Editor’s note: This is a companion to “God’s Half Acre,” an article in Richmond magazine’s April issue about how Virginia Union University came to be.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, Virginia Union University occupies land once owned by Colonial troublemaker Nathaniel Bacon and known as “Sheep Hill.” The “nine noble buildings” built of Virginia granite and Georgia pine arose less than a mile from the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, but the school was physically (and symbolically) separated from the rest of Richmond by a deep ravine. Buffalo, New York, architect John H. Coxhead designed the buildings in late-Victorian Romanesque style.
The present VUU came together through the consolidation of institutions including the Hartshorn Memorial College. The school for women grew from its 1883 founding in the basement of Ebenezer Baptist Church to the former Bowe plantation buildings at Lombardy and Leigh streets. Lyman Beecher Tefft was president of Hartshorn for more than 30 years. A Rhode Islander who trained for the ministry at Brown University, he possessed ideas of female equality in advance of his day. He also believed that a Christian education furthered the cause of civil rights. In 1932, when VUU went coeducational, Hartshorn became part of the university. Hartshorn’s main building was demolished to make way for Maggie Walker High School (today’s Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School).
Historian Selden Richardson observes in his book Built by Blacks that “the school is unusual in that, with some modern exceptions, it is centered in almost the same group of buildings where the school began operations in 1899.” Coxhead’s buildings address a studious purpose, though the jaunty turrets and milled and carved decorations add a sense of creativity and inspiration. The buildings say: Here, with work, is a place where you enter another life, to improve the mind and strengthen the spirit.
Charles T. Russell, an architect and longtime professor at VUU, designed four faculty houses in 1914. Those, unfortunately, do not survive, though he also oversaw the restoration of the original buildings. Russell was also the assistant architect on the installation of the Belgian Friendship Complex, which began as a pavilion designed by Henry Van de Velde as Belgium’s contribution to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. After the outbreak of World War II, Belgium’s government-in-exile chose VUU from among 27 U.S. institutions to receive the buildings, because of its location and mission. Russell oversaw their reconstruction.
The impressive sandstone friezes by Oscar Jespers, Henry Puvrez and Arthur Dupagne on the main building depict the Belgian Congo with robust enthusiasm and energy, but do not illustrate the genocidal brutality of the colonialist Belgians in Congo. As works of art, however, they are notable. And perhaps the Belgians’ behavior in the Congo influenced the choice to place them on the campus of a university serving African-Americans.
During World War II, the Belgian Friendship Building became the eastern Virginia induction site for 161,000 draftees, of all races, who were processed and sent to training. Many of them had never seen VUU and its grand granite buildings and were unaware of its story and promise of equality. Yet in that odd twist of the American experiment, black soldiers could not serve with whites, nor, in the South, could they even drink from the same water fountain.
VUU used the complex for a gym, science classrooms, laboratories and library. The Belgian Friendship Building is now a fine arts and performance center. The modernist 165-foot belfry held 35 actual bells, but at the time of its transfer, the Belgian American Educational Foundation purchased the building’s bells for presentation to former President Herbert Hoover for his library at Stanford University. The gesture was made in appreciation for Hoover’s humanitarian relief efforts in Belgium after World War I. The connection between the bells at Stanford and the VUU tower wasn’t made until March 2004, when Alan Nelson found the documentation of the carillon’s transfer; Nelson is the nephew of John M. Ellison, VUU’s first black president, who served from 1941 to 1956.
Nelson, along with Ellison’s niece Dianne Nelson Watkins, began a “Bells for Peace” campaign to return the bells and installed an electric carillon to simulate the sounds. The ultimate goal was to raise $1.5 million to cast and install 35 bells. The funds, says Watkins, would cover the practical business of preparing the Robert L. Vann Memorial Tower — named for a former editor of the Pittsburgh Courier — to receive the bells and to give the structure an aesthetic appeal.
“ We want to make the bell tower a beacon in Richmond’s skyline,” she says. The plan is to fully light the tower, which at present is illuminated at night about halfway up. Watkins is partnering with the Art Deco Society of Virginia to raise awareness and contributions for the project. She wants to engage Musco Lighting, which engineered the lighting of the renovated Washington Monument after a 2011 5.8-magnitude earthquake. Architect Michael Graves and Musco devised a series of mirrors to bask the Washington landmark in a smooth wash of light. http://bellsforpeace.org/
Nine Noble Buildings
Kingsley Hall, a four-story dormitory building, was named for its benefactor and president of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, Chester Kingsley. VUU professor and historian Raymond Pierre Hylton notes that the living quarters were completed before the stairs, which necessitated students climbing ladders to reach their rooms.
