Virginia Tech’s history is a complicated one that is much more presumed than known due to an early 20th century blaze. In its early years, the institution served as an allegory of the rough, rag-tag, Appalachian spirit we see still embodied through a beaten-up lunch pail at football games and the largely blue-collar valley that envelops us. Tech, unlike its sister institutions William and Mary and the University of Virginia, has never owned any enslaved people by circumstance of its post-antebellum founding in 1872. Even its predecessor institution, the Olin & Preston Institute, has no record of owning any. That is not to say, however, that the grand 2,600-acre Blacksburg campus has never met or benefited from the harsh legacy of slavery.
Prior to last year, you most likely would not see him listed on the Virginia Tech Black History Timeline. He predates Charles “Uncle Sporty” Owens, Floyd Meade, and even Odd Fellows Hall, all well-known black figures in early Virginia Tech history. If you had the privilege of crawling around the campus of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College about 148 years ago with Addison Caldwell and other “rats,” you’d most likely refer to him as “Uncle Andrew.” He is Andrew Oliver, and he is the first known African-American worker at what is now Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
Recently, I’ve been working on identifying artifacts and university memorabilia in our collections, and I came across a beautiful, four-stringed tenor banjo and its case. I did not anticipate that an item so innocuous as a musical instrument would lead down a path into learning about the university’s racist past, including minstrelsy and blackface.
To start, I could find no information about the banjo’s former owner, so I investigated the banjo and case themselves for clues. Handwritten on the banjo head is “The Collegians, VPI, Blacksburg, VA.”, and the peghead identifies it as a Bruno banjo. Handwritten on the banjo’s case are the initials, “L.A.H.”
Searching through names related to our collections, I found the Lewis A. Hall Papers, Ms1983-009, very promising given his initials and his connection to Virginia Tech. Looking thru the collection, my excitement rose almost immediately when I found a reference to the Collegians – the band the banjo is advertising – in the printed items. Then I opened the folders of photographs and found a beautiful picture of the Collegians themselves, with one man holding this very banjo! A portrait in the collection is of Hall, and it’s clear he’s the same man holding the banjo.
Interested in finding out who else is in the photo, I pulled the Collegians folder in the Historical Photographs Collection. I found a copy of the same photo, dated 1923-1924, identifying the musicians from left: Robert B. Skinner (drummer); J.B. “Yash” Cole (trombone); Arthur Scrivenor Jr. (piano); Lewis A. Hall (banjo, manager, and director); H. Gaines Goodwin (saxophone); Bill Harmon (saxophone); and S.C. Wilson (trumpet, not pictured). This picture is also used in the 1924 Bugle yearbook.
There were two other pictures in the folder of Hall and the Collegians, dated 1922-1923, from left: L.A. “Lukie” Hall (tenor banjo); J.B. Cole (trumbone); R.S. “Bob” Skinner (traps); W. “Bass” Perkins (clarinet, violin, leader); Tom S. Rice (piano); W.D. “Willie” Harmon (saxophone); F.R. “Piggy” Hogg (saxophone, traps, manager); and S.C. “Stanley” Wilson (trumpet, not pictured).
After discovering the owner’s name, I wanted to know a bit more about both Hall and the Collegians. To the latter first – A dance orchestra at VPI formed in 1918 as the Southern Syncopating Saxophone Six. They were later renamed Virginia Tech Jazz Orchestra and known as the College Six. In 1922, they became the Collegians, and in 1931, they finally became the Southern Colonels. Today, the jazz band continues to perform, as part of the Corps of Cadets Regimental Band, the Highty-Tighties.
Second, Lewis Augustus Hall was born Lewis Augustus Hall in 1903 in Norfolk, Virginia. He attended VPI from 1920 to 1924. In addition to playing for the Collegians (also called the Tech Orchestra), he was a member of the Norfolk Club, Cotillion Club, Tennis Squad, the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, and the Virginia Tech Minstrels (more on this below). He also served as athletic editor for The Virginia Tech, the predecessor oftheCollegiate Times, assistant manager of basketball, and manager of the freshman basketball team. Finally, he rose thru the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, graduating as Lieutenant of Company F. In 1924, he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, Hall joined the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, retiring as assistant vice-president in 1968. He married and with his wife Virginia had two sons. Hall maintained a connection to Virginia Tech, serving on the board of directors for the Virginia Tech Alumni Association for 15 years and earning the Alumni Distinguished Service Award in 1977. He died in 1982.
As mentioned above, Hall performed in the student club, the Virginia Tech Minstrels. I’ve heard of minstrel shows before and knew that students at Virginia Tech had held them. But this was my first time coming across them inadvertently, so it was a shock to learn that the owner of this banjo was a member of a minstrelsy.
If you aren’t aware, minstrel shows in the United States were a performance typically including skits, jokes, and music – predominantly performed by white people in blackface as a spoof, full of stereotypes and racist depictions, of Black people and their cultures. The 1924 Bugle (pp. 346-347) discusses the group and even depicts members in blackface. The Collegians are also listed as the group’s orchestra and a photo of the group includes Hall holding the banjo.
My research about a mystery banjo took me down a path I could not imagine. I was at first excited to discover the owner’s identity, then horrified to learn about his and the instrument’s connection to racist entertainment. But in the end, the journey led me to learn more about this form of racism and how its legacy continues to impact American society. As the University statement says, “The history of our nation and the Commonwealth of Virginia has a common storyline starting with slavery and segregation, and moving toward our ultimate goal of treating everyone with respect and cherishing the strength that comes from diversity of identities and lived experiences. We, as a society, are somewhere in the middle of this process.”
