The People

Thanks to Darrell Laurant for allowing us to use text below from his book,
Inspiration Street.

Click here to see more about the book.


It is the very ordinariness of the street as a whole that makes the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce … remarkable. Buried in old downtown like a gold nugget encased in a chunk of rock, they offer nothing less than magic.

In recent years, Pierce Street has finally begun to receive its due. Eight historic markers now line its sidewalks, a density of homage unparalleled in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Five of those plaques honor individuals who contributed to the street’s mystique—poet Anne Spencer, her son Chauncey (one of the originators of the Tuskegee Airmen), tennis coach and physician Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, innovative educator and local politician C. W. Seay, and Frank Trigg, born into slavery but later the head of three colleges.

Perhaps the best way to emphasize that is simply to list some of the luminaries who have set foot there:

Iconic black writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois. James Weldon Johnson, an early leader of the NAACP. U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. Poet Langston Hughes. Singers Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. Agricultural pioneer George Washington Carver. Longtime congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who spent the first night of his honeymoon there. World-class tennis players Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. Sen. Carter Glass, co-founder of the Federal Reserve System. Influential journalist H. L. Mencken. Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Lionel Hampton. Duke Ellington. Maya Angelou. And, not least, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

All part of the rich life story of an out-of-the-way street in an out-of-the-way city.

The Sad Song of Ota Benga

Given all the low points in the history of race relations in America—slavery, segregation, riots, lynchings—it would be difficult to choose one of them as the lowest.

Yet here is a strong candidate for that dubious honor: In September of 1906, thousands of New York City residents swarmed through the gates of the New York Zoological Park (popularly known as the Bronx Zoo) to gape at an African pygmy. In a cage.

Ota Benga had been purchased from slave traders in the Congo and brought to the United States by an explorer/missionary named Samuel Phillips Verner. Somehow, through a series of circumstances that remain cloudy even today, he was eventually turned over to the New York zoo for safekeeping—and perhaps even the opportunity for employment.

Pamela Newkirk described quite vividly in her 2015 book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.

“Like the orangutans and the monkeys, he was at the mercy of the keepers, who decided when he could enter the building and avoid the crowds. Until then, he was unavoidably on display and, like his housemates, subjected to the disquieting hysteria and stares of a seemingly endless stream of spectators.

“Benga became the object of pointing fingers, audible gasps, and bellowing laughter. Alone and locked in a monkey house cage, he could, in the September Indian summer heat, smell the stench of ape feces, urine, and musk laced with the foreign odors of hundreds of spectators packed into his steamy, cramped quarters. He did not initially comprehend their language, but could feel both the sting of their scorn and the pang of their pity. In their wide eyes he could see his humanity, like one’s image in a fun house mirror, monstrously distorted.”

It doesn’t get any worse than that.

For some might argue that interracial violence in America has at least sprung from a human context. Hating a certain group of strangers enough to want to kill them is usually a reflection of fear. And buried though it may be, fear is at least a twisted form of respect.

Ota Benga, however, was summarily demoted to the status of a lesser species. Later, in Lynchburg, the long-term effects of that humiliation became all too obvious.

The degree to which Africans themselves contributed to the practice of slavery is not always acknowledged, but they were essential to the process. It was, after all, hardly practical for European slavers to wander about the Dark Continent hoping to capture future chattel. In most cases, their “cargo” had already been collected and was waiting for them.

Sometimes, those slaves-to-be had been the losers in inter-tribal warfare. Indeed, from the perspective of the winners, the slave merchants represented a golden opportunity. Not only would they bring goods to exchange for captives, they would transport those rival tribesmen back across the ocean, never again to pose a threat.

These practices continued even after slavery had been abolished in western countries like the United States. And when Samuel Phillips Verner visited the Congo in 1902, hoping to fulfill a contract with the St. Louis World’s Fair to deliver pygmies for an anthropological exhibit, he knew just where to look.

