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A Guide to the Papers of Robert Watson Claiborne 1934-1966 Claiborne, Robert Watson, Papers 4572-a

A Guide to the Papers of Robert Watson Claiborne 1934-1966

A Collection in
Special Collections
The University of Virginia Libraryt
Accession Number 4572-a


Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

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Special Collections, University of Virginia Library
Accession number
Papers of Robert Watson Claiborne 1934-1966
Physical Characteristics
This collection consists of ca. 9600 items.

Administrative Information

Access Restrictions

There are no restrictions.

Use Restrictions

See the University of Virginia Library’s use policy.

Preferred Citation

Papers of Robert Watson Claiborne, Accession #4572-a, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

Acquisition Information

The papers were a gift of Virginia (McKenney) Claiborne, wife of Robert Watson Claiborne, of Richmond, Virginia, in May 1976 through Mrs. Ralph T. Catterall and Mrs. D. M. Lemmon, also of Richmond. The papers are an addition to the papers of Dr. John Herbert Claiborne (1828-1905), accession no. 4572, given by Mrs. Claiborne in 1953.

Biographical/Historical Information

Robert Watson Claiborne was born in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1888, the son of Dr. John Herbert Claiborne and Annie (Watson) Claiborne. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1909 with a B.A., and received an M.A. from Princeton and a LL.B. from Columbia University School of Law. He served as a captain in the Marine Corps in World War I. In 1918, he married Virginia Spotswood McKenney of Petersburg, Virginia and they had two children, Robert W. Claiborne, Jr., (Bob) born 1919, and a daughter, Clara, born 1923. Virginia (McKenney) Claiborne was director of the Valentine Museum in Richmond until 1957.

Claiborne taught at various boys' schools in the east, such as Groton (Massachusetts) School, where he was head of the English Department in 1910-1911. From about 1918 to 1926, he practiced law in Richmond, Virginia, New York, and England, and was connected with several law firms and corporations, his specialty being international and admiralty law and Latin American affairs. He was also active in musical activities, including radio programs and teaching music in the late 1920's.

In April 1934, Claiborne sailed to the Virgin Islands, where he practiced law and began a business preserving fruits in rum. His son Robert and a former pupil, James Robertson, accompanied him, while his wife and daughter remained in Virginia on a permanent basis. While in the Virgin Islands, Claiborne became active in local political and civic affairs. He successfully represented the Virgin Islands Teachers Association in a suffrage case, in which women won equal rights in the Virgin Islands.

In July 1936, after investigating the feasibility of a preserved fruit business in Puerto Rico, he sold his business in the Virgin Islands, and moved to Puerto Rico that fall, settling near Mayaguez, a city on the Northwest part of the island. He set up a farm business, practiced law, and became involved in Puerto Rico's political and economic life, particularly in labor activities. In October 1938, Claiborne was appointed regional attorney and acting territorial representative in Puerto Rico of the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor, becoming the first administrator in Puerto Rico under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Claiborne's term in office was brief and controversial. He was viewed as a liberal reformer and was popular with labor leaders but his attempts to strictly enforce the Wage and Hour Law made him unpopular with some business and political interests, in the needlework, sugar, and tobacco industries in particular. A March 14, 1939, letter from Elmer F. Andrews, adminstrator of the Wage and Hour Division in Washington, informed Claiborne that his "resignation" had been accepted. Claiborne contended that he had never resigned, and that a personal letter of March 2, 1939, had been misinterpreted in order to remove him from office. He claimed that many officials favored business interests, and pressure from these interests had resulted in his removal.

During his term in office, Claiborne's activities included the investigation of employee and union complaints of violations, interpreting the meaning of the law to employers and employees, speaking to meetings of labor groups, and corresponding about general policy and about specific cases.

The suit by the Eastern Sugar Associates against Claiborne and a group of employees, begun in February 1939, sought to prohibit them from enforcing the Wage and Hour Law and was the first suit filed against the law. The suit sought a judgement that the employees in the sugar industry were engaged in agricultural work, and therefore exempt from the law. Also at this time, there was an attempt in Congress to exempt Puerto Rico from the Fair Labor Standards Act through the Norton Amendment. This was fought by labor unions and others, such as Representative Vito Marcantonio of New York. In February and March 1939, the economist Isador Lobin was in Puerot Rico to investigate conditions.

By the end of March 1939, Claiborne had become discouraged about the possibility of enforcing the law; there were many violators who were not punished and who had an unfair advantage over companies who did observe the minimum wage law. He felt that the government was lagging in bringing companies to court. At the end of March, after his "resignation," Claiborne formed a law partnership with Gutierrez Franqui and Ramos Antonini, to handle labor cases first through mediation and through the courts if necessary. Claiborne hoped that through private legal action, unions and employees could force enforcement of the law. Many of the firm's cases were won, but at the same time, during the summer and fall of 1939, Claiborne heard rumors attempting to discredit him and his character, and of a move by employers to disbar him, which he claimed were intended to hold up or stop suits against employers. He felt, as he had in the Virgin Islands in his suffrage fight, that he was fighting a "machine."

