From the very beginning, Virginia Union students and faculty members were at the forefront.
Researched by Raymond Hylton, Professor of History
Our mission at Virginia Union University was first put into operation shortly after April 3, 1865, the date when Richmond, Virginia was liberated by troops of the United States Army of the James. It was then that representatives from our founding organization, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, came to the former Confederate capital as teachers and missionaries. In that same month, eleven teachers were holding classes for former slaves at two missions in the city. By November 1865 the Mission Society had established, and was officially holding classes for, Richmond Theological School for Freedmen, one of the four institutions forming the “Union” that gives our University its name. Even though the Civil War had ended and that same year the 13th Amendment to the Constitution officially abolished slavery, many trials still lay ahead. It became more and more certain that freedom would not, of itself, be enough. It could not sufficiently address the problems of a large, newly-emancipated population that had been systematically kept down and denied training skills, opportunities, and even literacy itself. Some slaves had been severely punished for even trying to read the Bible.
Fortunately, there were many who cared, and who would try to impart the education and skills necessary for the full enjoyment of freedom and citizenship, to the newly-freed population. One such group of concerned individuals were the members of the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS). They proposed a “National Theological Institute” designed primarily at providing education and training for African-Americans to enter into the Baptist ministry; and soon this mission would expand into offering courses and programs at college, high school and even preparatory levels, to both men and women.
In 1865, following the surrender of the Confederacy, branches of the “National Theological Institute” were set up in Washington, D.C. and Richmond, Virginia. The Washington institution received a $1,500 grant from the Freedman’s Bureau and met at various locations including: Judiciary Square; “I” Street; Louisiana Avenue and, finally, Meridian Hill. The school became known as Wayland Seminary; and it acquired a sterling reputation under the direction of its president, Dr. George Mellen Prentiss King. Dr. King administered Wayland for thirty years (1867-97) and stayed on as a professor for twenty additional years at both Wayland and at Virginia Union University. The King Gate which currently faces Lombardy Street and is situated between Ellison Hall and the Baptist Memorial Building was named in his honor shortly before he died in 1917. Among the notable students to grace Wayland’s halls were: Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. the famous pastor of New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church; Dr. Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee University and author of Up From Slavery; Reverend Harvey Johnson of Baltimore, Maryland – pastor and early civil rights activist; Kate Drumgoold, author of A Slave Girl’s Story: Being an account of Kate Drumgoold (1898); Henry Vinton Plummer, Civil War Naval combat hero and U.S. Army Chaplain to the “Buffalo Soldiers”; and Albert L. Cralle, inventor of the ice-cream scoop.
It would be much tougher to begin the mission in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederate States; which had suffered extensive damage during the Evacuation Fire when Southern troops had fled the city; and where most of the white population was opposed to everything that the ABHMS was trying to accomplish. Dr. J G. Binney, the first teacher sent out to open a school in Richmond, taught night classes to some 25 freedmen from November 1865-July 1866 before giving up and leaving for Burma. However, on May 13, 1867, Dr. Nathaniel Colver an elderly, hard-bitten abolitionist who could not be intimidated by anyone, arrived to resume the task. He had a great deal of trouble even finding suitable accommodations to rent, and was close to despair when he had a chance meeting with Mrs. Mary Ann Lumpkin, from whom he was able to rent a patch of land and buildings at 15th & Franklin Streets known as Lumpkin’s Jail or “The Devil’s Half Acre”. Mrs. Lumpkin was a former whose late husband, Robert Lumpkin, had been a slave-dealer and had run the property as a holdingpen/punishment “breaking” center, which still contained whipping posts. Living with Dr. Colver on the premises of the new school, which was named Richmond Theological School for Freedmen was the family of the Reverend James H. Holmes, another former slave who became pastor of First African Baptist Church. The support of Black ministers and community leaders proved to be crucial to the success of the school – of particular importance were Holmes; the Reverend Richard Wells of Ebenezer Baptist Church; and Pastor George Jackson from Halifax County, Virginia. After some initial misgivings the African-American Community of Richmond would adopt the fledgling institution as its own. Dr. Colver scheduled basic classes in Grammar, Arithmetic, Geography and Spelling/Reading as well as Biblical Knowledge during a six hour day from 1867-68. It was indeed a strange atmosphere, the classroom windows still had their prison bars, and the former whipping posts were used as lecterns for the professors.