Ann van de Graaf, a Lynchburg artist and art gallery owner, has immersed herself in the Ota Benga story. In her brief pamphlet “Ota Benga and the Pygmies: An Ongoing Story,” she set the stage for Verner’s arrival:

“The Congo was a colony created by Leopold II, king of Belgium. He was a despot who carried out terrible atrocities through his state militia, called the Force Publique, in order to plunder the country for his own financial gain.

“At first the Pgymies were not affected, but later they were forced to hunt elephants for their ivory. Even Ota Benga suffered from the cruelties of the Force Publique. One day, upon his return from a hunting expedition, he found his village devastated and his wife and two children slaughtered. Ota charged at the Force Publique captain, only to be disarmed, tortured and taken captive. He was bound and put up for sale in the slave market of the Baschilele people.”

Ota Benga was a member of the Batwa tribe, and stood about 4-foot-10—not circus-sideshow tiny, but obviously undersized for an adult male human. According to van de Graaf, Verner found him in the Baschilele slave market and purchased him for “salt and a length of cloth.”

In her book, Pamela Newkirk accuses Verner of overly dramatizing this event, elevating it from a mere transaction to a daring rescue from “cannibals.” In some of his previous writing, Verner had described the Baschilele as “friendly.”

Ota Benga did make it to St. Louis, along with several other pygmies whom Verner had acquired. They joined hundreds of other “primitive peoples” who were placed on display, including Igorots from the Phillipines, Eskimos from the Aleutian Islands, and American Indians—among them Geronimo, who signed autographs.

If this was intended as an expansion of the public’s scientific knowledge, that noble ambition was quickly sabotaged by the media of the day, no doubt in collusion with fair officials hoping to hype attendance.

The Igorots spent nearly a week on the front pages of newspapers across the country when it was announced that six dogs—supposedly their favorite food—would be provided for them as a “feast.”

Nor did the dietary habits of the pygmies escape conjecture. Wrote Newkirk:

Benga and his fellow Congolese … proved enormously popular from the start. Even beforehand, there had been sensationalized news reports about them. Days before their arrival, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had begun to exoticize them: ‘Red pygmies and black, the dwarf tribesmen, concerning whom less is known than that of any other people on the face of the earth, come to St. Louis the first of their kind who ever visited the Western Hemisphere.’
That article, said Newkirk, included a “long list of ‘Queer Facts,’ ” among them “They are reported to practice cannibalism” and “If caught young they are said to make excellent servants.”

Some of these erroneous reports. Newkirk added, may have been planted by Verner.

Whatever the source of this titillating background, Ota Benga’s filed teeth naturally attracted lurid speculation. An article in the Post-Dispatch’s Sunday magazine started out: “Have you seen Otabenga’s teeth? They’re worth the 5 cents he charges for showing them. Otabenga is a cannibal, the only genuine cannibal in America today.”

Even Scientific American weighed in by referring to Ota Benga’s alleged cannibalism, adding that his “coarse features” indicated “an intelligence of a very low order.”

Given all this, and the nearly constant attention from the fair-going masses, the St. Louis exposition must have seemed interminable for Ota Benga and the other “primitive peoples.” But it finally ended, and Verner then fulfilled an earlier promise to return Ota Benga to his native village, where he re-married. The situation with the Belgian overlords had become even more threatening, however (by that time, reports about the abuse suffered by Congolese natives were appearing regularly in the American press), and when Ota Benga’s second wife died from a snakebite, he asked Verner to take him back to America.

“Verner packed up several crates of minerals, plants, animals, and artifacts,” wrote Ann van de Graaf. “Ota Benga took a bow, some arrows, and a chimpanzee. By the beginning of August 1906, they were back in New York City.”

By then, Verner’s travels had all but exhausted the money he had received from the World’s Fair organizers, and he soon discovered that Ota Benga was becoming an expensive companion. At first, he arranged for him to stay at the Museum of Natural History in New York, where he “had free range of the museum building and helped the guards.”

