PART II. VERNON JOHNS: THE EARLY YEARS
CHAPTER 4. VERNON JOHNS: FORMATIVE YEARS
Virginia is divided physiographically into five distinct provinces from east to west. The coastal plain is a broad belt of undulating and river-gashed flatland that borders the eastern seaboard from the Potomac River to the North Carolina line. Here are the towns of Jamestown, Williamsburg, Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, and Newport News.
Vernon Johns was born in the piedmont province in the small town of Darlington Heights not far from Farmville, Virginia. The piedmont region contains the towns of Richmond, Fredericksburg, Monticello, and Lynchburg, and Farmville. The surface of this province has been so channeled by streams, that with a few notable exceptions, flat areas are few. The area varies from a width of forty miles at the northern border to about 185 miles at the North Carolina line. Driving through this area with its constant ups and downs is like driving over roller-coaster territory.
The next province is that of the Blue Ridge mountains. The towns of this area include Front Royal and Roanoke. West of the Blue Ridge is the area known as the ridge and valley province. Part of this area contains the Shenandoah Valley famous in civil war history for Stonewall Jackson's campaigns here against federal troops. Shenandoah Valley towns include Winchester, Staunton, Swannanoa and Lexington.
The last area is that of the Appalachian Plateau. This is the same plateau that in Pennsylvania is known as the Pocono Mountains and in New York as the Catskill Mountains. The mountains are not actually mountains at all, but peaks in a plateau that has been seriously eroded by streams and creeks.
Tobacco Industry in Central Virginia
Historically, the biggest industry in the piedmont area was the preparing of tobacco strips. In Farmville, sixteen factories were devoted to this. Neil V. Sullivan (1965:3) came to Farmville to help in the education of blacks after Prince Edward County had closed its schools in 1959 to resist school integration. He commented that "On farm after farm every inch of land right up to the door was used for growing tobacco. My eyes sought in vain for even a small vegetable garden -- and this in an area where, I was soon to discover, malnutrition among children was widespread. What I did see in many fields that early morning were young, almost naked Negro children hard at work cutting tobacco leaves."
In the manufacturing of tobacco strips, loose tobacco was taken to the factory and placed on the floor in piles according to grade, style, and quality. They made a hogshead of strips; then they took them to another room and sprinkled and steamed them a little at a time. The workers tied the strips into uniform bundles, which were also steamed. They then weighed the bundles, stretched them on sticks, and hung them up in the drying room for from eight to twelve hours. The bundles were steamed again and then cooled for two days. After being thoroughly dried and cooled, the bundles were steamed for a third time in a steam box, straightened and quickly packed into hogsheads.
Mary Croner Spencer (Kluger 1975:452), the maternal grandmother of Vernon Johns' niece, Barbara Johns, said that tobacco, although the cash crop, was "right hard to grow. You got to plow it, replant it, sucker it, top it, and worm it . . ." The 415 man hours of labor that went into an average acre of tobacco seemed barely worth the $150 or so that it brought in the Thirties.
Women and young men, often aided by their children, were used for this basic function (Du Bois 1898:19). In the 1890s they were paid 50 cents for every hundred pounds of stemmed tobacco. They could stem from 100 to 300 pounds of tobacco a day. They could thereby earn anywhere from $2.50 to $9.00 a week for from five to seven months per year. The adult men received from $0.75 to $1.00 dollar a day for a season of from eight to nine months.
Prince Edward County is fifty-seven miles southwest of Richmond, about midway between Petersburg and Lynchburg. In the 1880s there were 14,000 residents, 8,000 of who were black (Du Bois 1898:5). Tobacco was the leading product. Also raised were corn, wheat, oats, and potatoes, dairy products, and poultry.
Prince Edward County was part of the rural area of Virginia known as Southside that extended south of the James River (excluding the Tidewater region). It was part of the South's "Black Belt" where the dark soil typical of many of its counties stretched southward from Virginia into the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The black belt was also literally black since the Southside counties had a high percentage of blacks employed to work the output of the rich earth of the belt. In Prince Edward County, at the northern tier of the belt, only 55.4 percent of the 15,398 population in 1950 was white. (Smith, Bob 1965:3-4)
All roads in Prince Edward lead to the town of Farmville, the county seat of 3,000 to 4,000 souls on the Appomattox River. Farmville is in the extreme northern part of the county. Farmville is located off US 460 that runs from Petersburg west to Lynchburg (114 miles from Richmond) then on to Roanoke (185 miles) and to the border with West Virginia. This is an area so remote that its inhabitants preserved a distinctive speech pattern from the early Scots who settled there. Farmville later was reduced to something like a ghost of nearby Lynchburg.
