Histories of Greatness, Futures of Distinction at Regional HBCU’s
by Cesca Janece Waterfield
Virginia Union University
1500 N. Lombardy St., Richmond 257-5600 www.VUU.edu
At the end of the Civil War, many individuals, organizations, churches, and former slaves, eager to provide education for thousands of freedmen, set about establishing schools, even before the war’s end. The American Baptist Home Mission Society founded a school to educate freedmen who aspired to become Baptist ministers. “The Richmond Theological Institute” soon offered college and high school courses to men and women. Classes began in Washington D.C. as well as in Richmond in early 1867. Early on, a predecessor school operated out of Lumpkin’s Jail. But in 1899, the Richmond Theological Institute merged with Wayland Seminary of Washington, D.C. to form Virginia Union University. Both schools had been established by the American Baptist Home Mission Society at the end of the Civil War.
Today VUU is a private liberal arts college affiliated with the American Baptist Church. It has graduated Henry Marsh, Richmond’s first black mayor; Douglas Wilder, the first black governor of the U.S.; Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., first black Admiral in the U.S. Navy, high profile athletes including Charles Oakley, and Ben Wallace, and more than one tenth of all black American ministry. VUU is a member of the United Negro College Fund.
Comprised of twenty two buildings, VUU has seven main buildings on its 72 acre campus north of the city. Philanthropists from the North largely funded the construction of these buildings. They were made of local granite, and were constructed over a three-year period at the end of the 19th century. Over time, they’ve been restored, and designated national historic landmarks.
The Belgian Building was originally built for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The Belgian Government planned to showcase the building at the Fair, and then reconstruct it as a library in Belgium at the Fair’s end. But in that time, Belgium’s occupation by the Nazis in the middle of World War II made that goal impossible. The Belgian government donated the building to VUU, a school they selected for its mission and location. The original architects led its reconstruction on the campus of VUU, and it was named the Belgian Friendship Building.
Patrice Baltimore, a 2006 graduate, says, “I honestly feel that it is more than a college, but a place for personal cultivation. There are certain faculty and administration that have pushed me to strive for excellence in all endeavors. It’s a great feeling when someone recognizes your potential and cares enough to invest in your well-being, educational advancement, and your life overall. I keep in great contact with several VUU faculty to this day, as the relationships that can be built on the grounds of a smaller-scaled university are genuine, and have great longevity. Union, as ‘Panthers’ affectionately refer to it, is more than a university. The atmosphere is so much like a family that no matter how far you go, Union always holds a place in your heart. There are so many good-hearted, passionate, highly motivational people on that campus, that I consider myself fortunate to have been able to experience my undergraduate career at Union.
Also, the honor of serving as a University Ambassador, and as Miss VUU ’06 – ’07, a role model for younger girls and students was rewarding and enriching, especially with my advisor, Mrs. Mildred Britt, Director of Career Services, alongside me, pushing me to always put my best foot forward while savoring the moment. No matter where I go in life, Union will never be far from my heart.”
900 E. Washington St., Greensboro, NC (336) 517-2100 www.Bennett.edu
Located in Greensboro, North Carolina, Bennett College is a Liberal Arts college for women founded in 1873 by Albion Tourgee, an activist for the cause of racial justice. It began as a normal school in the basement of today’s St. Matthew’s Methodist Church. In its first enrollment, seventy male and female students took high school and college classes. A year later, the Freedmen’s Aid Society assumed guidance of the school. Soon after, a group of freed slaves purchased a permanent site, generously aided by a New York businessman named Lyman Bennett.
In 1926, Bennett became a college exclusively for women, thanks to the efforts of the Women’s Home Missionary Society and the Board of Education of the church. Since then, Bennett College has graduated more than 5000 women. Today, with fewer than 700 students in its student body, Bennett women have the opportunity to attend small classes in Education, the Social Sciences, the Humanities, the Sciences, and Math. Bennett awards sixteen degrees in twenty-four areas of study.
Bennett College bears the distinction of having the First African American woman to serve as President of a four year college, Dr. Willa B. Player. In 1958, Player invited Dr. Martin Luther King to Bennett, where he delivered one of his most well-known speeches. During the height of the Civil Rights era, Bennett women were active in sit-ins, and endured beatings and arrests. Dr. Player would frequently arrive at jail cells, assignments in hand for those students whose participation in protests had sent them behind bars.
Today’s Provost of Bennett College is Dr. Marilyn Mobley, who says, “There’s a way in co-ed environments that women are overlooked, or marginalized, or not expected to achieve. In this environment, women get affirmed for what they bring to the table. Their gifts and their intellectual abilities get positive attention. We expect them to achieve. We encourage them to achieve. We consider it a sacred space. We were part of the Civil Rights movement in conjunction with the male students at A&T – the Greensboro Boys. We have that historical moment where we were part of history. It is a special unique space where they can discover their purpose, [and] they can walk in it. We refer to Bennett as an oasis where we educate, celebrate, and transform young women into 21st century global leaders. There are elements of their learning that they will not get anywhere else about race and gender, about African American culture.”
Wanda Mobley, Bennett’s Director of Communications, is also an alumna from the Class of ’83. Mobley says, “I would not trade my experience as a student at Bennett for the world. We are uniquely positioned to make women leaders. They then can go out and really make a difference in their community. Education has a sacred place here. [The experience] forms a whole person, and that person can truly develop in this oasis called Bennett College.”