At the same time, Verner was negotiating with museum director Hermon Bumpus for a job, as well as the purchase of some of his African artifacts. But after first expressing interest, Bumpus ultimately backed away from any arrangement. Meanwhile, Ota Benga was growing restless with his indoor existence, on one occasion attempting to escape by blending in with the crowd leaving the building.

At this point, Bronx Zoo director William Temple Hornaday offered to step into the breach. And Verner saw a way out of his predicament.
According to one later chronicler:

When Ota was presented to Director Hornaday of the Bronx Zoological Gardens, Hornaday’s intention was clearly to “display” Ota. Hornaday maintained the hierarchical view of races. Large-brained animals were to him … the best evolution had to offer. This believer in the Darwinian theory also concluded that there exists a close analogy of the African savage to the apes.” At first Ota was free to wander around the zoo, helping out with the care of the animals, but this was soon to drastically change.

Ota was next encouraged to spend as much time as he wanted inside the monkey house. He was even given a bow and arrow and was encouraged to shoot it as part of “an exhibit.” Ota was soon locked in his enclosure—and when he was let out of the monkey house, the crowd stayed glued to him, and a keeper stayed close by. In the meantime, the publicity began—on September 9, the New York Times headline screamed, ‘Bushman shares a cage with the Bronx Park apes.’ Although the director, insisted that he was merely offering an “intriguing exhibit” for the public’s edification, he ‘apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little Black man; [and] for the first time in any American zoo, a human being was displayed in a cage. Benga was given cage-mates to keep him company in his captivity—a parrot and an Orangutan named Dohong.

The larger racial implications of this spectacle were not lost on a group of ministers (of both races) who demanded an audience first with Hornaday, then with New York mayor George McClellan (who refused to see them, even though they gathered outside his office).

“The person responsible for this exhibition,” said the Rev. R. S. MacArthur, a white man who was pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church, “degrades himself as much as he does the African. Instead of making a beast of this little fellow, we should be putting him in school for the development of such powers as God gave him.”

With all of this, Ota Benga began to seem like a diminishing asset to Hornaday. The pygmy himself was becoming harder to handle, most visitors who were anxious to see him had already done so, and public opinion was shifting. Like any institution that depended on the patronage of the public, negative publicity was anathema, and a stinging editorial in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal only exacerbated the situation,

At first, Hornaday tried to get Verner to reclaim “his” pygmy, but the explorer was living in North Carolina and not inclined to replicate his previous predicament. So despite his annoyance with his ministerial tormentors, the zoo director finally agreed to allow the Rev. James H. Gordon to place Ota Benga in the Brooklyn-based Howard Colored Orphan Asylum.

Thus began the next chapter of Ota Benga’s odyssey, and brought Lynchburg—and Pierce Street—into the picture.

Although Benga demonstrated an aptitude for learning the English language and an apparent willingness to be socialized while at the orphanage, he was obviously an adult, and thus out of place among children. It was the Rev. William Henry Moses, a New York minister and Virginia Theological Seminary graduate, who suggested that he be moved from the orphanage to Lynchburg.

Virginia Seminary president Gregory Hayes had already become involved in the Pan African movement, due in large part to his acquaintance with John Chilembwe, a previous Seminary student who became a revolutionary leader in the nation of Malawi. When contacted by Moses, Hayes not only agreed to enroll Ota Benga in school, but make room for him at the house he and Mary and their children shared.

By all accounts, Ota Benga was happier there. The weather was warmer, the setting more rural than urban, and the Hayes’ home was surrounded by woods where he could wander with his bow and arrow.

Since Mary Hayes and Anne Spencer were close friends, it was only natural that Anne spent some time tutoring the visiting pygmy in English. But this was cut short when Gregory Hayes became seriously ill with the disease that would claim his life at the age of 44. Ota Benga was returned to the orphanage.

Four years later, however, he was back in Lynchburg, this time for six years. Shaun Hester has seen evidence that Benga may have actually lived for a brief time in the quarters above the Calloway & Spencer store on Pierce Street, a story often told by Chauncey Spencer. Pamela Newkirk disagrees. Either way, the little African must have been a common sight along the block as he traveled to Anne Spencer’s house for his lessons.

