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September 14, 2014

Petersburg, Virginia Dedication of Historical Marker is Ubuntu in Action

“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”
~ Desmond Tutu

This is a story of how the inspiration to act on an epiphany experienced many years ago emerged as a fully formed symbol of Ubuntu in Petersburg, Virginia in this 14th year of the 21st Century.  Some might choose to see the hand of “divine providence” intervening to ensure a successful outcome.  But first, we will set the scene in the context of the mid-20th Century.

The story reminds Americans that overt racial segregation was a fact of life in public schools until the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education case in Topeka, Kansas, which struck down segregation in public schools as “inherently unequal” based on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law.  In 1954, 17 states and the District of Columbia had laws that required elementary schools to be segregated and four states had laws “permitting” segregation but did not generally enforce them.  In 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court extended its prohibition of segregation to include state-supported colleges and universities.

In spite of the Supreme Court victory for equal education in 1954 and 1956, it took many more years for all states to be in compliance.  Sadly, due to the phenomenon of “white flight” from areas where previously all white schools would now admit black children, many American cities still struggle with quality, funding, and full integration in their public school systems.

Except for Black History Month, we do not hear very much about the educational institutions that African American free men and women and ex-slaves built to ensure their own and their children’s education in the post-Civil War decades.  One such outstanding institution began a mere 13 years after the 1865 surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, ending the Civil War.   The St. Stephen’s Normal and Industrial School in Petersburg, Virginia, a branch of the Virginia Theological Seminary, opened the Bishop Payne Divinity School, “the only seminary for black men in the Episcopal Church” in 1878.

Reverend W. Pegram Johnson III successfully led the effort to establish the historical road marker acknowledging the Bishop Payne Divinity School and its great contribution to the education of African-American seminarians before desegregation.

And now back to that inspirational epiphany.  The person who experienced it is himself an Episcopal priest, a white Episcopal priest, who grew up in Petersburg and attended the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, graduating in 1965.  On a family visit to Alexandria, Rev. W. Pegram Johnson III dropped by his alma mater and found himself in the Bishop Payne Library.  Memories of his boyhood in Petersburg came to mind—his adventures combing a field near Lieutenants Run for treasures from the Battle of Petersburg during the American Civil War (buttons, bones, and even live shells).  That war was less than 100 years ago when he was a child. He also thought about growing up in a town with a cemetery where 30,000 Confederate soldiers were buried.  These recollections reflect the sense of division that still hangs heavily over some places where the Civil War was fought—not only in the South, but at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania battle in the North as well.

Now, though, for Rev. Johnson, that sense of division brought to mind the great work of the Bishop Payne Divinity School.  He remembered the momentous chance meeting at the root of the epiphany that opened up his new understanding of equality.  Before entering the seminary, the future seminarian traveled to Hong Kong to teach.  On shipboard, he met a young Chinese man who shared a saying from Confucius—“Within the four seas, all men are brothers.”

Once in Hong Kong, through his experiences in a culture so different from his own, Reverend Johnson was able to fully grasp the concept of equality and inequality.  He returned to the U.S. with a new awareness and appreciation for what each person and each culture contributes to the world.  He enrolled in the Virginia Theological Seminary and was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1966.  Eleanor Roosevelt could have been talking about Rev. Johnson when she said, “People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.”

Historical road marker unveiled on grounds of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Petersburg, VA

So while visiting the Bishop Payne Library at the Virginia Theological Seminary, the inspiration came to Rev. Johnson to mount a campaign for a historical road marker commemorating the great achievements of the Bishop Payne Divinity School, and honoring the 260 black men and women graduates, along with their faculty, staff, trustees, and wardens.  Rev. Johnson was successful, and on March 29, 2014, the marker was unveiled in Petersburg by the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

Reverend Johnson’s story is one that reflects vividly the words of our great Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Read the full article published in the Summer 2014 issue of the Virginia Seminary Journal:

“Historic Marker Honors Early Black Theological Education,” by Christopher Pote, cpote@vts.edu, Archivist, Virginia Theological Seminary.

Archivist and author, Christopher Pote, made the following remarks at the March 31, 2014, dedication of the historical road marker for the Bishop Payne Divinity School: “The VTS Archives holds the remaining institutional records of Bishop Payne Divinity School, but has only a few archival collections of the people who made it such a great institution.  Judging by my conversations with relatives and descendants of both former students and faculty this weekend, I am confident that our holdings will deepen as we continue to document the heritage of this historic seminary.”

About VTS Archivist Christopher Pote

“Both the African American Episcopal Historical Collection (AAEHC) and the VTS Archives are housed in the Bishop Payne Library here on the VTS campus in Alexandria, VA.  I served as archivist for the AAEHC first, and then my responsibilities were extended to include the entire VTS archival collection.  Technically I am still Head Archivist for the AAEHC, but am ably assisted by Dr. Joseph Thompson, Assistant Archivist for the AAEHC.”

Permission to use photographs:  We gratefully acknowledge permission from the Virginia Theological Seminary to use the photographs included in this post.  Please note that permission is limited to use in this post exclusively. If you wish to request permission to use any of the photographs in the post (including those on the link to the complete article as it appears in the Virginia Seminary Journal, Summer 2014 issue), please submit your request for permission via e-mail to Archivist Pote [cpote@vts.edu].