But Dr. Colver was over seventy, and in poor health and in 1868 handed over his burden as school principal to Dr. Charles Henry Corey, who had previously taught at Augusta Institute. For a while the school was called Colver Institute in the old man’s honor. Dr. Corey proved to be a dynamic leader and directed the school for 31 years, becoming revered by his students and earning the respect of the Richmond Community. In 1870, he made the move from Lumpkin’s Jail, which still held painful memories for many of the students, and purchased the former United States Hotel building at 19th & Main Street for $10,000.
In 1876, the school was incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly under the name Richmond Institute, Dr. Corey taking charge officially as president, with the support of a Board of Trustees which included Holmes and Wells. The Institute was the first in the South to employ African-American teaching assistants and faculty and in 1876 was offering curricula which were preparatory (elementary); academic (pre-college) and theological. Enrollment grew steadily and among its earliest students Richmond Institute numbered it first foreign graduate, Samuel M. Harden of Lagos, Nigeria (1879) and its first female graduate, Maria E. Anderson (1882). An Alumni Association under the leadership of Charles J. Daniel (class of 1878) was organized in 1879.
Hartshorn Memorial College & Virginia Union University
In 1883 a special college for the exclusive education of African-American women was established by the ABHMS through the donation of the wealthy Joseph C. Hartshorn of Rhode Island as a memorial to his late wife Rachel. The curriculum was to be modeled on that of Wellesley College and the imposing Dr. Lyman Beecher Tefft was appointed its first president. Although the college first convened its classes in the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church on Leigh Street, its campus was finally set up along the corner of Lombardy & Leigh Street, across from the present C.D. King Building. With no further women students, Richmond Institute turned strictly to theological studies and re- established itself as Richmond Theological Seminary in 1886, offering its first Bachelor’s degree, the Bachelor of Divinity. During the 1890’s plans were pushed forward to merge historically-black institutions into one University, and by 1899 it was agreed that Wayland Seminary and Richmond Theological Seminary would come together to form Virginia Union University. Accordingly, a tract of pasture land on Lombardy Street, containing part of an area known as “Sheep Hill”, was purchased by the ABHMS. Dr. Corey would retire, and pass on in 1899, but not before he had written the first account of the history of the institution: A History of the Richmond Theological Seminary with Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Labor among the Colored People of the South. He was thus described by a contemporary: “… criticism has never discouraged him, condemnation could not cow his spirit”. Corey Street, on the opposite side of Lombardy Street from the King Gate, perpetuates his memory on campus.
VUU in recent years: 1970-Present
Upon Dr. Henderson’s untimely death in January 1970, another Union alumnus (class of 1944), Vice-President Dr. Allix Bledsoe James, was called upon to assume the position. Under Dr. James’ direction, the Sydney Lewis School of Business School of business was established and fully accredited; and Community Learning Week was developed. Dr. James retired in 1979 and Dr. Dorothy Norris Cowling served as Acting President until the Board of Trustees selected Dr. David Thomas Shannon as the eighth VUU President. During Dr. Shannon’s term of office, the building of the British American Tobacco Corporation at the southwest corner of Leigh & Lombardy Streets was signed over to the University. It was named the C.D. King Building in honor of Clarence D. King, a successful New York businessman, and Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. C.D. King houses the Business, Human Resources, Institutional Advancement and University Relations Offices.