Tobacco had been inflicting its toll on the earth of Virginia ever since the first Tidewater plantations were measured off in the seventeenth century. But land was plentiful then and the demand for tobacco in Europe high, so it did not matter that the soil was quickly exhausted. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the tobacco market had been glutted and much of the tidewater land played out as settlers began pushing inland to the great piedmont plateau. They came up the Appomattox River from Petersburg and found a gently undulating forest land. Two-thirds of Prince Edward County was in forest land, most of it second-growth yellow Virginia pine, a tree that kept the county's lumber business in operation (Kluger 1975:453). Small harvests of tobacco were grown and shipped with timber down the river to Petersburg, and slowly the area was cleared.
Farmville was founded about 1730 when white men moved west, the Appomattox River being the main route. The land on which Farmville was laid out was patented in 1736 by Richard Randolph of Curles and was called Bizarre. There is a highway mark (MJ1) on Main Street just north of the Appomattox River bridge that says that near here is the site of Bizarre owned in 1742 by Richard Randolph (Bradshaw 1994:1-9).
In 1753, a chunk of 356 square miles of the inland earth was carved from Amelia County and named in honor of King George III's otherwise uncelebrated grandnephew, Edward, Prince of Wales (Kluger 1975:452). Farmville itself was established in 1798. The county seat was moved from Worsham to Farmville in 1871.
Farmville was once a place of bulky tobacco warehouses and red brick factories along the river. In 1834 there were two tobacco warehouses at which from 4,000 to 4,500 hogsheads of tobacco were inspected annually. Five tobacco factories employed 250 workers. This afforded the largest production of the finest French tobacco in the state (Bradshaw 1994:10-12). Dr. Robert Lewis Dabney, as a seminary student, visited a classmate in Farmville during the session of 1845-46. The most notable thing he remembered was the singing of black workers in one of the tobacco factories. The blacks sang hymns in three or four parts with varied accompaniment -- songs they had learned from their church choirs (Bradshaw 1994:25).
In 1898 Farmville was a busy market town, the trading center of six counties. It pulled people to it, but sent its children off to Richmond, Norfolk, Baltimore and New York. In this manner Farmville acted as a sort of clearing house (Du Bois 1898:5). In 1890 of the 2,058 residents, 1,186 were black.
In 1898 Du Bois (1898:5) reported that in Farmville there was an opera house, a normal school for white girls, an armory, a court house and jail, a bank, and a depot. Prince Edward Courthouse is a small, brick structure built about 1873, that stands back from the street, almost invisible among the places of business.
Du Bois (1898:19&17) reported that Farmville was not a center of independent farming. Most of the Negroes have given up farming for industry in town. Another business that was relatively new in Farmville was the grocery store. These proved to be quite successful. The stores were small and unpretentious. There were seven in the town, with three absolutely flourishing. These took in from $50 to $100 per week in sales.
Black society in Farmville was dominated by the church (Du Bois 1898:16,34-35,38). The position of the preacher was the most influential of all the positions among the blacks. Most of the sermons were about the social vices of the congregation. The chief and overshadowing organization in the town was the First Baptist Church on Main Street. Its auditorium could hold 500 people. It, like other churches, was the central clubhouse of the community. One fascinating part of the community was that a hopeful note was found amidst the people. They believed that they would eventually attain their rights.
Layout of Farmville
If traveling to Farmville from Lynchburg or Petersburg, the motorist can take Route 460 bypass and get off at Route 15 north, which northward becomes the Main Street of Farmville. One of the first landmarks one sees on the way north is the R. R. Moton High School, famous as one of the birth places of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education.
A famous black church, that of Rev. Griffin of civil rights fame, the First Baptist Church, stands on the east side of town at the corner of Main and Fourth Streets. The church is a two-storied, red brick building, bulking out to the sidewalk. The church had apparently housed a white congregation up until the Civil War, when Yankees seized it and used it as a hospital. Thus contaminated, it was viewed by the community after the war as fit only for use by blacks, who bought it for about $1,000 in 1866. The church had windows that were translucent white with stained-glass panels only around the edges. It had some competition from Race Street Baptist farther south in Farmville, as well as from smaller outlying congregations such as Triumph Church, white and imposing on its hilltop site in Darlington Heights, which the Croner and Johns families attended. But First Baptist was the wealthiest and most solid Negro church in the county, and the only one with more than one regular Sunday service (Kluger 1976:461).