The university has celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day for awhile now. One of our graduate students Jamelle Simmons has been researching and updating the Black History Timeline for the University Archives. In his research, Simmons found several items about the university’s commemorations ofRev. Dr. Kingand his legacy, which have been hosted and sponsored over the years by the Virginia Tech Union, Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, Black Caucus, Black Organizations Council, Black Cultural Center, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, and others. Items include student event calendars, newspaper articles, and flyers. This year, the Cultural and Community Centers established the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oration Competition as an annual event.
Rev. Dr. King has been remembered at Virginia Tech even before the establishment of the holiday, ever since his assassination on April 4, 1968. On the following day, students held a vigil at Burruss Hall surrounding the U.S. and Virginia flags. Initially the flags were raised to full mast, so mourners lowered both to half mast and protected the flags while talking to passersby about King’s ideals and nonviolent beliefs. Although they were forced to restore the flags to full mast, in the afternoon President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered flags lowered in King’s honor, which the university complied with. A transcript of The Virginia Tech (precursor to The CollegiateTimes) article is available on the Black History Timeline.
Linda Edmonds, one of the first six black women admitted to Virginia Tech in 1966, wrote notes of her thoughts uponRev. Dr. King’s death (the first two paragraphs, written on April 4, 1968) and the initial raising of the flag to full mast (the last paragraph, written on April 5, 1968). The notes and transcript follow below:
A Tribute … Thoughts when Dr. King Died
The way I feel today … is lost.
I feel a faint beat of hope, but is there a way? What will be the cost? A man dies, another is born. The circle goes on. Why take away something that we cannot replace? Take my body, hurt it, hurt it, the pain ceases after awhile; though death is sometimes the final release.But don’t tear down my heart, don’t make me hate the sight of my fellow man. Don’t take my dignity and trust in mankind. If you do we are both lost.
I need somebody to talk to, somebody that will not say you have to be strong now, I’m not. You can’t help me can you? – You believe you know how I feel?
This morning when the flag was raised to its highest level–gloom surrounded my being. The march–step–step–step of the uniformed men–the systematic order of it all. You 3, you had your orders to follow, but how did your hearts feel? Did you realize that I could not look up with pride when the flag was blowing so powerfully in the early crisp air. Maybe you did, but you told yourself well it has to be. The U.S. flag was torn at the ends, the tears started climbing and winding their ways through that symbol of the country that I am a native of. Will there soon be nothing left but strips of cloth floating individually about the flag pole? Some bits will no doubt lose strength all together and drift off into the air and never return. No, this will not happen, we will buy a new flag and everything will be O.K.; I can smile and be happy looking at the stars and stripes forever. But I can’t smile and be happy with my fellowman because people just want to exchange hate and past mistakes for something better. The society tears apart – floating about in individual strips, it eventually loses strength and bits of it drift off into the air and never return.
In addition to these items related to the university, Special Collections has other important publications by and aboutRev. Dr. King. In the Bishop William H. Marmion Papers, Ms 1986-013, there is a pamphlet copy of King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, published by the American Friends Service Committee in May 1963. For those of you who may not know, Birmingham leaders working with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began protesting segregation in the city with organized demonstrations in April 1963. The city obtained an injunction against the protests, which the leaders disobeyed, resulting in King’s arrest. Several local white clergymen publicly criticized the protests, prompting King to respond with the now famous letter. In it he defends his participation as an “outsider,” explains the value and steps of a nonviolent campaign, and questions the clergymen’s insistence on waiting for a resolution to continued injustice.
According to the King Encyclopedia by Stanford University’sKing Institute,Rev. Dr. Kinggave theAmerican Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) organization, permission to publish the letter in May 1963 as a pamphlet. The group had been working with King since 1956 after the Montgomery bus boycott, but they had been involved with anti-racism activities since the 1920s, only a few years after their founding during World War I. Withpermission from King, the AFSC distributed 50,000 copies of the Letter from Birmingham Jailin 1963, and that same year nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded the following year.
Another item in our collections is the book,We Shall Live in Peace: The Teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by Deloris Harrison and illustrated by Ernest Crichlow. The book outlines King’s life and discusses several significant steps in his fight for civil rights, including excerpts from his writings. Born in Bedford, Virginia, Harrison graduated from St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, and received a master’s from New York University in 1963. She began teaching in New York City in 1961, and was chosen as a Fulbright teacher in 1966. Crichlow (1914-2005) was a Brooklyn artist coming out of the Harlem Renaissance and known for his works concerning social injustice for African Americans. According to his New York Times obituary, he studied commercial art in Manhattan and worked in the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. In 1957, Crichlow cofounded and served as first chairperson of the Fulton Arts Fair, which showcased the works of both new and established artists in the community. The Petrucci Family Foundation’s Collection of African-American Art entry on Crichlowstates that in 1980, President Jimmy Carter honored Crichlow and nine other black artists from the National Conference of Artists at the White House.
A few excerpt pages fromWe Shall Live in Peace by Harrison and Crichlow appear below, and I encourage anyone interested to come into Special Collections to see this beautiful book.
