Founder's Day Lecture
Washington & Lee University
19 January 2001

Thank you President Elrod. This is indeed quite an honor for me and quite a daunting responsibility. Before getting into my topic, however, I want to pause for a brief moment of personal reflection. I came here to work in August 1963, a couple months prior to my twentieth birthday. At that time I never dreamed of ever giving the Founder's Day address. The journey has been a long one for both me and the college. My own life and personal circumstances have changed a great deal during the last 38 years. The University has desegregated, adding both students of color and women. The changes in my own life have been nearly as slow as the changes in the university. But we continue to move ahead. Thank you President Elrod, for giving me this opportunity.

I would also thank my wife Pat and son Damien for their patience and endless sacrifices. Most of Damien's life he has known me as a student, rather than a bread winner. I would also thank members of both the biology and history departments. You have been good mentors, good colleagues, and good friends. This is a special day, and a frightening one because I am attempting to address about 400 of my very closest friends.

John Chavis: Washington & Lee's First African American Student

My first encounter with John Chavis came as an undergraduate. I was reading Clement Eaton's book, The Mind of the Old South, and came upon these words:

"The Reverend John Chavis, a free Negro who taught a famous school for white children in the 1830s in Raleigh, North Carolina. . . . received an education in the classics and rhetoric in Washington Academy (now Washington & Lee University) and according to tradition had also studied at Princeton as a private pupil of President Witherspoon."

That was a very exciting moment for me, as it would be for any African American student. Here was a prominent free man of color who had received an education at my college! And yet, John Chavis was one of Washington & Lee's best kept secrets. No one ever talked about him, and there were no plaques or buildings commemorating him. Yet, he is important and deserves a more visible place in the history of the college.

Chavis arrived at Liberty Hall Academy in 1795, one year prior to George Washington's gift of 100 shares of James River Company Stock. He was a student when the institution changed its name to Washington Academy. More important, he became the most prominent free black in North Carolina during the antebellum period. "Intellectually, he was inferior to few North Carolinians," writes historian John Hope Franklin. Historian Francis Butler Simpkins reports that John Chavis was "a dark brown man who distinguished himself as a Presbyterian minister in Virginia and North Carolina and as a teacher who prepared well-born North Carolinians for College. As an undergraduate, I quickly discovered that almost all southern history books contained at least one brief reference to Chavis.

Chavis was born in 1763 in Granville County, North Carolina, and he died in 1838. He was a proud man who had served in the American Revolution, and he described himself as a "free bron American and a Revolutionary War soldier." His name appears on the roster of Virginia Soldiers of the American Revolution which lists his home as Mecklenberg, Virginia. There are no records that document his early life, therefore it is unclear whether the Chavis family moved to Virginia between 1763 and the beginning of the American Revolution. There is one facet of his early life that is clear: Chavis was a deeply religious man, who had been evangelized by the Presbyterian Church, and his spiritual journey would lead him to study at the College of New Jersey and Liberty Hall Academy--both Presbyterian schools.

Presbyterian ministers worked hard to evangelize black southerners during the early national period, particularly in Virginia. And they must have had a powerful effect on Chavis. Like many Americans of the Revolutionary Era, most Presbyterian ministers viewed slavery as inconsistent with the principles of the American republic. They favored the principle of universal liberty and prayed for a final abolition. But Presbyterians refused to advocate immediate emancipation. Instead the Church warned that the transition from slavery to freedom required education. Without education, they argued, freed slaves would most certainly represent a danger to the community. And some free blacks did receive formal schooling. Historian John Hope Franklin found as many as 217 free blacks in schools in North Carolina as late as 1850, in spite of laws prohibiting their education.

In addition to his religious piety, John Chavis demonstrated a love for rhetoric and classics at an early age. Ultimately, he decided to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry at the College of New Jersey. Chavis arrived there in 1792, and he studied as a private student of the college president, John Witherspoon who usually tutored one or two African Americans and several Native American students. Chavis transferred to Liberty Hall Academy after Dr. Witherspoon's 1794 death. He arrived in Lexington in 1795; he was thirty-two years old. Unfortunately, we simply do not know what kind of experiences he had at Liberty Hall, but life in western Virginia could not have been very different from life in New Jersey. Both states were slave states during the 1790s, and southern race relations were much more relaxed than they would be after the abolitionist crusade in the 1830s.