On the west side of Main Street, High Street climbs a hill. This was the original site of the present Longwood College. By 1839 this school had become the Farmville Female Seminary and in 1860 the Farmville Female College. The property passed to town authorities in 1884 and was turned over to the State for a 'female normal school.' The enrollment (1937-38) was 2,193. It was once known as the State Teachers' College and was housed in five modern three-story buildings of red brick with Ionic porticoes connected by colonnaded passages. Before 1835 Martin's Gazeteer recorded 'one female school' here. The Confederate monument of a soldier at the ready was erected in 1900 and stands just back from the tree-lined sidewalk of High Street, across from the columns of Longwood College and in front of the red-brick Farmville Methodist Church (Smith, Bob 1965:106).
A little farther north on the east side of Main Street are the municipal buildings. Here is the Prince Edward County Courthouse. The original courthouse and clerk's office were replaced in 1939.
In Southside communities there was no single, black section: blacks and whites lived back-to-back. Farther out on Main that the street became all black. South Street, running parallel to and just east of Main, was slummy in appearance and almost entirely black. Virginia Street, the next street east, was black on the north and south extremes and white in between. The house at 313 Virginia Street was where Rev. Griffin grew up and from which his father prepared his ministry. It was a green frame structure with a roof that once was red but had turned a dingy gray. It had a rickety front porch that held two straw-backed chairs and one rocker (Smith, Bob 1965:4&7).
On the northeast corner of Main and Second Streets stood the Prince Edward Hotel (originally known as the Randolph House). On the afternoon of April 6, 1865, Lee's army in retreat from Richmond was attacked by Sheridan's cavalry and two corps of infantry at Saylor's Creek, ten miles to the east. The Confederate rear was cut off, and 6,000 men and six generals were taken prisoners. At Saylor's Creek, the 2nd and 3rd Corps, under Generals R. H. Anderson and R. S. Ewell, respectively were captured. The Farmville Guard was in the 3rd Corps.
On April 6 Lee came to the P. H. Jackson's home on Beech Street on his arrival in town (Bradshaw 1994:80). He drank a cup of coffee. The next day, April 7, Farmville was in the hands of the Federals. Grant reached the Randolph House in the afternoon. While troops were in Farmville, many homes were ransacked. At the Randolph House, Grant penned the note to Lee suggesting surrender. April 8, Grant received Lee's reply. (Bradshaw 1994:31-32) The Randolph House was completely renovated in 1907 and renamed Hotel Prince Edward. It was brick of three stories and a porch in front held up by columns. Near the northern border of Farmville lies the Appomattox River. Near here were many of the tobacco factories.
Southwest of Farmville lies Hampden-Sydney College not far from the road that leads from Route 15 to Darlington Heights. Sullivan (1965:7) said that "As I scouted the five-block business district looking for a restaurant, I was impressed by the town's tidiness -- no trash, no loose papers, no littering. . . .I admired the handsome brick buildings of Longwood College, a state teachers college for women located in the center of Farmville; and Hampden-Sydney, a small but venerable Presbyterian-affiliated men's college, only a few miles away."
Today Farmville is no longer a quaint town. It is also not that small anymore. Longwood College is now a large institution covering a huge area of land in the town. There are shopping centers and the strip development so characteristic of virtually all America today.
Vernon Napoleon Johns was born in the piedmont region of Virginia in Darlington Heights on April 22, 1892. Darlington Heights is located southwest of Farmville, in Prince Edward County. From Darlington Heights traveling eastward, County Route 665 will take the traveler to Route 15 (also known as the Jefferson Davis Highway). This route travels north into Farmville.
Darlington Heights is located just southeast of the meeting point of three counties, Prince Edward, Charlotte, and Appomattox; just southwest of Farmville. Drawing an imaginary clock around Darlington Heights (located at the center of the clock), Appomattox- Buckingham State Forest is located at 12 o'clock; Farmville at 1 o'clock; Saylor's Creek Battlefield Historical State Park and, farther out, Richmond, at 2 o'clock; Prince Edward-Gallion State Forest and, farther out, Petersburg at 3 o'clock; Altavista at 8:30; Lynchburg at 10:30; and Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park at 11 o'clock. Northwest of the town is Spring Creek Lake. Spring Creek runs northeastward eventually flowing into the Appomattox River at Farmville.