Of course, there are numerous other items in our collections related to Rev. Dr. King and the greater Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (and before and after), so I hope that you will come into Special Collections to take a look for yourself. And don’t forget to attend some of the events planned for the annual celebrations for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here at Virginia Tech and in the local community.
While looking through some recently acquired items, I came across a yearbook from 1939. Generally, an old yearbook is a good reference book for research about people or a school but they’re also relatively easy to find. This one, however, seemed special. The yearbook is The Peabodian from 1939. There are a few things that make it interesting: the history of Peabody High school, the content of the yearbook, the construction of the yearbook, and how few copies are available for use. This book has history.
It’s clear from the moment one picks it up that this yearbook is special. The cover is faded and stained with a late-art deco style design. The interior contains 111 pages printed on the front only. Each page is mimeographedand bound through two holes to the cover. The photos in the yearbook are black-and-white prints that were pasted to the pages. Looking at each page, the age of the volume is apparent. The paste used to secure the photos began to release at some point and someone taped the photos in. Then, the tape was removed and the photos were glued in again. Because of the failing adhesives over the years, there are some photos missing. Still, the volume is beautifully made and was likely somewhat expensive when it was printed. At this time, the only copies of this yearbook that we know of are the one we just acquired and one other at the University of Virginia.
About the school
Peabody High School was originally known as the Colored High School. Instruction began in 1870 in an old First Baptist Church building in Petersburg, Virginia. It was the first public school established for people of color in Virginia. The first five principals were white men. In 1874, after outgrowing the old church, a new building opened to house the school. It was named for Massachusetts Philanthropist George Peabody because much of the funding for the new building came from The George Peabody Fund. In 1882, the first person of color was named principal: Alfred Pryor. In the early nineteen-teens, the school moved again. The new site had two buildings: Peabody, the senior high school, and Williams, the junior high school – named for Henry Williams, the minister of the Gilfield Baptist Church in Petersburg. This came shortly before Virginia schools moved from a three year high school course of study to a four year course. By 1921-1922, Peabody had an accredited four year high school course of study. It moved again in 1951 to a new facility. Due to Virginia’s campaign of Massive Resistance, the school remained segregated until 1970. When it was finally integrated, the school board decided Peabody would be a middle school and Petersburg High School would be the area’s only high school. The school is in operation to this day as Peabody Middle School.
The yearbook contains a dedication to Mr. H. Colson Jackson. This is Henry Colson Jackson who was born in 1903 in Petersburg, Virginia. During his 70 year teaching career, one of the places he taught was Peabody High School.
The dedication reads:
We dedicate this book to one who has held a place of respect and admiration among the students of Peabody High School for many years.One who has been a friend and advisor to all who have asked his help or advice. One who is untiring in any endeavor he undertakes, and who strives for perfection, a man who is cooperative and understanding – – – – Mr. H. Colson Jackson.
This yearbook comes just a few years after the start of many of the school’s clubs:
The Peabody Script (school newspaper) – Started in 1936
Dramatic Club – Started in 1937-1938
Girls Club – Started in 1937
Peabody Melodic Club – Started in 1938
Civics Club – Unknown start date but sponsoring faculty changed in 1939
Domestic Science Club – Started in 1934
Domestic Art Club – Started in 1936, Reorganized in 1939
Peabody Hi-y Club – Started in 1932, split into a Senior Hi-y Club (for juniors and seniors) and a Junior Hi-y Club (for freshmen and sophomores) in 1939
Public Speaking and Debating Club – Started in 1936
Athletics (football, basketball) – Started in 1936
These extracurriculars mostly began during the short time that Clarence W. Seay was principal and then continued once Donald C. Wingo took the position. During the short time they existed up to this point, the clubs were active in bringing art and entertainment to the student body and the area. The Dramatic Club had already participated twice in the Annual State Dramatic Tournament and the Peabody Melodic Club had hosted the Huntington High School Chorus and was raising money to buy a “radio-victrola” (a radio).
At the back of the yearbook, there is a section for advertisements which mostly consists of ads from local establishments in Petersburg, Virginia. In addition to that, there is a full-page color advertisement for Milton Bradley Co. School Supplies. This is indeed the Milton Bradley Company that comes to mind today as a board game manufacturer. Milton Bradley (the person) believed strongly in early childhood education and this led him to expand his business beyond games and into school supplies. Some interesting information on this can be found on the FindingUniverse site or in various biographical articles about Bradley. This part of the business continued until the end of the 1930s depression era.
Looking through this volume of Virginia history, U.S. history, and the history of education for people of color highlights the joy and pride this group of students and educators took in their pursuits. From senior quotes to senior superlatives and debate to football, the students at this school were engaged and amazing.
More about the history of the school can be found on the Peabody High School National Alumni Association site.For more on education for people of color in Virginia and the commonwealth’s struggle to desegregate, check out the Desegregation of Virginia Education (DOVE) project hosted by Old Dominion University’s Special Collections and University Archives. To see the yearbook for yourself, stop by Special Collections at Virginia Tech and we’d be happy to let you take a look.
Many times over the course of this blog either I or one of my colleagues has written about an aspect of the job of being an archivist that can best be described as “discovery.” Typically, we find something we’ve never seen before, didn’t know about, or never heard of. Sometimes, it’s finding out that several of those Eudora Welty editions that you’ve walked by hundreds of times are signed by the author. Or—as mentioned in a recent post by one of our student workers—discovering in a newly acquired collection that some number of rodents had a fondness for those hundred year-old letters . . . a fondness for eating them or living in them. Not long ago, I came across a letter in which a sitting president of this university turned down an offer to become president of the University of Virginia. I’m sure someone knew about that, but I didn’t. On and on. Surely, it’s one of the most interesting aspects of working in the archives.
