro burying ground + there interred with Masonic honors, he being a Mason.” After Henry’s death Paulina continued to work as a domestic servant at Appomattox Manor until her death on 5 January 1946 at age 98. She was buried on Jan 8, 1946 by the Rev. J. R. Walker. Paulina being a faithful member of St. John’s for many years was allowed to be buried next to her father in the church graveyard, but a permanent memorial was never placed.
The congregation wants to honor Paulina and to express their remorse to the African American community for the actions of earlier members of the congregation who did not see fit to bury Paulina’s husband in the St. John’s Cemetery because of racial prejudice, as indicated in Dr. Eppes diary. On behalf of the congregation, the vestry has ordered and will lay a permanent granite marker similar to that of her father Madison, on Paulina’s grave Wednesday, April 15th, 2015 beginning at 5:30 PM in a program and service dedicated to remembering Madison, Paulina, and all the saints who have passed through St. John’s, adding richly to its history and its mission. The service will also include the consecration of the new columbarium in the graveyard.