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While processing collections, archivists often come across items that don’t directly relate to the collection at hand but which often provide a window into a different subject altogether.  One good example of this is from an 1888 Rockingham County chancery case.  Amid the various items in the case is an advertisement that reads: “Mr. John Christian, Champion Colored Fancy Skater of Virginia, will give an exhibition at 9:15.” Having never heard of “fancy skating,” I wanted to know more about the sport and who John Christian was. After a little research some questions were answered and others were not.

Roller skating became very popular in the 1880’s, and most towns had their own rinks where the general public could skate.   Industrial advances made this fad possible, allowing for average citizens to own their own skates. At its height, in 1885, it is estimated that $20 million of roller skates and related equipment were sold. Local newspapers seem to back up this trend.

Advertisement dated 5 May 1885 found in Rockingham County Chancery Cause Christina J. Ergenbright vs. Administrator of Jacob Ammon, etc., 1888-021.

Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia.

The People, a Harrisonburg newspaper, reported on 1 May 1885: “it is hard times, but the skating rink is furnished nightly with $30.00 houses.”  This new craze appeared to be popular with black as well as white citizens. It was also segregated. In the same issue of The People it was reported that “the colored people have a skating rink over Kavanaugh’s ten pin alley and a noisy place is it.”

Swinging his girl on roller skates, Savoy Ballroom, Chicago, Illinois, April 1941.

Image used courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.

Besides providing a place where people could skate, these rinks also became venues for various kinds of acts including vaudeville-type performances and fancy skating, which consisted of individual performances on roller skates.

However, further information about Mr. Christian was more elusive. Harrisonburg newspapers did not yield any information on Christian or his performance in that town. Likewise a search of the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America: Historic American Newspaper Database only yielded information from the Roanoke Daily Times of 16 November 1889, stating that J.J. Christian of Christiansburg was performing there.

Similarly, a quick search of census records did not yield any conclusive information on Christian. Maybe he has relatives out there who can shed more light on his life and career?

The advertisement for Christian’s exhibition for fancy skating forms part of Rockingham County Chancery Cause Christina J. Ergenbright vs. Administrator of Jacob Ammon, etc.1888-021. The Rockingham County Chancery Causes, 1781-1913, are available online via the Chancery Records Index.

-Chad Underwood, Local Records Archivist

Chad Underwood

Sr. Manuscripts Research & Digital Archivist


  • Suzanne Levy says:

    I searched for references to John Christian and skater and found some announcements of his programs from various newspapers, including the April 19, 1890, Washington Bee referring to John J. Christian, Colored Champion Roller Skater, performing in DC. Another article mentioned him as a partner of Jim Turner, the New England Champion Roller Skater.

  • Bari says:

    (Comment originally posted on VA-HIST listserv, 5 February 2014)
    Here’s a poster showing John J. Christian on his skates:
    However, I don’t believe the biographical information at that link is correct. He seems to have no connection with Mrs. Jennie Kimball’s valet, who coincidentally had the same name, and if he claimed to be giving his farewell performance in 1898, there are still notices for performances after that.
    The Dec. 2, 1899 Colored American (Washington DC) had an article datelined Charlottesville, VA, which said in part: “The famous Georgia Minstrels were in town last Griday [sic Friday]. Mr. John Christian, of Staunton, Va., is with this show this season as the champion roller skater. He was given quite an ovation.”
    There was a black businessman in Staunton (confectioner, bartender) named John J. Christian who had a son with the same name born about 1868, according to the 1870 and 1880 censuses, so it’s possible the son grew up to be the skater.
    The fact that the skater was a “Jr.” is confirmed by the Richmond Planet of March 8, 1890 which says “John J. Christian Jr. of Staunton gave a skating exhibition at True Reformer’s Hall Monday even- [sic] to a large an [sic] appreciative audience. Mr. Christian has defeated a number of skaters and bears the name of Champion Roller Skater.”
    Here’s his wedding, in the Iowa State Bystander, April 21, 1905:
    “Last Wednesday evening, April 12, at the beautiful home of Mr. and Mrs.
    Ruben Gaines, of Buxton, Iowa, there occurred the marriage of Julia C.
    Wilkes of Boston, Mass., to John J. Christian, the skater.” The whole wedding announcement is at
    That may help a bit with further research.
    Hank Trent

  • Shannon jarus says:

    I am not sure if you will get this, but I live outside of Atlanta, GA. I purchased a vintage postcard collection, and received an ad within the collection: “Terrific jump over 14 chairs” Tonight at the skating rink Mr. John J. Christian Jr. Very cool!

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