Overall, in fact, he seemed to be adjusting well to his new setting. He took classes in the Seminary’s elementary school, had his own room in the home of Mary Hayes Allen and her new husband (lawyer William Allen), and got a job at a local tobacco factory, where he amazed his supervisors and coworkers with his ability to scurry up to the rafters on ropes and bring down sheaves of tobacco leaves without needing a ladder.

Meanwhile, he had acquired something of an entourage. Wrote Pamela Newkirk:

Often barefoot, though wearing western clothes, Benga would lead a band of boys—including the three Hayes boys and Anne Spencer’s son Chauncey—and teach them the secrets of the forest, including how to shave the tips of hickory wood to sharp points to make spears, or how to make bows from vines. With Benga, the boys also learned how to gather blackberries and spear fish. The man they called Otto Bingo also taught them how to hunt wild turkeys and squirrels with a bow and arrow and how to trap small animals.

In Benga they found an open and patient teacher, a beloved companion, and a remarkably agile athlete who sprinted and leaped over logs like a boy. And with his young companions, Benga could uninhibitedly relive memories of a lost and longed-for life and retreat to woods that recalled home.

Benga’s special joy was participating in hog-killing season in Central Virginia, another echo of his past identity as a hunter. Still, his life was not completely idyllic, for he could not escape the racial attitudes of the time. On one occasion, he ventured into the wrong neighborhood and was pelted with rocks by white teenagers.

Eventually, however, the novelty of American life began to unravel, and it became painfully obvious that Ota Benga missed his native Congo.

“By 1916,” Newkirk wrote, “something had changed. Benga was no longer the eager friend of the neighborhood children. He had lost interest in their excursions to the surrounding woods to hunt or to fish in nearby steams. Many had noticed his darkening disposition, his all-consuming longing to go home. For hours he would sit alone in silence under a tree.”

For the door between Benga and his homeland had slammed shut. His tribe had been dispersed. Germany’s conquest of Belgium in the Great European War had pried loose the iron grip of Leopold on his colonies but left only chaos in his wake. Even if Benga could have found the money for passage back across the Atlantic, the war had temporarily halted all passenger shipping.

On the late afternoon of March 19, 1916, Ota Benga built a fire in the field between his adopted home and the Seminary buildings. He removed the civilizing caps on his pointed teeth and launched himself into a gyrating, spinning dance, chanting and singing mournfully in his native tongue as he twirled. That night, he entered a small shed behind Mammy Joe’s store on Garfield Street, where he had apparently hidden a pistol. Then, while Lynchburg slept, he fired a bullet through his heart.

Even in death, Ota Benga was restless. He was originally buried in the Old City Cemetery next to his benefactor, Gregory Hayes. Later, apparently because of a dispute between Mary Hayes Allen and the cemetery, the remains of both were exhumed and reinterred, most likely in the White Rock Hill Cemetery across town. That burial ground eventually fell into disrepair, and there is now no remaining marker for either Hayes or Ota Benga.

Once again, Ota Benga had become lost.

In 2006, Ann van de Graaf organized a Lynchburg symposium on Ota Benga’s life. Speakers included Phillips Verner Bradford, the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner and author of Ota Benga: “The Pgymy in the Zoo”; Carrie Allen McCay, daughter of Mary Hayes Allen, who wrote a book of poems titled Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, and Dibinga Wa Said, a native of the Congo who graduated from Harvard and was then the head of the Boston-based Pan African Council.

On his visit to Lynchburg, Said vowed to find Otas Benga’s remains and return them to Africa. Ultimately, he failed.

Said Carrie McCray: “Ota … had a profound influence on our mother and Harlem Renaissance poets and writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. They, too, were interested and joined the Pan-African movement, a movement uniting those persons of African descent from around the world.”