The home of the Johns' parents was on the South side of Route 665 near its intersection with Route 666.
Willie Johns and Sallie Johns got their property of 163 acres on the Buffalo River from the estate of the deceased Louisa S. Fleshman in a deed granted September 17, 1910. Willie Johns gave to Sallie Johns on January 15, 1914. Eventually Vernon Johns built a combination store and living quarters on the north side of Route 666 near Vernon's parents' home. In 1934 this land was deeded over to Altona Johns for $1,500 dollars.
Booker T. Washington and the Era of Accommodation
Vernon Johns was born at a time just before the ultimate defeat of populism in the South. Populism was the expression of revolt, largely by farmers and not blue collar workers, against the abuses associated with industrialization. In the South temporary alliances were made between blacks and whites. This association frightened the wealthier groups in the South which in turn punished the blacks for their flirting with rebellion. As in Alabama, Virginia whites in 1902 adopted a harsh new constitution. Between 1870 and 1900 there had been no consistent code of racial mores or "Jim Crow" legislation (Buni 1967:72-73). In 1900 the Virginia legislature enacted a law requiring railroads to furnish separate coaches for blacks and whites. Streetcars were included in a second act passed in 1906. The capstone came in 1925 when the General Assembly passed a bill separating the races in all theaters, opera houses, and other places of public assemblage.
The black man who sanctioned much of the toughened period of segregation was Booker T. Washington. Born into slavery in 1856, he escaped to work in the salt mines of West Virginia. In the fall of 1878 at the age of twenty-two, he attended the black Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C. (now Virginian Union University). The seminary began in 1867 in a building donated by the Freedmen's Bureau. It was named for a leading Baptist divine, Francis Wayland, president of Brown University.
Booker T. Washington never liked big cities and he did not seem to enjoy his time at the seminary where the students were much too urban and sophisticated to suit his more simple rural tastes. Working his way through school, he attended Hampton Institute in Virginia, where General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the white principal, first set forth a program of agricultural and industrial training that made the education of blacks palatable to the dominant elements in the South. It was Armstrong who taught Washington the doctrine of economic advancement combined with acceptance of disfranchisement and conciliation with whites.
Booker T. taught at Hampton until 1881, when he was chosen to head a new school at Tuskegee, the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. It soon became a pioneer example of an independent industrial school for blacks.
In 1895 Washington was catapulted into prominence when he gave a famous (or infamous) speech at the Cotton States' Exposition in Atlanta. This made him in the eyes of white America the "official" leader of the black race. Washington was supported by governmental, industrial, and educational leaders throughout the nation.
Washington's "Atlanta Compromise" address of 1895 in stressing the humble and menial role that the race was to play virtually proposed the retirement of the mass of blacks from the political life of the South. Booker T. said in welcoming a conference of white Southern University presidents to Tuskegee in 1912: "We are trying to instill into the Negro mind that if education does not make the Negro humble, simple, and of service to the community, then it will not be encouraged" (quoted in Woodward 1974:95). Washington did work for reforms for the blacks and improvements for the race. He tried to expand the notion of equality, pleading and appealing to whites for more equal treatment, trading better treatment for black cooperation with whites. But he always did this within the system of "separate but equal."
For the next twenty years, until his death in 1915, no other Negro commanded a comparable influence among men of both races. Booker T. epitomized the black's accommodation to the new order of white supremacy. He was noted for his "unabashed flattery of the white South" (Broderick and Meier 1965:8). Whites often did not have to apply sanctions against blacks who opposed the system. They let the black leadership do the job for them. Washington built a coalition of blacks, northern liberals, southern moderates and wealthy philanthropists. Even the best of the liberals, the neo-abolitionists, endorsed Washington's work, even though they were somewhat skeptical of his emphasis on industrial training and obsequiousness to southern whites (McPherson 1994:361 &359). Most blacks also endorsed Washington. These included T. Thomas Fortune, Francis J. Grimke, J. W. E. Bowen and other blacks prominent in the drive for civil rights and higher education. Even Du Bois kept on friendly terms with Washington, although this would eventually change. In fact, Du Bois remained an ally of Washington until 1903.
In 1896 the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson decision gave judicial sanction to the "separate but equal" doctrine that Washington had already endorsed in his "separate as the fingers" reference (i.e., blacks and whites could be as separate as the fingers on our hands, but as united as clasped hands on larger goals.) The Plessy decision involved only transportation, but the courts soon extended the formula to schools and public accommodations.