Even so, it was surprising, if not a bit mysterious, when, several years ago, an entire collection of pamphlets—ten cubic feet of pamphlets and other publications from the 1920s through the early 1970s—mostly having to do with African American politics and history, but also with Africa, the West Indies, Asia, and the Communist Party of the United States, was “found” in a Special Collections storage area. At that time, our staff had increased sufficiently to be able to begin to process the unprocessed or minimally processed “hidden collections” we expected to find there. Also, the space needed to be reclaimed for more active purposes. The materials were in folders labeled by section and most of the pieces had an adhesive label that named the section and numbered the item, the labeling bit being a very un-archivist-like action!
Right there in the upper right-hand corner, for example, is a sticker that reads, “Black Panther Party no.13” on a booklet titled, Here and Now for Bobby Seale: Essays by Jean Genet. The back cover has a New York phone number and the name of the Committee to Defend the Panthers. There is no date on the publication, but it is a reprint of articles published in the June 1970 issue of Ramparts. In the essays, Genet presents his appeal to defend Seale against murder charges in New Haven. The booklet concludes by presenting the Panther platform and program and offering subscriptions to the Black Panther Party Black Community News Service. Here are a few other examples from this part of the collection:
A full list of these publications can be viewed in the finding aid for the collection. In addition to “Black Panther Party,” you’ll see section titles that designate a wide variety of subjects, including: Black Power, Black Nationalism, ACLU, Arts, Brownsville TX, Church, Civil Rights, Discrimination, Convict Labor, Communism, Courts, Education, Music, Lynching, NAACP, Propaganda-Communist, Prisons, Race Problems, South, and many others. The African American material accounts for about half the collection. The material related to Africa, about a quarter of the collection, similarly, represents a wide range of topics, from Apartheid, Algeria, Britain in Africa and Burundi to Uganda and Zambia. The Caribbean material is grouped, first, by country or island, and then by social and/or political issue, with topics such as Trade Unions, Revolution, Industrialization, and People’s National Movement represented. Another box contains about 60 publications grouped simply under the title, “Communism.” These tend to share in the radical/leftist perspective of many of the others—though not exclusively—but have little or nothing to do with Black America or Africa. Pamphlets on the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg or the House Un-American Activities Committee are present alongside more Soviet-related matters, such as Trotsky as counter-revolutionary or the assassination of Sergei Kirov. Here are some examples from these areas:
So, what was this extremely rich collection doing in a storage area? How long had it been there? How had the collection been used in the past. How did it get here? When? Who put those labels on the individual items? We started using the collection almost immediately, even before we wrote the finding aid, mostly in conjunction with classes that came to Special Collections for instruction, but the questions remained. I wondered if it had been brought in decades ago as a general collection for the library, not by Special Collections, perhaps made available and then put away for some reason and largely forgotten. Maybe too much radical material? And there was just the nagging impression that the collection had not been processed the way any self-respecting archivist would have done. Yet it had been foldered, even though some of the classifications were odd and then there were those #$@*&! stickers!
Two of the largest sections—series, as they are properly called—are titled, Discrimination and Negroes. (The latter, especially, may suggest a clue as to when the collection arrived.) Here, too, broad ranges of topics are covered, but often overlapping with other series. There are materials, for example, on discrimination in housing and employment, in the military, and with regard to voting and transportation. As in the rest of the collection, there are original pamphlets; also reprints of articles from publications as diverse as the New York Times, Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, and Political Affairs. There’s a typed November 1929 release from the Negro Labor News Service and an article clipped from the April 1944 issue of Spotlight written by Adam Clayton Powell while he was first running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Here’s a view of some of the pieces in these series:
Yes, that’s Joe Louis with the rifle and bayonet. If you look through the galleries above, you’ll get a sense of just how rich this collection is. There are even some right-wing pamphlets thrown in, like the one that declares the 14th amendment unconstitutional or one from Christian Crusade Publications that proclaims, “The Black Panthers Are Not Black . . . They Are Red!”
But to get back to the mystery, it appears that the collection arrived sometime by April 1974. We found a memo dated 4 April 1974 (we are the Archives, after all) that reads:
Pamphlet files on Afro-American Studies, Communism, and Viet-Nam
Each of these files has its own set of catalog cards in Spec—shelf, author, title and subject, prepared by a cataloger who worked in Spec for this project only. Mr. Bechanan is considering what should be in the Main catalog referring patrons to these files.
H. Gordon Bechanan was Assistant Director of Newman Libraries from 1972 to 1974, when he was made Director. He served in that capacity until 1984. The reference to the collection as a project does suggest that the collection was brought in—undoubtedly, purchased—as a complete entity. The Library did not assemble this collection itself. Most likely, those stickers and the designation by subject was done by the dealer from whom the collection was purchased. (Again, no archivist worth his or her salt . . . never mind.)