She also recalled her brother, Hunter, saying of Ota Benga: “He was like a father to me, my friend, my teacher, my hero, who knew more about the meaning of humanity than the missionary who brought him over here.”
That missionary, recalled grandson Phillips Verner Bradford, often talked about Ota Benga in his later years. And when he did, he sometimes wept.

Read more

Amaza Lee Meredith: A Flower Through the Sidewalk.

Amaza Lee Meredith should have known she couldn’t become an architect. As a black woman in the 1920s, she was disqualified on two counts from following her chosen profession, effectively barred from sources of education that might have given her credibility.

She didn’t care. The daughter of a man who designed things for a living, Meredith simply declared herself an architect and went about her business. To build her skill, she started out working with friends and relatives who weren’t overly concerned with her credentials, or lack of them.

And in the end, like a dandelion pushing its way up through a sidewalk, she raised her head above the societal barricade and earned grudging respect.

Meredith and her mother lived for a time on the second floor of the Calloway-Spencer Store, the same space that may have briefly sheltered Ota Benga. She and Anne Spencer were not only acquaintances, but linked by marriage—Edward Spencer’s brother Nelson (better known as “Uncle Shelly”) married Cora Belle Meredith, Amaza’s sister.

Amaza’s father, Samuel Peter Meredith, was white, and a master stair builder. Her mother, Emma Kenney, was black. Prohibited by Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws from marrying, Samuel and Emma took a train to Washington—riding in separate segregated cars—for their ceremony.

Back in Lynchburg, Samuel soon discovered the steep price he would have to pay for crossing the racial divide. His business began to dry up, bringing financial challenges to the family, and in 1915, he committed suicide.

The same year, Amaza graduated from high school, a juxtaposition of events that must have been traumatic. Nevertheless, she embarked on what was then a traditional path for unmarried females of her era—teaching first at a one-room schoolhouse in the Botetourt County hamlet of Indian Rock, then at an elementary school in Lynchburg. At Indian Rock, Meredith organized a parent-teacher association to help fix problems she saw in the school system, working in conjunction with the Negro Organization Society of Virginia.

It also became obvious to her that her career as an educator would ultimately be still-born unless she went forward with her own education. So she enrolled at the Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute in Petersburg (later Virginia State), graduated as the valedictorian of her senior class in 1922, and returned to Lynchburg to teach mathematics at Dunbar High School.

Still, life in a small southern city could be smothering for someone, like Meredith, with the heart and instincts of an artist. Wanting and needing more, she moved to Brooklyn in 1926 and enrolled in the Teacher’s College at Columbia University. After earning undergraduate honors in 1930, she added a master’s in 1934.

By that point, Lynchburg was in her rear view mirror, although she often visited her sister there and maintained a lifelong friendship with Anne Spencer. Now that she had tasted the New York art scene, however, there was no going back.

In 1935, Meredith took her Columbia degrees to Petersburg, where she became an art professor at what was then the Virginia State College for Negroes. It was that institution that would come to define the rest of her life, in many ways.

Like many black colleges in the first half of the twentieth century, Virginia State offered something of a blank slate to an enterprising educator. Not only was Meredith its first—and only—art instructor, but she became the chairman of a one-woman art department. Unafraid of her superiors, she frequently complained about the primitive conditions of her studio and teaching area—especially the lack of running water.

Meredith was also an artist in her own right, and her paintings are still exhibited by galleries and museums in Virginia, New York, and other places.

It was at Virginia State that she met Edna Colson, the chairman of the education department. The two became friends, then inseparable, and eventually moved in together.

As one historian noted: “While never explicitly referred to by themselves or others as lesbians, by reading through their correspondence and seeing the life they shared together, it can be safely assumed that (Colson and Meredith) were indeed romantic partners.”

In a way, Meredith was following in her father’s footsteps, embarking quite openly on a relationship that was frowned upon by the social mores of the day. Rather than finding a discreet place for her and Colson to live together, Meredith set about building a one-of-a-kind house that would eventually wind up on the National Historic Register.

