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As VUU Turns 150, First Leaders, Students Remembered

VUU's Coburn Chapel, one of the Nine Noble buildings constructed in 1899
VUU's Coburn Chapel, one of the Nine Noble buildings constructed in 1899 using Virginia granite and George pine. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

One of Richmond’s historic institutions is marking its 150th anniversary. Virginia Union University’s origins trace back to April 1865 when a small group of educators began holding classes for former slaves. Virginia Currents Producer Catherine Komp explores some of the school’s early history.

Learn More: Listen to the full oration from Charles Lee Purce recorded at VUU's Telling Our Story event.  Find out about more VUU 150th anniversary events including a November 14th panel of presidents from Historically Black Colleges and Universities.


At the very beginning of Virginia Union University’s history, there was no set campus.

Raymond Hylton: One primary reason was that about 30 blocks of Richmond had been destroyed.

Destroyed by the evacuation fires set by the Confederate Army, explains Dr. Raymond Hylton, Chair of VUU’s Department of History and Political Science. Hylton says building space was at a premium and the founders struggled for months to find a site for a school. Then one of the early leaders unexpectedly met someone on the street.


Dr. Charles Corey led Richmond Institute for 30 years.
Dr. Charles Corey led Richmond Institute for 30 years.

Hylton: If you go right outside First African Baptist Church, Broad and College Street, opposite old 14th Street, was where Dr. Nathaniel Colver, American Baptist Home Mission Society, met with a former slave named Mary Lumpkin.

She had been married to the slave jailer Robert Lumpkin. After he died, she inherited the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail complex, where countless men, women and children were detained - many of them tortured - before being sold into the slave trade. In 1867, she rented the jail and several adjacent buildings to Dr. Colver.

Hylton: It had been called the Devil’s Half Acre and Colver openly proclaimed it, God’s Half Acre.

For years a site of pain and suffering, former slaves and educators reclaimed the Lumpkin’s properties as a place for progress and growth. One of the students to attend school here was Joseph Endom Jones, who’s featured in Hylton’s newly published book on the history of VUU.


An 1869 letter to Dr. Corey.
An 1869 letter to Dr. Corey.

Hylton: He was born into slavery in Lynchburg, he lived a kind of a shoestring existence as many former slaves did but he managed to get to the school at Lumpkins Jail, graduated, went to what used to be Ithaca now Cornell University and ultimately got his doctorate and very early was on accepted as an instructor then as a professor at Virginia Union. [He] became quite a notable member of the black middle class in Jackson Ward.

Selecia Allen: This is the student register 1877 for the Richmond Institute.

Joining Hylton in the University’s Special Collections room is Archivist Selicia Allen. She’s brought out records dating back to the 1870s after the school had moved into a larger building, the former United States Hotel on 19th and Main.

Allen: I was born a slave in 1847 in Howardsville, Buckingham Co. Virginia.

This volume has carefully recorded biographical information on some of the earliest students, including Nelson Winfrey Jordan.


Allen & Hylton look at VUU's historical documents.
Allen & Hylton look at VUU's historical documents.

Allen: I was baptized in 1868 by Rev. A Bailey in Memphis, Tennessee and ordained in 1874 and now a member of New Hope baptist Church, Prince Edward County, Virginia by who I am also recommended.

Another student from this period was Charles Lee Purce. At a recent 150th Anniversary event, current theology student Milton Robinson read from the oration Purce delivered when he graduated in 1883.

Charles Lee Purce (as read by Milton Robinson): The most beautiful statue that the world has ever seen, was once embedded in a quarry. And only by repeated chipping and chiseling upon the flinty marble could the sculptor have produced the human figure in all its symmetrical beauty.

Purce went on to become an influential educator and president of Selma University in Alabama and then State University in Louisville, Kentucky.

Purce: Religion and education are the powers to make the future Negro a man of respect, honor, trust and influence, a man and not a thing.

The school continued to grow and in 1899 it merged with the Washington, DC-based Wayland Seminary and became Virginia Union University.

A collection of orations read at graduation.
A collection of orations read at graduation.

Hylton: We bought this land right here, which was in Henrico County at the time, land on Lombardy Street known as Sheep Hill, it was part of the old Bowe planation. Then, a lot of money was spent building the nine noble buildings of Virginia granite and Georgia pine.

The campus was designed in Romanesque-Revival style by Buffalo New York architect John Hopper Coxhead.

Hylton: He was very conscious of the need to bring African-American contractors into it and for the students to participate in building their own buildings.

Classes began in October 1899.

Hylton: October 4th at 8:45 am and knowing how they felt about punctuality in those days, it was sharp.

This was before construction on the buildings was complete. In Kingsley Hall, students used ladders to reach their rooms because the staircases hadn’t been built.


Charles Lee Purce became an influential educator.
Charles Lee Purce became an influential educator.

Hylton: Kingsley was the last building to be finished, it’s the biggest of these buildings and yeah, the young men had to go up ladders.

Walking through campus Dr. Hylton points out the “noble buildings” still in use.

Hlyton:  And that beautiful building  is Coburn Hall, that is the Chapel, they call that the heart and soul of the University.

We enter the chapel, a center of activity here for decades.

Hlyton: Quite a building, in the old days it rang to voice of Dr. Martin Luther King.

A fire devastated the building in 1970, but the Virginia granite walls survived and after a long fundraising campaign it was rebuilt.

Hylton: The granite doesn’t burn, it endures forever.

Just a few years ago, the interior was again transformed with a donation of stained glass windows depicting the University’s history.


Stained glass windows in Coburn Chapel.
Stained glass windows in Coburn Chapel.

Hlyton: That first one represents the underground railroad, slavery, slaves escaping by moonlight. And this of course Lumpkin Jail right there and the young man beginning his study: math, history, science.

Designed by the school’s professors and students, the windows were donated by Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York in honor of their pastor, VUU alum Dr. W. Franklyn Richardson.

Hlyton: The School of Theology, showing the minister, the cross and the choir, music, academics of course and then athletics.

The history and legacy of Virginia Union University is being celebrated throughout the 2014-2015 academic year with discussions, arts and cultural events and a Founders Day celebration. Next April, the University will gather at the former Lumpkin’s jail site to honors the first teachers and students and rededicate what became known as God’s Half Acre. For Virginia Currents, this is Catherine Komp, WCVE News.