The Ades case, a suit filed in July 1939 by employees, with Claiborne as their lawyer, against the Ades brothers company, resulted in allegations against Claiborne and an investigation of his personal conduct in 1940. At issue was the authority of Claiborne to represent his plaintiffs, and the propriety of his professional conduct in the possible use of information gained while in his government later in his private practice. There were also allegations that in his correspondence with industrialists, he had sold the workers out in a conspiracy. Claiborne charged that there were no specific charges against him, that witnesses against him had been bribed, signatures forged, and that Judge Robert Cooper had been fed false information and irrelevant evidence. By the end of February 1940, Claiborne was given a choice by Judge Cooper: he could resign from the bar or be disbarred. Upon refusing, he was then told that he could resign from the labor cases he was representing, which he also refused to do. In February 1940, Judge Cooper then gave the case to Rafael De La Haba, a lawyer, to investigate and report on. In July 1940, Claiborne was suspended from the practice of law for a period of a year, beginning December 1, 1940, or earlier if his cases were finished. Claiborne appealed the suspension, but in May 1941, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston denied his appeal.

After 1940-1941, Claiborne became even more discouraged about improving labor conditions and he concentrated his efforts on his farm, Hacienda Santa Rita. On this abandoned coffee farm in the mountains above Mayaguez and near Maricao, he began a series of agricultural experiments to develop a cash crop to replace coffee, which was no longer profitable in the area. He raised animals such as goats and chickens, and grew fruits, vegetables and flowers. He helped train and educate young men who worked on the farm, and when he died on August 6, 1966 of hypoglycemia, the farm was left as a trust, run by two of these young men.

During the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's, Claiborne made the acquaintance of many interesting individuals who came to visit him at his farm and with whom he corresponded, such as Nathan Leopold (of Leopold and Loeb fame); some Communists such as Richard Levins, Mary Craig Speed, Jane Speed, and husband Cesar Andrea, and government officials, university professors, lawyers, farmers, business men and others mentioned in the description of the papers. Also, especially in the early 1940's and early 1950's Claiborne's letters reflect an atmosphere of suspicion and indicate that he felt he was often being investigated for radical activities, possibly partially due to confusing Claiborne with his son of the same name.

Scope and Content Information

The papers of Robert Watson Claiborne from 1934 to 1966 contain chiefly correspondence while Claiborne was a lawyer, government official, and experimental farmer in the Virgin Islands (1934-1936) and Puerto Rico (1936-1966). There is also a small amount of other material such as miscellaneous financial papers, memorabilia, photographs, circulars, press releases, newsclippings, and a speech and legal document relating to a 1936 Virgin Islands suffrage case. Claiborne was involved in political, economic and agricultural affairs, and was particularly interested in labor activities in Puerto Rico. He was acting territorial representative and regional attorney in Puerto Rico for the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor from November 1938 to March 1939.

The correspondence is chiefly composed of long, detailed, opinionated letters from Claiborne to his wife, Virginia (McKenney) Claiborne, who was usually in Richmond, Virginia. The letters provide a diary-like account of his activities, and often concern personal matters, especially his health, financial and legal matters. They also contain his views on politics, labor activities, living conditions, and social life in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. He often enclosed his correspondence with others in letters to his wife, and there is a particularly large amount of Claiborne's official correspondence while in the Wage and Hour post which helps illuminate the relationship between Puerto Rico and Washington during the New Deal.

Claiborne (nicknamed "Parjo") corresponded with his wife, (nicknamed "Mana" or "Bala"), with their son "Bob" and daughter-in-law Adrienne, their daughter Clara, Claiborne's mother, Mrs. John Herbert Claiborne, family-friend James Robertson ("Jimmie"), and lawyer and advisor Arnold Knauth. Some of Virginia (McKenney) Claiborne's correspondence with others on behalf of Claiborne, usually in financial and legal matters, is included, such as a few letters to and from Senator Harry F. Byrd in 1942, 1943, and 1950.

In addition to personal and family correspondence, there is correspondence of Claiborne on political, economic, agricultural, and labor matters with U.S. and Puerto Rican government officials, labor leaders, industrialists, lawyers, politicians, agriculturalists, and others active in Virgin Islands and Puerto Rican affairs. There is occasional correspondence with Virgin Islands government officials during 1934-1936, including one or two letters from Governors Lawrence Cramer and Paul M. Pearson.

Individuals active in Puerto Rican affairs who have substantial amounts of correspondence with Claiborne include Ruby A. Black, ("R"), a Washington newspaperwoman, unofficial lobbyist, and friend of Luis Munoz Martin; Vito Marcantonio ("Marc"), a representative in congress from New York; Earl Parker Hanson, writer, consultant and government official; and Walter McK. Jones, a writer (all on the Committee for Fair Play to Puerto Rico). Also, George Warrek, professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico and Paul Schumm, a visiting planner. U.S. Government officials with whom Claiborne corresponded, especially during his term in office, include A. Cecil Snyder, U.S. Attorney for San Juan; Elmer F. Andrews, Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division; Arthur L. Fletcher, Assistant Administrator; Paul Sifton, Deputy Administrator; and John Babe, Wage and Hour Attorney. There is often correspondence with officials of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, especially the USDA Agricultural Research Administration, Office of Experimental Stations in Puerto Rico.