It is called Azurest South, completed in 1938, and now serves as the Alumni House at Virginia State. According to an article in the college’s alumni bulletin, “Azurest South is a significant landmark of African American material culture and design, and is one of Virginia’s few mature examples of the International Style, a style that espoused a complete break with architectural traditions. This house, a five-room, single-story dwelling, functioned in part as a design laboratory and studio for Ms. Meredith, and was thought to be ‘one of the most advanced residential designs in the state in its day.’

“Considering the overwhelming dominance of traditional architecture in Virginia, Ms. Meredith’s modern achievement at Azurest was quite advanced. Combine that with her lack of formal architectural training and the fact that she was a female architect in a male-dominated profession, her accomplishments are all the more remarkable. Azurest South demonstrates Ms. Meredith’s fascination with the avant-garde design, her familiarity with modern materials and construction details, and her courage in expressing non-traditional ideas in the public eye of the state’s first land grant college for African Americans.”

From another account: “The exterior has a smooth stucco finish with curved corners and industrial-type windows. Bands of glass block round the corners of the bedroom wing. The copings and rails that line the flat roof as well as the columns and carport roof are painted an eye-catching turquoise that Meredith referred to as ‘Azurest blue.’ The limited pattern of exterior materials explodes on the interior with an unexpected mix of colors and finishes. The multicolor, metal fleck, vinyl tiles, Carrara glass, acoustic tile, mosaic tiles, and the board finishes specified by Meredith were the most current interior finishes available.”

At the time, Virginia architecture was going through a Colonial Revival Period inspired by the restoration of Williamsburg. The few traditionalists who even noticed Azurest South simply scratched their heads.

As architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson observed, “Extremely controversial because of its advanced design, it was scarcely appreciated by anybody.”

Then, too, Meredith did not possess the cache of the traditional architect. She hadn’t attended the right schools or learned her trade under the right mentors.

From all the evidence, however, she was unruffled by any criticism of Azurest South. With no one to please but herself, she had allowed her imagination free rein.

Besides Edna Colson, Meredith also had a strong ally in her sister, Maude Terry. It was Maude who opened the door for the next stage of her sister’s career, as Audrey Peterson described in the magazine Hamptons:

Around 1947, Maude Terry looked at the land along Sag Harbor Bay on Long Island and had a vision—to create a summer community there for African Americans. Terry, along with her sister Amaza Lee Meredith, an art professor at what was then called Virginia State College for Negroes, developed 120 lots into what they called Azurest North, now known simply as Azurest. The lots sold for $1,000 on the bay; less inland. Although black folks had been summering on the East End for some years, Azurest spurred a steady tradition of vacation-home ownership there that continues to this day.

Drive around Sag Harbor Hills or any of the other four historic black communities in Sag Harbor—Azurest, Ninevah Beach, Eastville, and Hillcrest Terrace—and note the street names. They hold the history. There is Terry Drive and Meredith Avenue, for the enterprising sisters; Richards Drive was named after Terry’s son-in-law. There is also a Pickens Place.

“It’s a sign on our property, and it’s unofficial,” William (Bill) Pickens III, said. Pickens has been living on the East End for 65 years and can trace his local roots to an aunt, an English teacher at Tuskegee Institute, who knew Booker T. Washington and began vacationing in Sag Harbor in 1902. His grandfather, Dr. William Pickens Sr., was one of the first black graduates of Yale Law School; his son also made his way to Sag Harbor.

The 76-year-old Pickens is a keen historian, not only of his family, but also of the area. “There is a Paul Robeson Street. Robeson came here,” says Pickens of the singer and civil rights activist. “Several black artists and musicians did. Langston Hughes used to come out in the 1950s and stayed at my parents’ house, read poems on their porch. He was a college roommate of my father’s and an old pal of my mother’s. He even wrote her a poem back in 1925.”

The inescapable Harlem Renaissance connection, filtered through Amaza Lee Meredith and back to Pierce Street.