As for the efforts of the cataloger and those shelf cards, we found them, too. How they might have been used is anyone’s guess, but the information on them was apparently not transferred to the library’s online catalog when the card catalog system was replaced. I’ve heard that the collection may have been purchased in response to a suggestion or expectation that an African American studies program or department would be formed on campus, but that didn’t happen here in the 1970s. So, as is sometimes the case, maybe there are other records not yet found or maybe, as was true of Special Collections in those years, record-keeping may not have been nearly as complete as it is today. But the answer to the question of how this collection ended up in a storage room remains uncertain.
What is certain is that this is a fabulous collection. As someone who cares deeply about primary source research, I know there are countless questions for which this material will provide a step or several steps along somebody’s research path. Do you know who Angela Davis is, or why there were calls for her to be freed? (She did speak briefly at the Womens March in Washington the day after the inauguration last January.) Why do we have several pieces about her in German? Who was Lieutenant Leon Gilbert or Harry T. Moore or William Milton? We know about Emmett Till, but have you looked at any sources from time of his tragic death? This blog offered a post about the Scottboro trials and, specifically, Langston’s Hughes’s relation to that situation, but did you know about the Freeport GI slayings in 1946? I didn’t until I looked at “Dixie Comes to New York,” one of the pamphlets in the collection.
Once lost, but then found, the Black History Pamphlet Collection provides an important gateway to understanding, a route to discovery and rediscovery. We have kept the classifications as they are, even though they may be inaccurate and, at times, anachronistic, in keeping with the imperative to respect the original order of the collection. In other words, we’re treating the collection as a cultural and documentary artifact itself. And although most of our digitization efforts focus on unpublished sources—because they are truly unique—Special Collections is considering this collection as a candidate for such an effort. We need to find out just how many of these pamphlets are held elsewhere and how many may already be available online, but the importance of the collection is undeniable. At any rate, for those folks in the area or those who can travel to Blacksburg, it presents significant opportunities for reading and study. Come visit Special Collections!
A little over a month ago, in honor of Black History Month, I wrote about the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (GUOOF) in Blacksburg. This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, I wanted to take a few moments to talk about the Household of Ruth, No. 5533. Household of Ruth is the women’s order of the GUOOF. In Blacksburg, Household of Ruth, No. 5533 was activefor most of the time the Tadmore Lodge was active, starting a few years after the men’s group. The mission of the Household of Ruth is support of the men in their endeavors and relief of the needy, sick, and distressed. Among the papers we have from GUOOF there are papers from the Household of Ruth, including the General Laws and Regulations for the order.
Other papers from the Household of Ruth include general correspondence and a minutes book containing many notations about dues.
One of the most interesting items I found in the collection is a letter from the neighboring lodge in Radford, VA requesting assistance after their lodge building burned.
A particular highlight of the collection is a postcard addressed to Miss Nettie Anderson from another member of the lodge. The postcard is from around Thanksgiving in 1916 and features a scene with grapes and a turkey.
In honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d take this week to talk aboutthe Grand United Order of Odd Fellows.If you’ve watched television or attended a moviein the last 50-60 years, you’ve probably seen a reference to Freemasonry or Masons. While the Masons have become a mythic symbol in popular culture that is often associated with conspiracy theories and the Illuminati, they originated like many secret fraternal organizations in a much more mundane environment: essentiallyas a guild or union and likely in the 14th Century (depending heavily on the history you read and what you consider the meaning of “originate”). Over the centuries many similar organizations were formed or broke away from Freemasonry. One such organization was the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows (GUOOF).
According to their organization’s published history, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was formed as a fraternal society in similar fashion to other Masonic societies. Its primary defining characteristic was its inclusivity. Anyone was welcome to join regardless of social status. Unfortunately, that inclusiveness led to a division in the order around the topic of race.In 1842/1843 New York, an effort was launched by a group from the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church to found a chapter of the GUOOF in America. They petitioned the current existing Odd Fellows lodges in America (members of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows) but were denied because the petitioners were black. Since one member of the church, Peter Ogden, was a member ofa GUOOF lodge in England, he set sail to secure a charter for a new lodge. On March 1, 1843, the Philomathean Lodge No. 646 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was established in New York. From that time on, the GUOOF in America became a fraternal organization with primarily (while not exclusively) black membership.
Sometime in the early 1900’s (likely around 1904), Tadmore Light Lodge No. 6184 of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was founded in Blacksburg, VA. By 1910, their roll showed 23 members.
According to the Blacksburg Museum & Cultural Foundation, Tadmore Light Lodge had built or occupied a lodge hall in Blacksburg by 1907. The Odd Fellows Hall became a central part of New Town, an African American neighborhood in Blacksburg. The records from Tadmore Light Lodge show that the organization was active from the early 1900’s through the late 1960’s, holding regular meetings and social gatherings, collecting dues, and supporting members financially.
In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, the GUOOF, like many other mutual support organizations, coordinated economic support efforts, insurance, and estate management for its members. The organization had regular reports from its Endowment Department about the amount of funds raised and who had been helped by those funds.
In 1899, the GUOOF was the most powerful organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There were 19 lodges and over 1000 members in the city. The organization had $46,000 in property, including two lodge halls. The organization also had its own newspaper, The Odd Fellows Journal.
Members of the lodge in Blacksburg connected to the larger fraternal society through district conferences and national publications, including The Odd Fellows Journal. By the mid-1940’s, the Blacksburg lodge was receiving another publication: The Quarterly Bulletin. The Quarterly Bulletin was published in Philadelphia and appears to possibly have replaced The Odd Fellows Journal.