Dr. Shannon resigned to take up an administrative post at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, and Mrs. Carolyn Daughtry directed University affairs as Provost before the Board selected Dr. S. Dallas Simmons as VUU’s ninth president. Dr. Simmons served from 1985-99 and was instrumental in bringing the Police Academy and initiating a Criminal Justice Program on campus. Coburn Hall and Martin E. Gray Hall, which had both been gutted by fire, were restored and the
School of Theology was at last moved into Kingsley Hall. The Admiral Building, which was originally rented by the University to maintain the Teacher Preparation program while Martin E. Gray was being restored was purchased by VUU to house the Athletics Department. However, the most spectacular project involved the construction (1996-7) of a new library facility: the L. Douglas Wilder Library and Learning Center, which honors the Honorable L. Douglas Wilder, a 1951 alumnus and Board member who served as Virginia’s first African-American governor (in fact, as the first African-American governor in the history of the nation).
In 1999, the Board named Dr. Bernard Wayne Franklin, president of St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina as Dr. Simmons’ successor. Under Dr. Franklin, VUU became the first historically black college in the nation to put in place a completely wired campus internet system. In 2003, Dr. Belinda Childress Anderson became the eleventh VUU President. Dr. Anderson established the VUU Museum of Art and the History Panels at the Wilder Library. On January 21, 2009, Dr. Claude Grandford Perkins took office at the Chief Executive position and became Virginia Union’s twelfth President. Under Dr. Perkins’ leadership the University Center for International Studies was established; and a favorable accreditation report was achieved by the University from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In terms of structural change: a stone monument commemorating the 34 VUU students arrested in the 1960 Sit- In was placed in front of the Martin E. Gray Building; and stained glass windows donated by Reverend Franklyn Richardson’s Grace Baptist Church congregation in Mt. Vernon, New York, depicting aspects of the history and mission of the University, were set into place at Coburn Chapel. Infused with a new dynamism and drawing strength from the very principles on which we were founded, Virginia Union University indeed looks ahead to: The Promise of a Limitless Future.
From the very beginning, Virginia Union students and faculty members were at the forefront. Pastor Richard Wells led the first-known civil rights protest march to meet President Andrew Johnson at the White House to report to him that African-Americans were being mistreated by former Confederates, who were trying to re-impose forms of slavery in Richmond. Mayor Joseph Mayo was fired as a result. Since the time of Wells, who was one of the first graduates of the institution while it was housed at Lumpkin’s Jail, Virginia Union alumni have distinguished themselves in fields of endeavor as diverse as: the Christian ministry; social activism; politics & government; journalism; sports & entertainment; education; the sciences and the military.
Education, Law, Public Service
Charles Spurgeon Johnson (class of 1916): became Director of Research & Investigation for the National Urban League, and editor of its publication: Opportunities: a Journal of Negro Life. In this capacity he was a major, guiding force in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, facilitating the careers of many notable Black artists, musicians, poets and writers. Johnson later served as president of Fisk University.
Eugene Kinckle Jones (’06): was a founder of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity; First Secretary of the National Urban League; and, along with such individuals as Dr. Mary MacLeod Bethune and A. Philip Randolph, a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unofficial “Black Cabinet” of advisors.
Dr. Benjamin Mays, who attended for one year but did not finish at VUU, became President at Morehouse College, where he was the mentor and role-model for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Henry L. Marsh, III , (’56) lawyer, served on Richmond City Council, became the first African-American mayor of Richmond in 1979, and was later elected to the Virginia State Senate.
Benjamin Lambert, III, (’59) also entered the legal profession and was elected to the Virginia Senate.
Dr. Jean Louise Harris (’51) went on to become the first African-American to graduate from the Medical College of Virginia; Virginia Secretary of Human Resources from 1978-82; and Mayor of Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
Dr. Spottswood Robinson, III (’37) was a major participant in the legal battles against segregation and racial bias and became Judge of the US Court of appeals for the district of Columbia.
Dr. Lucille Brown (’50) enjoyed a successful career as teacher and administrator in the Richmond Public Schools system and served as Richmond City Schools Superintendent.
John Merchant (’55) broke ground as the first African-American graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, and has gone onto practice law in Connecticut.