It is even rumored that Meredith might have provided the plans for the Spencers’ Edankraal. Certainly, given her connections with the family and her eagerness to experiment with design, it is not unlikely that she might at least have weighed in on the project ahead of time.

Meredith died in 1984. In 2014, a mosaic tile she had given to Anne Spencer was placed on Virginia’s “Top 10 List of Endangered Artifacts.”

Said Shaun Spencer Hester: “It is especially designed and personalized by Meredith and themed with Spencer’s published poem ‘Lines To A Nasturtium.’ The tile work is an independent piece of art that once covered the walls in ‘Azurest South.’”

For years, the tile hung over the fireplace mantle at 1313 Pierce. But, added Hester in 2014, “Recently, we had to take it down because it is deteriorating. The tile is breaking and it is powdery.”

But not the memory it contains.

Read more


Frank Trigg: One Arm, Three Colleges

No one would ever argue that losing an arm can be fortunate. In the case of Frank Trigg, though, it was a definite turning point, and he made the most of it.

Born a slave in the Virginia Governor’s Mansion in 1850 (his parents were servants to Gov. John Floyd), Trigg lost his arm in a farm accident at the age of 13. Although the nature and circumstances of the injury have been lost in history (it may have involved threshing), the slave owner supposedly remarked that since the young man “was no more good with his hands,” he’d see “how good he could be with his head.”

From that point on, Frank immersed himself in books. After the Civil War and an early education in Richmond, he enrolled at what was then Hampton Normal and Educational Institute, where he became a close friend of Booker T. Washington.

Washington was also a Virginian, brought up on a plantation in Franklin County. He came to Hampton from the coal mines of West Virginia, famously walking all the way to enroll, and later became a controversial figure among black intellectuals for urging those of his race to better themselves educationally before fighting the battles of integration and equal voting rights.

Frank Trigg, for his part, seemed focused primarily on education. After graduating from Hampton, he migrated first to Abingdon and then to Lynchburg, where he became the city’s first African American teacher, then a high school principal. In 1902, he was hired by Princess Anne Academy, which later evolved into Maryland-Eastern-Shore University.

According to an article on Trigg published by UMES in 2011, The Colored American, which billed itself as the National Negro Newspaper, published a front-page profile on February 7, 1903, praising Trigg as a forward-thinking educator.

“He will finally win his way to the front of the field of education among his people,” the paper quoted Hampton Institute founder Samuel C. Armstrong as saying.

Trigg came to the Academy during a national movement to develop agricultural instruction at historically black schools. He saw education as a means to even out the playing field and felt strongly about encouraging land and home ownership. In addition to science, he taught the Bible, child psychology, hygiene, literature, pedagogy, and geography.

Trigg presided over the Academy’s first four-year class to graduate in 1904; it consisted of nine students. By 1906, enrollment had grown to 188 students. A man considered ahead of his time, he believed in educating boys and girls equally and made sure his students—as well as his 11 children—received the best education available.

In 1910, Trigg returned to Lynchburg to lead the Virginia Collegiate and Industrial Institute, eventually absorbed into Baltimore’s Morgan State College. Morgan’s white president, John Oakley Spencer, called Trigg “a teacher of ability, a good disciplinarian, and accomplishes his work with little friction.”

In 1915, Frank Trigg became president of Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he remained until his retirement in 1926. In his last years there, he presided over the school’s transition from a co-ed to an all-female school.

In the early 1920s, Trigg became embroiled in a brief controversy when he banned the NAACP newspaper, The Crisis, from the Bennett campus for fear of alienating the school’s white Methodist supporters.

Frank Trigg and Amelia Pride have much in common—a love of education, a common resting place (Lynchburg’s Old City Cemetery), and Hampton University. At one point, they were also the principals of Lynchburg’s two black high schools.

Besides the plaque on Pierce Street, Trigg was honored in 1957 when a building at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore was named Trigg Hall. It houses the School of Agriculture, Food, and Research Sciences.