Of course, while the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows was an integral part of the community and helped to keep black Americans on their feet through the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era, it was also a secret fraternal society. As with any fraternity, it had its initiation ritual and required a firm commitment from its members. As early as 1929, the Applicant’s Agreement was worded like a legal contract – binding unless the law said it wasn’t (and even then only the part the law struck down became null and void).
The ritual changed a few times over the years and we have at least 2different versions in our records (possibly 3). Joining the GUOOF involved anelaborate and solemn ceremony. Everything from the positions of people in the room to what was said was laid out in detailin the ritual book. I’ll give just a glance at the ritual, showing the initial setup and definition of some roles within the organization (the full book is much too long to share here – AND as a member of a fraternity myself, I would feel guilty sharing another organization’s secrets). Enjoy!
If you want to know more, stop by Special Collections and ask for theBlacksburg [Virginia] Odd Fellows Records, 1902-1969, Ms1988-009. The records include financial records, correspondence, minute books, brochures of several annual conferences, by-laws and odd issues of the Odd Fellows Journal for the men’s lodge. There arealso correspondence, minutes, and financial records for the women’s group – the Household of Ruth (check back next month for a blog post about the Household of Ruth in honor of Women’s History Month).
Charles Taylor Adams Played the Provocateur as Both Student and Alumnus
The title of the Herman Bruce Hawkins Papers (Ms1974-014) is a little misleading. While the materials in the one-box collection do relate to Hawkins (who graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1910, had a successful 50-year career in the power industry, remained actively involved in Virginia Techs alumni association, and was awarded Virginia Techs Distinguished Alumni Citation in 1961), the overwhelming focus is on Hawkins VPI classmate, Charles Taylor Adams.
A native of Richmond, Adams entered VPI as a sophomore in the schools horticultural program in 1908. Adams became known on campus for his verbose and iconoclastic nature and his relative lack of interest in the discipline and protocol of a military school. The blurb below his picture in the 1910 Bugle sums up Adams (known more familiarly by his middle name) in this way: Taylor has the hot-air supply of Montgomery County cornered, trussed up and stored away. And that isnt the worst of it. If hed keep it where hes got it, we would not object so strenuously. But he always has it on tap and you never can tell what is and what isnt true. Taylor also seems to have had a reputation for excessive idealisism and was sometimes known to friends as Quix, short for Quixote.
In 1909, Adams was named editor-in-chief of The Virginia Tech, forerunner of todays Collegiate Times. Taylor presented a number of tongue-in-cheek editorials and soon began running a regular feature, Asbestographs, so-called because the column was intended to cover red-hot matter, too incendiary to print on paper. Not quite living up to its stated purpose, the column usually featured gripes about mundane aspects of campus life: the stench from campus incinerators, the inefficient laundry service, and the lack of heat in the dorms being among the many grievances aired. Adams’ diatribes were often directed against his classmates, whom he castigated for their lack of enthusiasm and involvement.
The papers editorials took on a more weighty subject on January 26, 1910, when Adams addressed a local issue. Some students had taken a dislike to a local Italian immigrant who had been peddling peanuts and popcorn (and, according to some, anarchism) and had pelted him with firecrackers. According to Adams (in language not politically correct), the Blacksburg mayor had paid an African-American Blacksburg resident to act as witness against two innocent cadets against whom the mayor held a grudge. The case was ultimately thrown out by the grand jury, but it came at a time when other issues were straining town-gown relations, and Adams editorial apparently received some negative attention from school authorities. In protest, Adams published the following week a Spotless Edition of The Virginia Tech. The issue contained only advertising. The sections that would have held news stories and editorials were intentionally left blank.
Adams remained editor-in-chief and seems to have completed the school year, but records indicate that he never graduated from VPI. He did, however, go on to a successful career, working for several prestigious New York advertising firms.
In 1959, classmates Adams and Hawkins reconnected through correspondence. The letters between the two served as an outlet for Adams views, and he wrote of his great regret for having spent his years in advertising, rather than being a communist activist:
Did I ever tell you that I once met John Reed [the American journalist who chronicled Russias Bolshevik Revolution] and talked with him? (and how shamed I am now that his words moved me not, and I put him down as a wild eyed young radical). It was in 1914, I think, in some smoke-filled bistro in Greenwich Village, and I was down there with some of my friends, and Reed came over to greet one of them … and not long thereafter he went over and was in the October Revolution When I think that I might have done that, or something like it, I am shamed and deeply sick in spirit. For what have I done, in the seventy years I have had? Advertising to make people buy things they do not need, at prices far beyond their true worth
Remembering with fondness their time as classmates, Hawkins saw Adams as a frustrated idealist:
Your unhappiness though is, I suspect, that of so many intellectuals who expect too much of people. And with the people being what they are throughout the world, I wonder just where you might go to find happiness. In thinking back over the years I can recall now that you were a revolutionary from the start during our early years when we roamed the campus together at Blacksburg … You are though my favorite revolutionary and though it would have been thrilling to say, I knew him well he was one of my dearest friends Im really glad that you didnt distinguish yourself in the same way that John Reed and Lenin and Castro did.
Taylor Adams (left) and Herman Hawkins are pictured as classmates in the 1910 Bugle.