Chavis's first year at Liberty Hall was the last year that the Reverend William Graham served as rector. Graham was a highly opinionated man who, among other things, opposed the United States Constitution and distrusted its framers. He was also an outspoken proslavery apologist. Between 1780 and 1796, Graham annually defended slavery in lectures to his senior classes at Liberty Hall. He argued that the New Testament did not condemn slavery, ant that Christianity was not meant "to alter the political or civil stat of men". Its only purpose was to bring men to the love of God and a better understanding of their responsibilities on earth. Graham referred to black slaves as savages and argued that they were unfit for liberty. (from William J. Cooper's Liberty and Slavery). Apparently, Graham found free born blacks like Chavis much more acceptable. Whatever the relationship between Chavis and Graham, it lasted only one year. Graham resigned in 1796 in hopes of improving his financial prospects by moving to the west.

Unfortunately, John Chavis did not leave a diary or memoir describing his life in Lexington or his years as a student at Washington Academy. But the Minutes of the Lexington Presbytery report that "John Chavis a black man personally known to most members of the Presbytery & of unquestionably good fame, & a communicant in the Presbyterian Church was introduced and conversde with relative to his practical acquaintance with living religion [and his] call to preach the everlasting gospel." The Presbytery administered a rigorous theological examination that began on 11 June 1800 and ended on 19 November when they granted him a license to preach.

In April 1802 the clerk of the Rockbridge County Court noted that John Chavis had applied for freedmen's papers, and he wrote the following:

"On the motion of Reverend John Chavis, a black man. It is ordered that the clerk of this court certify that the said [John] Chavis has been known to the Court for several year. . . and that he has always. . . been considered as a freeman, and they believe him to be such, and that he has always while in the county conducted himself in a decent orderly and respectable manner, and also that he has been a student at Washington Accademy [sic] where they believe he whent [sic] through a regular course of accademical [sic] studies."

That same year the Lexington Presybtery released Chavis to work under the care of the Hanover Presbytery and recommended him, "as a man of exemplary piety and . . . many qualifications which merit attention."

By 1809 Chavis was living in Raleigh, North Carolina where he became a licentiate under the care of the Orange Presbytery. He was a circuit riding missionary, and he converted both whites and blacks. Chavis gained the trust of the most prominent white families, many of whom were slaveholders. He preached in their churches and visited in their homes. The Presbytery never assigned Chavis to a parish, and he had to find other ways of supporting himself. So, he opened a school in his home where the taught both white and black children. At first he taught both races together, but after white parents objected, he taught white children during the day and black children in the evenings. He charged white students $2.50 per quarter, and black students $1.75 per quarter. Some of his more notable white students were North Carolina Whig Senator Willie P. Mangum, North Carolina Governor Charles Manly, and New Mexico Governor Abram Rencher. None of the names of his African American students survive, but historian John Hope Franklin observes there were many given the fact that he conducted a school for free blacks for nearly thirty years. The Raleigh Register provided this account of Chavis's efforts in 1830:

"On Friday last, we attended an examination of the free children of color, attached to the school of John Chavis, also colored, but a regularly educated Presbyterian Minister, and we have seldom received more gratification from an exhibition of a similar character. The exercises throughout, evinced a degree of attention and assiduous care on the part of the instructor, highly credible, and of attainment on the part of his scholars almost incredible. We are also much pleased with the sensible address which closed the examination. The object of the respectable teacher, was to impress on the scholars, the fact, that they occupied an inferior and subordinate status in society and were possessed of but limited privileges; but that even they might become useful in their particular sphere, by making a proper improvement of the advantages offered them."

The language is paternalistic and degrading to the twenty-first century ear, but the central message of this passage is important. Chavis was doing all he could to prepare free black children to face the challenges of the 1830s.