Imposing Pickford Hall, the administrative building, takes its name from C.J. Pickford, a board member of Richmond Theological Seminary, a predecessor to VUU. The Sydney Lewis School of Business is housed here.
Porter Cottage and Baptist Memorial Hall are inverted twins along Lombardy Street. Porter was used for residence by distinguished faculty members, but it was demolished for the Ellison Hall building. Dean George Rice Hovey moved into Baptist Hall, and three successive VUU presidents lived there until 1950. The building, now used for offices, is the single one of the original structures to retain the Georgia pine woodwork.
Martin E. Gray Hall, funded by a successful Ohio farmer, housed the first cafeteria. Students met there in 1960 to plan sit-ins at downtown Richmond lunch counters.
Coburn Hall, name for abolitionist Abner Coburn, a Civil War-era governor of Maine, served as a chapel and library. Speakers there have included poet Langston Hughes, who gave his first presentation in the South at Coburn in 1926, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. A 1970 fire necessitated its renovation.
Three support buildings of Coxhead’s design were clustered on the southwestern edge of the campus. These included a power plant sporting a smoke stack, a barn and the Industrial Hall. These buildings were designed to give the university a certain amount of self-sufficiency — rather forward thinking and “green” when it was just a color. The barn provided stables for horses, cows and chickens, among other animals. The barn was demolished sometime in the 1920s. Industrial Hall housed classrooms for manual and technical training, which, during this period, formed a part of the curriculum of educational institutions. Through the years, uses for the building waned, and it has not been used in recent years.
Anthony Thompson, VUU’s senior vice president for institutional effectiveness and program development, wants to “identify those who might provide philanthropic support,” to rehabilitate Industrial Hall, possibly for exhibitions of art and history. The price tag is $4.5 million, about half of which would be for an endowment to maintain the antique structure. Thompson says, “The idea of transforming it into art and museum galleries seems to be a wonderful use; it also ends up demonstrating the meaning of a liberal arts education.”
A portion of VUU’s art collection is exhibited at the L. Douglas Wilder Library and Learning Resource Center, built during 1996-’97, including work by Alabama folk artist Thornton Dial Sr. that was donated by Dr. James and Barbara Sellman. Dial’s broad subjects embrace social issues. Also at the library is a collection of political ephemera associated with Wilder, the nation’s first African-American governor and a VUU alumnus.
150th Anniversary Events:
Rededication and Prayer Service, April 9: Starting at 9 a.m. at the Lumpkin's Jail site Shockoe Bottom, a brief program honoring the university's Founding Fathers will be held. Participants will then reconvene at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Leigh Street. From there will commence a rededication march to Coburn Hall on VUU’S main campus. https://www.vuu.edu/vuu_150th_anniversary.aspx
The Third Annual Scholarship Gala and Masquerade Ball, April 24: This event celebrating VUU’s 150th anniversary is presented by the Division for Institutional Advancement, with VUU graduate and Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones serving as host. The black tie event’s reception begins at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. Tickets are $200 ($75 is tax deductible). For information, visit: http://universityrelations.wix.com/scholarshipgala#!reservations/c1mxq
Unveiling of the 150th Anniversary Monument, April 29: The design created by sculptor Ed Dwight consists of six bronze panels that highlight significant events in the university’s 150-year history. The piece is to be installed between the Belgian Building and Ellison Hall. Dwight’s work honors civil rights leaders and pivotal events in the advancement of African-Americans. His first sculpture, in 1980, a life-size figure of Frederick Douglass for the Douglass Museum in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, was followed by seven tributes to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., including one at the Anne Arundel Community College in Annapolis, Maryland, and in Hermann Park in Houston. Dwight’s Hank Aaron is in full home-run swing at the Braves Stadium in Atlanta, and his Underground Railroad for the Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan, is a large multiple-figure work featuring Harriet Tubman leading to safety a group of escaped slaves. http://www.eddwight.com/