We shall see later how Vernon Johns was greatly influenced by the thought of Booker T. Washington. Johns adopted Washington's stress on the importance of self-sufficiency for blacks through agricultural developments. Johns was always to see himself partly as a simple farmer. This proved a great tragedy for Johns. Ultimately, politics dominates economics and to ignore this is to throw away much of one's intellectual talent. A political emphasis would have allowed Johns to concentrate more on his writings and his influence on other intellectuals rather than virtually wasting time hopelessly trying to start importantly successful black farm and other businesses.
The Birth and Early Years of Vernon Johns
Vernon Johns was a man of fire. Where did this fire come from? Part of it was biological. His family goes back to slavery days in Tazewell County located in southwest Virginia, in the panhandle of the state. Johns was quick to point out that white families named Johns were scattered that part of Virginia (Smith, Bob, 1965:76). Branch (1988:7) writes that Johns was the grandson on his father's side of a slave who killed his master and on his mother's side of a master who killed for his slave mistress. His grandfather on his father's side was hanged for cutting his master in two with a scythe. The tale in the Johns family was that hunting dogs would not approach the haunted spot where the murder occurred.
Johns's maternal grandfather was a white man named Price, of Scottish descent. He was reportedly a mean, violent, and complicated man. He had two separate families, one white, one black. The story is that Price killed a white man he caught trying to rape his slave mistress. He had protected her "just like she was a white woman." "As a result, he became one of the first inmates at the new Virginia State Penitentiary" (Branch 1988:7).
Vernon's mother was Sallie Branch Price Johns. When her father's black wife died in the 1870s, Price took all the black children into the other household to be raised by his childless white wife, "Miss Kitty." Sallie never called her father "father." Decency required that the children be called orphans and the father and his wife to be foster parents.
Gandy (1977:viii) wrote that Sallie Johns had an unusual mind, an uncanny sense of humor, a quick temper that flared on the spot at the least suggestion of racial unfairness. Vernon's wife, Altona Trent Johns, later said that she and the children "would be eternally grateful for her love, helpfulness, skill in nursing and excellent cooking. She and Uncle Robert gave our children loving care and education enrichment."
Vernon Johns's paternal grandparents were Harriet Womack and Monroe Johns, Sr. Harriet had been a slave on the plantation of the Dillon family near Darlington Heights and continued to work for them for wages after Emancipation. Monroe was a shoemaker. He worked at home and also kept house and cooked for his family. Gandy (1977:vii), always putting a good face on his comments, wrote "The young people always enjoyed going to his house because he was fun to be around and always had something good for them to eat."
The Johns children were Willie, Carter, Robert, John, Monroe, Jr., Jennie, Addie, Liza, and Bet. Vernon's father was William Thomas Johns (known as Willie), the eldest child. Willie was very thrifty and energetic. He farmed and sold Sayman Soap and related products from farm to farm on Saturday from his saddle bags. He pastored for several years the Sharon Baptist Church, Buckingham County. Later, on his own farm, he financed and built his own church.
Vernon Johns was the second child, after Jessie. The other children were, in order, Wesley, Bertha, Ernest, Clinton, and Robert. It was said that Vernon began preaching at three on the doorstep or on a stump (Gandy 1977:vii). His preaching abilities pleased his father Willie, who left the farm on Sundays to earn extra money as a "saddlebags preacher." Vernon was eager to learn so his mother allowed him at age five to accompany his sister, Jessie, to the over-crowded one-room school about four miles away from the house. His first teachers were Mrs. Julia Jordan Womack of Farmville, Mrs. Mozelle Jordan Price, wife of his maternal uncle, the Reverend Peter Price, and the Reverend Richard Dodson. He ate his lunch daily on the way to school because Reverend Dodson, who was fond of Vernon, shared his daily lunch with him.
An incident which Vernon never forgot was the visit of Dr. James Hardy Dillard who as a young man drove from Hampden-Sydney in a buggy to visit Negro rural schools and taught them poems and the singing of Tennyson's "Sweet and Low" arranged by Barnby. Dr. Dillard devoted the final decades of his life to an effort to "transform the average white man's attitude toward the Negro." In 1908 he resigned his comfortable position at Tulane University New Orleans to work with rural blacks in Virginia and other southern states. He was in charge of the Jeans Fund designed to improve black schools. He later also administered the Slater Fund (Dabney 1971:452-453). Dillard University in New Orleans is named for him.