Read more

Amelia Perry Pride: Heart and Hands

For too many former slaves, the end of black bondage in America offered no new beginning.

Although now free, they often had nowhere to go and starkly limited options for earning a living. Most were poorly educated.

Despite the efforts of groups such as the Freedman’s Bureau, the need was almost overwhelming, and the aftershocks from slavery within the black community lasted for decades after Appomattox.

Amelia Perry Pride was one of the fortunate ones, and she knew it. Her parents, born free and light-skinned (which made a difference in some circles), were in the upper echelon of post-war African American society in Lynchburg. William Perry was a respected carpenter and building contractor who had accumulated a substantial nest egg before his early death in 1873—two years after his wife, Ellen.

Orphaned at 16, Amelia nevertheless managed to find a place at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), and earned a degree from the teacher education program in 1879.

Hampton placed a strong emphasis on vocational training, and young Amelia brought that back with her to Lynchburg. Although an enthusiastic advocate for higher education, she also realized that some former slaves and their descendants—especially women—needed basic, marketable skills before they could advance further. Thus, when she became principal of the Polk Street Colored School, she also opened a sewing school in the building, followed by the establishment of the Thelma Pierce Cooking School across from her home on Madison Street.

This was a woman who kept her eyes open. Despite her myriad teaching duties and the care of three children (she had married Claiborne Pride, a successful Lynchburg barber), she couldn’t ignore the poverty she saw all around her.

This even extended to members of the Monacan tribe, the first residents of Central Virginia, who still maintained a presence in Amherst County. Pride sought them out, tried to help them where she could, and learned a little of their language.

What most appalled her, however, was the plight of several elderly black women living downtown, two of them above the Spencer-Calloway store. The widows of former slaves generally had no insurance money, inheritance, or family support, and the outlook for them in their old age was often grim.

Just up the street was a vacant lot at 1311 Pierce, and Pride began working her numerous contacts in an effort to raise money for an old age home geared to former slaves. Her time at Hampton had extended her network of the socially concerned, and the first donation for the home—apparently a sizable one—came from an organization in Dorchester, Massachusetts. In gratitude, she named it the Dorchester Home and opened it in 1897.

The home offered shelter, food, clothing and fuel for its residents for as long as they lived. It also became a popular volunteer option for both black and white women in Lynchburg, many from church groups.

Seventeen years after Amelia Pride’s death in 1932, the City of Lynchburg named its new school for alternative education “The Amelia Pride Center.” The school still functions, located next to Dunbar Middle School and serving young people who, for disciplinary or academic reasons, need a special place to focus on a regular or GED diploma.

Many of these students come and go thinking the school’s name—now shortened to “The Pride Center”—refers to the building up of self-esteem, not the name of a long-forgotten black visionary.

Chances are Amelia Pride wouldn’t have minded.

Read more



Born and raised in Philadelphia, Anderson had a connection to Lynchburg through her mother, Annie, who once attended Virginia Seminary. Marian began singing in public at the age of six and continued through elementary and high school. Barred from the Philadelphia Music Academy because of her race, she managed to pull together the money for private lessons, and her career blossomed. In 1939, she became a controversial national figure when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at a Constitution Hall concert. Thousands of DAR members resigned in protest, including Eleanor Roosevelt, but Anderson’s supporters arranged an alternative concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As Anderson opened with “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” wrapped in a mink coat against a cool April breeze, a crowd of 75,000 people stretched out before her. Later, she spent several years touring Europe, where she entertained sold-out audiences and formed a lifetime friendship with famed Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The DAR finally invited her to headline a concert at Constitution Hall in 1943, and in 1955 Anderson became the first African American singer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera, whose conductor, Arturo Toscanini, said “a voice like (Anderson’s) comes around once in a hundred years.” Anderson’s later career was a litany of awards and firsts. She sang for two presidential inaugurations (Eisenhower and Kennedy), was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and lived to be 96. History does not record whether or not she sang for the Spencers when she visited, but she probably did.