Peurto Rican officials with whom Claiborne often correspondend include Ramon Colon Torres, secretary of Puerto Rico's Department of Agriculture and Commerce, and Luis Rives Santos, secretary of agriculture. There are a few letters to and from Luis Munoz Marin, Governor, and his staff, and from his wife Muna Lee Munoz. Puerto Rican political and labor leaders include Alberto E. Sanchez and Miguel Angel Garcia Mendez. Claiborne also corresponded with industrialists Samuel Schweitzer, President of the Puerto Rico Needlework Association, Auguste Schwab, and Nathan Cohen. There is some correspondence to, from and about Communists in Puerto Rico, including Richard Levins, Mary Craig Speed, Jane Speed, and husband Caesar Andrea. Other acquaintances and individuals with only one or two items of correspondence are not included here. These individuals range from Nathan Leopold (of Leopold and Loeb fame) to Craig Claiborne the food writer, and David Dubinsky, the labor leader.

Some of the correspondence is in Spanish. A few letters have had parts cut out, especially those from the early 1940's when war-time censors cut out occasional words. Occasionally, Mrs. Claiborne visited Claiborne in the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico, causing gaps in the correspondence. Mrs. Claiborne often changed the dates on Claiborne's letters, which were not always correct.

In addition to the correspondence, there is a small amount of other material, filed at the end, which includes a speech and legal documents relating to the Virgin Islands suffrage case Claiborne represented in 1936; some miscellaneous financial papers, memorabilia, and photographs; press releases, statements, circulars, and newsletters, primarily relating to Puerto Rican labor matters, ca. 1939; and newspaper clippings from 1934-1965, mostly from Puerto Rican newspapers. Many of the circulars and newsclippings are in Spanish.

Of interest is a letter in Box 26, 1979 March 23, from Robert Claiborne, Jr. to Edmund Berkeley, Curator of Manuscripts, in which Claiborne asserts that "the factual statements in the letters [his fathers's] are by no means reliable."


The correspondence is filed chronologically. It is followed by the speech and legal document relative to the Virgin Islands suffrage case, miscellaneous financial papers, memorabilia, press releases, circulars and clippings described above, which are in rough chronological order under each type of material.

The papers were originally packaged in a reverse chronological order, in which correspondence and non-correspondence were mixed.

Contents List

Correspondence 1934 April-1935 July
Box 1
9 folders
Correspondence 1935 August-1936 October
Box 2
10 folders
Correspondence 1936 November-1937 August
Box 3
9 folders
Correspondence 1937 September-1939 February
Box 4
10 folders
Correspondence 1939 March-1940 April
Box 5
12 folders
Correspondence 1940 May-1941 December
Box 6
12 folders
Correspondence 1942 January-1944 May
Box 7
12 folders
Correspondence 1944 June-1946 May
Box 8
11 folders
Correspondence 1946 June-1947 December
Box 9
11 folders
Correspondence 1948 January-1949 March
Box 10
10 folders
Correspondence 1949 April-1949 September
Box 11
8 folders
Correspondence 1949 October-1950 April
Box 12
9 folders
Correspondence 1950 May-1951 July
Box 13
10 folders
Correspondence 1951 August-1952 May
Box 14
10 folders
Correspondence 1952 June-1953 March
Box 15
9 folders
Correspondence 1953 April - November
Box 16
8 folders
Correspondence 1953 December-1954 August
Box 17
8 folders
Correspondence 1954 September-1955 June
Box 18
10 folders
Correspondence 1955 July-1956 August
Box 19
10 folders
Correspondence 1956 September-1957 December
Box 20
10 folders
Correspondence 1958 January-1959 June
Box 21
12 folders
Correspondence 1959 July-1960 October
Box 22
11 folders
Correspondence 1960 November-1961 December
Box 23
10 folders
Correspondence 1962 January-1963 July
Box 24
11 folders
Correspondence 1963 August-1964 December
Box 25
11 folders
Correspondence 1965 March-1966 August, 1979 March 23, n.d.
Box 26
10 folders
Virgin Islands Suffrage Case: Speech and legal document by Claiborne ca. 1936
Box 26
Miscellaneous financial papers, memorabilia, and photographs ca. 1935-1961, n.d.
Box 26
Press releases, Statements, Circulars and Newsletters primarily relating to labor matters in Puerto Rico in 1939 1939, 1961, n.d.
Box 26
Newspaper clippings ca. 1934-1936
Box 26
Newspaper clippings 1938-1939
Box 26
2 folders
Newspaper clippings: English translations of some articles in Spanish 1939 February-March
Box 26
Newspaper clippings ca. 1940-1949
Box 26
Newspaper clippings ca. 1955-1965, n.d.
Box 26