During the next few years, the two men occasionally exchanged letters that present in microcosm the contrast of opinions on the overarching issues of the daycivil rights, nuclear arms, and the Vietnam WarAdams espousing views that at the time were considered fairly radical and often sharing printed materials from such organizations as the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality, while Hawkins held on to prevailing conservative opinions, such as his take on Adams activities as a speech-writer for the NAACP:
I do believe that you are being unrealistic for the highest hurdle the Negro has to clear is that of prejudice[,] and what you are doing through the N.A.A.C.P. the writing of speeches for the traveling educators being sent through the plague ridden Southern States will do nothing more than harden and heighten this barrier of prejudice.
Hawkins abruptly cut off correspondence in 1962, though Adams apparently made at least one more attempt at contact. Adams, having retired from advertising, continued to use much of his free time in sharing his opinions with whomever would listen. The Hawkins collection contains several opinion pieces that Adams contributed to publications both large and small.
In 1969, perhaps recalling the reaction that hed been able to provoke as editor of the student newspaper 60 years earlier, Adams placed three advertisements in The Virginia Tech. In the first, he exhorted students and their parents to protest a raise in the schools room and board rates. In another ad, Adams offered a five-dollar reward to the first person answering two questions: How many Negroes are on the academic (not sports, dance, or Home Ec.) faculty of VPI? and Give name and brief description of all academic courses in Negro History, Culture and related specifically Negro subjects. It was Adams third ad, however, that caused a stir.
Learning that U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland would be delivering an address at Virginia Techs ROTC commissioning ceremony on June 7, Adams place an ad in the Tech calling for recruits for a guerilla battalion to protest the event. The ad generated a brief firestorm of controversy, and the Hawkins collection contains a number of opinion pieces against Adams specifically and school protests generally. In the end, Adams claimed that the ad was a joke. According to a May 22 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: He said he ran it because he wanted to stick a pin in the people at VPI, a school which he contends is behind the times. Citing poor health, the 80-year-old Adams did not leave his home in New York to attend the event. A small, peaceful protest was, however, staged at the ceremony. (You can see footage of it in this Youtube video.)
Adams continued writing about issues of the day into his 90s and died in 1981; Hawkins died that same year.
The Hawkins papers would of course be of interest to anybody researching Hawkins, and especially his involvement in the alumni association, but much more importantly, the papers provide a small glimpse into the private, conflicting opinions of two Virginia Tech alumni on some of the bigger questions confronting the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.
But of course, Floyd Meade was more than that. People who knew the man recalled his activities at Virginia Tech to Col. Harry Temple, who wrote the epic history of Virginia Tech, The Bugles Echo (see also Harry Downing Temple Papers, Ms1988-039). But little about Meade’s family life has been discussed until now, thanks to the proliferation of genealogy websites, a search through digitized census, military, and vital records online reveals some important details about him and his family.
Floyd Hobson Meade (also Mead) was born October 2, 1882, in Blacksburg to Denie (also Dina) Meade. His father may have been either William Meade (on his marriage certificate) or Joe Dill (on his death certificate). Floyd also had a brother Emmett (b. 1880), sister Octavia (b. May 1885), and probably another brother named Alex (1887-1896). Emmett also worked at Virginia Tech, in the Mess Hall as a waiter and later the Machine Shop as a machinist.
According to Temple, Meade briefly lived with the family of Cadet N. W. Thomas, who brought him to campus in 1889. The students loved him, and after that, Meade started advertising the school’s athletic games. By 1896, he traveled with the football team on their trips as a mascot in the orange and maroon clown costume. (Temple, pp. 254-255) At this time, he also began working at the college in the Mess Hall (Temple, p. 448).
In 1913, Floyd started bringing live turkeys to football games, inspired by the team’s informal nickname the Gobblers. He trained the birds to pull carts, walk on a leash, and flap their wings and gobble on command. Temple even recounts after a victorious Thanksgiving Day game against V.M.I., that the rotund turkey was cooked and served in the Mess Hall! Meade also played music for himself and for the cadets – Temple states he was a regular one-man-band playing a guitar, bass drum, and harmonica all at once (p. 3115-3116).
On August 25, 1913, Floyd married Lucy M. Turner, daughter of Giles Turner and a cook in private service. Floyd and Lucy were both involved in the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in America. In 1905, he joined Tadmore Light Lodge #6184, the Blacksburg chapter of the fraternal organization. We have the Blacksburg Odd Fellows Records, Ms1988-009, which includes a membership book with an entry for Meade. Minutes and attendance records list him as Past Noble Father (the highest degree or rank in the organization), and a number of other documents refer to Meade’s service as secretary of the organization. Lucy Meade was a member of the Household of Ruth, the female auxiliary of the Odd Fellows. (Floyd’s membership entry and other Odd Fellows items are on display through the end of February in our exhibit on the first floor of Newman!)
Floyd’s life wasn’t always good though, and on April 24, 1929, Meade’s mother Denie died at around the age of 72. In December, Floyd lost his job at Virginia Tech, according to Temple. So students took up a collection to help with his family’s living expenses, and alumni wrote letters to try and change administrators’ minds – to no avail. (Temple, p. 3846-3847) Then, tragedy struck once more, when Lucy died on June 28, 1931, around age 45 of heart disease.
Floyd continued to work as a cook or waiter in restaurants around town and even served as head waiter at the Lake Hotel in Mountain Lake. By 1940, he was working as a janitor in private service. The next year, Meade died on February 8, after a car accident.