Curtis W. Harris (’55), pastor of Union Baptist Church in Hopewell, Virginia, was president of the Virginia Unit of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and first African-American mayor in history (of Hopewell).
The most distinguished political/public service career to date has of course been that of the Honorable Lawrence Douglas Wilder (’51), attorney, State Senator, Lieutenant-Governor, and Governor of Virginia from 1990-94.
Business, Science and the Military
Harlow Fullwood, Jr. (’77) became highly-successful franchise operator for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Inc.; founder of the Harlow Fullwood Foundation; and the author of an autobiography: Love Lifted Me: A Life’s Journey of Harlow Fullwood, Jr.
Osborne Allen Payne (’50) has prospered as the owner of Broadway-Payne, a MacDonald’s franchise business, and founded Associated Black Charities of Baltimore,Maryland.
Dr. Howard S. Jones, Jr. (’43) was one of the most prolific African-American inventors in the history of the United States, holding rights to no less than 31 patents. A specialist in the fields of Microwave Research and Electromagnetics, Dr. Jones held positions at the Department of the Army and the National Bureau of Standards.
Samuel Gravely (’48), president of the VUU International Alumni Association, capped a distinguished career of service in the US Navy by becoming the first African-American Admiral (holding the ranks of Rear & Vice Admiral) in the nation’s history.
Mary L. DePillars (’74) joined NationsBank and rose to become Senior Vice-President.
Dr. Yvonne Maddox (’65) was named Deputy Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1995; and five years later, Acting Deputy Director for the National Institute of Health.
Dr. Frank Royal (’61) served as president of the National Medical association and is currently Chair of the VUU Board of Trustees.
Athletics, Authorship and Activism
Since joining the CIAA as a charter member the University and its coaches & players have constantly been in the forefront of athletic achievement. The coaches have gone down as legends in their own time: Henry Hucles; Thomas “Tricky Tom” Harris; Dave Robbins; Willard Bailey. Some alumni athletes have gone on to distinguished careers in the professional leagues or in coaching. Among these there are currently three NBA stars: Charles Oakley; Terry Davis; and Ben Wallace (named defensive player of the year for 2002). Two of the greatest high school coaches in Richmond were alumni and spent their careers as archrivals: Fred “Cannonball” Cooper at Maggie Walker High School and Max Robinson, Sr. at Armstrong High School. Max Robinson, Sr.’s sons, also VUU students, went on to illustrious careers: Max Robinson, Jr. became the first African-American news anchorman for a major television network. Randall Robinson became a political and social activist, founding Trans-Africa, Inc., and authoring the best- selling books: The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks; Defending the Spirit; The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe to Each Other; Quitting America; and An Unbroke Agony.
Robert Deane Pharr (’37) (1916-1992), became a notable novelist; the author of The Book of Numbers; S.R.O.; The Soul Murder Case; and Giveadamn Brown.
Leslie Garland Bolling (’24) (1898-1955) was a wood sculptor whose works have received international acclaim.
Roslyn McCallister Brock (’87) went on to make an impact as Program associate for Health and Communications at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation; Director of Business & Community Developments for Bon Secours Richmond Health Systems; Vice Chair of the National NAACP; and then Chair of the National NAACP Board of Trustees.
Cherekka Montgomery (’95) is Director of Global Outreach and Senior Policy Analyst with the Feminist Majority Foundation, and the co-author of The African-American Education Data Book, Volume III: The Transition from School to College & School to Work.
Bessye Banks Bearden (1888-1943) who attended Hartshorn Memorial College for two years before graduating from Virginia State, became a noted journalist with the Chicago Defender and one of New York City’s most effective social activists and community Leaders. Along with her close friend, Mary McLeod Bethune, she was one of the primary omen involved in the switchover of most of the African-American political support from the Republican to the Democratic Party during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Leontine T. C. Kelly (’60) became the first woman of any major denomination to be Consecrated as a bishop (of the United Methodist Church of San Francisco in 1984).