After graduating from Williams College in 1862, a missionary’s son from Hawaii received a captain’s commission in the Union Army. He was not then certain that the cause of union was worth fighting for, but he became convinced that ending slavery was.
In a letter to a friend in September 1863, Samuel Chapman Armstrong wrote, “I hope that until every slave can call himself his own, and his wife and children his own, the sword will not cease from among us, and I care not how many evils attend it; it will be just.”
Then, when Armstrong learned Confederate leaders had issued a warning to Union officers who led black soldiers that they would be dealt with harshly, he got his back up. He applied for and was given command of a black regiment. Armstrong led the troops with distinction and marveled at the courage of men who never flinched in the face of danger.
It was then, as one historian would write, that “the young soldier stood face to face with the purpose of his life.”
Hampton, the oldest continuous English-speaking community in America, is celebrating its 400th anniversary this week. In the midst of the perennial Blackbeard’s Festival this weekend, the city is exhibiting its proudest gray hairs. One of the most important events in its history was the founding 142 years ago of Hampton University.
Soon after the war ended and then-General Armstrong retired, he signed on with the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was faced with the daunting task of improving conditions for thousands of former slaves who had taken refuge in the burned-out village of Hampton. It was clear that what they needed was education, “the only power that can lift them as a people.”
And, without as much as a missed beat, Armstrong, a charismatic and persuasive man, talked the American Missionary Association into buying a 120-acre farm called “Little Scotland” on the banks of Hampton River. It was the right spot for a “permanent and great educational work,” he said, a school that would train teachers. In turn they would teach those who would otherwise never have had a chance at an education. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute opened its doors on April 8, 1868 with 15 students, one teacher and one matron.
It wasn’t going to be a makeshift place in the old hospital and barracks that then occupied the land, but instead some of the most impressive college buildings in America. Armstrong was like that. He hired the best architects he could find, all the while persuading northern backers to pony up the money. Academic Hall, Virginia Hall and Memorial Chapel would be things of beauty and inspiration.
Armstrong had not expected to run the school but only get it started and move on, but he was so successful in raising funds and increasing enrollment, there was no turning back. “The chances are my life’s work is here,” he wrote, “and I shall not regret it.”
Hampton Institute was soon bursting at the seams, and new buildings were added. One, “the Wigwam,” was built to house Indian students. It was another Armstrong brainstorm, and it worked, educating thousands of students and becoming a model for the Indian schools around the country. The first “house father” for the students was Booker T. Washington, an 1875 honors graduate who was deeply indebted to Armstrong.
When the trustees of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama wrote to Armstrong asking if he could recommend a qualified white person to serve as principal, Armstrong replied that he knew of no such individual, but there was a black man he wholeheartedly endorsed. Send Mr. Washington immediately, they replied.
Some of Armstrong’s writing seems paternalistic today, but he believed deeply in the cause he was fighting for. When he died in 1893, he was buried among students and faculty in a small cemetery on campus.
The school he started continued to grow and a series of later principals and presidents led Hampton to its status as a distinguished university.
As the City of Hampton remembers bits and pieces of its history, it may occur to some that what flowed from the tragedy of slavery and war was the triumph of this institution.
You remember those Jamestown fellows. Seems like just yesterday that we observed the 400th anniversary of their 1607 arrival in these parts and the beginning, however stumbling, of the United States. It was a big deal, but as we know, the would-be colonists didn’t stay long. In fact, so botched was their initial attempt at settlement that they clambered back on their ships and started for home – only to be turned back at the last minute. Finally, before the century was out, Jamestown’s populace did part company with that God-forsaken island.
Now there’s another anniversary to observe, but this time we can add the word “continuous.” This Friday, on its official 400th birthday, Hampton takes a curtain call as the oldest non-stop English-speaking place in America.
Of course this is no cause for kicking up one’s heels. Native peoples dwelt on the Peninsula for at least 12,000 years – 300 times longer, if my math is correct. At the time of the second landing near Point Comfort, the place we now call Hampton was home to the Kecoughtans – “Kik-o-tans,” as the natives pronounce it. They were once a thriving and independent community, blessed with access to abundant food, from seafood to wild plants to crops they harvested in carefully tended gardens. As English observer William Strachey put it, “Kecoughtan is an ample and faire country indeed, an admirable portion of land comparatively high, wholesome and fruitful.” Of course, that is exactly why the natives were vulnerable to the starving, half-crazed settlers, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Captain John Smith and his crew paid a couple of visits to the Kecoughtans in hopes of obtaining food. Their village was likely where the Veterans Administration Hospital now sits. The most memorable visit occurred in December 1608 when the Englishmen took shelter there during a long northeasterly storm and spent Christmas among the Indians. As he would write,
We were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowl, and good bread, nor never had better fires in England than in the dry, warm, smoky houses of Kecoughtan.
But the merry times didn’t last long. In July 2010, desirous of that “faire country,” the colonists brutally attacked the Indians, killed many of them and drove off the rest. This, then, is the official date of Hampton’s founding. (Ironically, they called their village Kecoughtan for several years before banishing the name.)
The long sweep of history since then is fascinating. It includes a period when Hampton was the most important town in Virginia, with every merchant ship arriving and leaving the new world stopping to pay customs duties. It was a lively place. Captains and seamen, stevedores and shipwrights crowded the wharves and spilled over in the taverns.
Hampton’s story is touched by war. During the Revolution, the town was bombarded but held its own. The War of 1812 brought an invasion and brutal sacking, which led to the decision to build Fort Monroe and Fort Wool.
That same sweep of history includes the Civil War and the fateful decision to deny Union access to the town by burning it to the ground. Thousands of slaves, whom historian Robert Engs called “Freedom’s First Generation,” took refuge there and built among the ruins. One of the most dramatic moments in American education was the founding of a school that at first trained former enslaved persons, then grew to become one of the most respected educational institutions in America, Hampton University.
Hampton didn’t recover from the war until seafood and hotel entrepreneurs from the North arrived, then the Air Force and NASA turned a sleepy village into a thriving city. From the sea to the stars indeed.
This painting by Sidney King depicts the Jamestown colonists in their first meeting with the Kecoughtans at a place now occupied by the Veterans Administration Hospital. Courtesy of National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park.