In 2003, Meade’s life provided the inspiration for Lucy Sweeney’s musical Hard Times Blues, which was performed in Roanoke and at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg. After researching him myself, I hope hope HOPE there’s a revival one day soon!
Update, 8/31/2020: In 2019, Lucy Sweeney donated a copy of her play Hard Times Blues and files related to her research and the 2003 production. These are available in the Hard Times Blues Collection, Ms2019-038.
(In this on-again, off-again (mostly off-again) series, we look at interesting pieces found in unexpected placesnoteworthy items that, because they represent only a tiny part of a larger collection thats devoted to unrelated topicsremain concealed to all but the most thorough of researchers.)
Despite an increased interest in the past couple of decades, Blacksburgs early African-American experience remains an underrepresented piece of the towns history. Such projects as the restoration of St. Luke and Odd Fellows Hall as a museum of black history have done much to preserve a long-ignored history, but still African-American contributions to Blacksburgs early development remain greatly undocumented. With a dearth of primary sources, every scrap of information that comes to hand is a precious discovery. One such discovery is a brief, off-the-cuff essay found in the James Robbins Randolph Papers (Ms1971-001).
Born in 1891, James Randolph was the son of Lingan Randolph, a professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The younger Randolph grew up in Blacksburg and obtained his own degree in mechanical engineering at VPI in 1912. After earning a masters degree at Harvard in 1921, Randolph taught physics and mechanical engineering at a succession of colleges and served in the U. S. Army Reserve Ordnance Department from 1931 to 1943.
Nearly all of Randolphs surviving papers consist of his notes and writings on various subjects. Not surprisingly, most of these writingsboth fiction and non-fictionfocus on science and technology, particularly rocketry. But within a collection of essays gathered under the title Maybe We Are Not Wanted on Mars is a brief, seemingly incongruous piece Randolph called Amanda: Colored Daughter of Virginia.
In his five-page essay, the professor offers his views of race relations in the South, focusing primarily on the Blacksburg of his youth. His viewpoints might today be considered at best nave, but they do offer some insights into race relations in Blacksburg a century ago. For example, Randolph attributes the necessity for the founding of New Town, a one-time historically black neighborhood near the present intersection of Main Street and Prices Fork Road, to an influx of new residents:
Before the Civil War in the South, Negroes and whites lived side by side because they belonged to each other, and seldom had occasion to move separately. After the war both found it expedient to stay where they were As the older people of both races died, or moved and were replaced by strangers, living side by side became less pleasant. So a group of Negroes bought a farm on the edge of town, divided it into lots, and called it Newtown.
Elsewhere in the essay, Randolph repeats his assertion that problems between the races resulted from disruptions by outsiders. Despite presenting a somewhat skewed look at the issue, Randolph recalls becoming aware at an early age that local relations between the races were not always easy, and that crises could erupt at any time:
Some of our students were from the mountains, where strange Negroes were apt to get shot, so we always feared a race riot, but it never came. As soon as we boys were big enough, Father told us how he planned to meet such an emergency. His plan was to round up as many as possible of our colored friends and get them into our house. Then he would take the front door, while we boys and the colored men took the back and sides. We were all good shots, and he explained that a man with peaceful intentions would come to the front door, whereas an enemy would try to sneak in somewhere else, so there was no harm in being trigger happy there.
It was around 1900, Randolph recalls, that two colored girls, Amanda and Ella began coming to us once a week to give the house a real cleaning. Thus began the familys lifelong friendship with Amanda, who eventually became the Randolphs cook. Later, when Amanda married, she and her husband John would live in the Randolph house while saving for a home of their own. Throughout the essay, Randolph writes of the couple with fondness and respect:
She and John were a thrifty industrious couple. He had his job. She worked part time for a white family, and she took in washing. She and John picked and canned fruits and vegetables on shares. They had fruit trees and a garden of their own. They had pigs and chickens. Their house was small and plain, but always neat. Their three daughters did well at school.
The Randolphs eventually left Blacksburg (James Randolph in 1914, his parents in 1918) but frequently corresponded with Amanda, and she visited the Randolphs in New Jersey on several occasions. James Randolph concludes his essay by remembering his last meeting with Amanda:
The last time I saw Amanda was when my fathers portrait was unveiled at the college where he had taught for so long Amanda and her three daughters were among the invited guests. Her oldest daughter, Clio [sic], took Mother there Amanda and I were talking when the meeting was called to order, and we sat down, side by side.
Randolph never provides Amandas last name, but a quick search of the census reveals the missing information. Among the inhabitants of the Randolph household in 1910, the census lists two servants named John B. and Amanda D. Rollins, aged 38 and 29, respectively. By 1920, John and Amanda owned a home of their own, which they shared with three daughters: Cleo, 10; Theriffee, 8; and Cuetta, 4. The census notes that the Rollins home was on a cross alley between Prices Fork Road and Main Street, placing it within the bounds of what was at that time New Town. The family continues to appear in Blacksburg through the 1940 census, which shows Amanda Rollins, a 61-year-old, widowed cook, living on New Town Alley with daughters Cleo Price, 30; and Quella Rollins, 23. Cemetery readings on findagrave.com reveal that Amanda Rollins died in 1950 and is buried in Blacksburg. John B. Rollins (1878-1931) is also buried there, as are the couples daughters, Cleo Rollins Price (1910-1974), Theriffa Rollins Christian (1911-1956), and Cuetta Virginia Rollins Webb (1916-1987).