Chavis continued to live as the most prominent free black in North Carolina, but his live changed dramatically after the1831 raid of Nat Turner in South Hampton County, Virginia. The legislature in Noth Carolina quickly enacted laws restricting black religion and literacy. Chavis explained the problem to the Orange Presbytery who formally resolved to "recommend [that he] acquiesce in the decision of the Legislature until God in his providence shall open to him the path of duty in regard to the exercise of his ministry." John Chavis was already 69 years old at the time, but he needed the income from his ministry and his school. At this point the Presbytery began to solicit annual contributions for the support of Chavis and his wife. Relying on charity was not a new experience; at earlier times he had secured financial assistance from Senator Mangum and other. In 1825, Mangum had helped him secure renewal on a bank loan for $270. Later he asked Mangum to pay the interest of $30. Chavis was always able to turn to prominent white friends when he was in need, and usually they were generous.

Historian Ira Berlin has observed that there were a few southern free blacks who equaled John Chavis in literacy and financial status, but most were extremely conservative. Chavis's views represent an enormous challenge for the historian who happens to be African American. He lived during a difficult time, and he did very little to challenge his white peers. Until 1831, John Chavis's experiences seemed far more typical of the eighteenth century, a time when race relations were more fluid. Already in his late sixties in 1831, he belonged to a different generation than David Walker or Frederick Douglass. And he filled a necessary service in the South that few others were providing---the education of free blacks. His views were profoundly conservative prior to 1831, but seemed to become more reactionary after he lost his livelihood.

Like many southern conservatives, he linked the Nat Turner insurrection to the abolitionists. In an 1836 letter to Senator Mangum, Chavis worte, "immediate emancipation would be to entail the greatest earthly curse upon my brethern that could be conferred. . . I suppose if they knew I said this they would be ready to take my life, but as I wish them well I feel no disposition to see them any more miserable than they are." Chavis knew the result of immediate emancipation would be poverty and great uncertainty. But these views have deeper roots than 1831.

In 1805, Chavis met a well-educated black woman and afterwards noted, "I joined with this my sister in saying that it is truly a matter of thankfulness to the black people, that they were brought to this country for I believe thousands of them will have reason to rejoice for it in the ages of eternity." Some evangelical Christians believed eternal salvation was one of the blessings of African slavery in the New World, and Chavis's statement only mirrors this view.

The 1836 letter is particularly troubling because Chavis was reacting to an abolitionist petition that demanded emancipation in the District of Columbia. He wrote Senator Mangum:

"I am of the opinion that Congress has no more right to pass such a law than I have to go to your house and take Orange and bring him home and keep him as my servant. And I am astonished that the members of Congress act so much like a parcel of mullets nibling at bait upon fish hooks. Why don't they act like men who---come up boldly to the subject of those petitions and put their feet upon them and stampt them to the centre of the earth, in such a manner, that all the poweres on earth never could be able to raise them again. . . . That Slavery is a national evil no one doubts, but what is to be done? It exists and what can be done with it? All that can be done, is to make the best of a bad bargain."

Historian Clement Eaton called Chavis a striking example of the attitude of black accommodation. John Hope Franklin called him a practical man. His views were both pragmatic and conservative. Chavis voted until 1835, and his political ideology evolved from that of an ardent Federalist and Hamiltonian to a Whig, who supported a protective tariff, internal improvements, and renewal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States. More important, Chavis had lived and worked during a time when white Southerners had more liberal views toward blacks. Unfortunately, Chavis lived to see race relations become worse rather than better. Chavis's political views were clear---he advocated education for blacks and accommodation with southern white people. Clement Eaton has correctly called him the forerunner of Booker T. Washington. When John Chavis's life came to an end, John Hope Franklin observes, he could look backward on years of active service to various communities in North Carolina. "The effect which he had upon the intellectual development was war reaching, and was doubtless salutary on both whites and free blacks."

John Chavis is one of the most extraordinary students in the history of this college. We need to do more to honor his memory. Perhaps this is a beginning.



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