About 1900 in grammar school, Vernon's teacher scolded him for erasing a blackboard filled with the week's assignment. Much to her astonishment, he reproduced every word from memory. He could memorize long biblical passages, including the entire Book of Romans. He was notoriously focused. Once, in one of his reading hideaways, he was so absorbed in a book that he failed to notice that his neglected meal was being shared by a rodent! (Boddie 1972:64) Vernon largely educated himself. He would recite poetry behind the plow and scrounge books to read at night.
Grandfather Price died about 1900. Sallie Price Johns went to the funeral with her young son Vernon and her husband Willie. They sat in a separate-but-equal family section. Willie Johns died not long afterward. His sudden death from a heart attack was a terrific loss to the family. Vernon was a teenager at the time. Sallie Johns then married her dead husband's younger brother, Robert, and, so, Vernon became the stepson of his uncle.
Interviewed by Bob Smith, January 9, 1962, (1965:77) in Petersburg, Vernon Johns remembers where his own defiance began: "It was watching fires in the tobacco barn and reading the New Testament. That was when I discovered Christianity. I discovered that Christianity was entirely different than I had supposed. I had been led to think that you couldn't do some things to folks because they were white. I found that Christianity didn't observe that distinction."
Vernon Johns was always outspoken, sometimes recklessly so. Sallie Johns fully expected to hear that Vernon had been murdered somewhere. One time a relative overheard some whites of the neighborhood talking about "getting him." But the real worry about Johns was that if the whites got him, might he not also get them when they got him (Powell 1995:15).
Like most black parents, Sallie Johns and her husbands invested what meager education funds they had in their eldest daughter, keeping Vernon on the farm. Jessie was enrolled at Boydton Institute, a small Presbyterian boarding high school near Boydton, Virginia near the Virginia/North Carolina border almost directly south of Farmville. Mrs. Frederick Owen gave $10,000 dollars to Dr. Charles Cullis, a noted religious leader and physician of Boston, for the purpose of founding a school of Christian education for blacks. In 1878 he purchased the Randolph Macon College building and about ninety acres of land in Boydton. The school started in the fall of 1879. Eventually the property consisted of a four-story brick building, a teacher's home and cottage, and about 425 acres of land. One of the early teachers was Mrs. Helen Bradford Sharpe, who served more than thirty years. They had a farm there and would carry on such activities as a corn-shucking frolic. The school even started a paper called Our Helper. (Hatch, Letters from Helensha and Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1957). In 1910 the school passed into the hands of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. In 1930 this organization gave the school to the Boydton Institute Alumni Association. (Our Helper, January 1934, p. 2) At Boydton they tried to provide at least a two-year high school. At the school the teachers gave Bible lessons daily in each grade with the aim of leading every student to become "an intelligent and wholly consecrated Christian".
Vernon wanted to go to Boydton Institute but the family couldn't afford it. Undaunted, he wrote the principal who was so highly impressed that Vernon was invited to come. There and later at Virginia Seminary, he worked his way by milking cows and cutting firewood. I got an e-mail from Bill Gray about Boydton and Vernon Johns: "A small foundation in Souside, Virginia, recently acquired 12 1/2 acres of the campus of Boydton Institute, Boydton, Virginia, the county seat of Mecklenberg County. From the age of ten to age fifteen (1902-1907), Vernon Johns, attended school there until the death of his father forced him to leave and return to his home in Prince Edward County, VA. At present, there is the possibility that a part of this property might be preserved as a landmark to Boydton Institute. Most certainly, Vernon Johns should be a prominent part of such a memorial." (e-mail, Nov. 5, 2009)
Henry Powell had been in the hospital for some reason. He got to talking to the nurse there and asked her where she was from. She said she was from Keyesville, Virginia. Henry remembered that Keyesville was home to the Bluestone Academy where Vernon Johns had gone to high school before going on to Virginia Seminary. So when I came down to Lynchburg he told me he wanted to go to Keyesville and it sounded so interesting that I decided to drive him. So on a overcast day that provided relief from the summer heat of Virginia on June 30, 1999 we drove down to Keyesville.
Henry and I drove south out of Farmville on Route 15 to the town of Keyesville. Here is one of the places that Vernon Johns attended high school. It is located off Church Street. Heading south you turn left at a church with stained-glass windows on the right side of the road by a cemetery on the left side onto Bluestone Road. You drive until the road forks. Turn left onto Harmony Road. Go down about half a mile and there is an old church and an old, delapidated building beside it.
We were pretty sure we had found the place, but I went up to a mobile home and knocked on the door. A 71 year old woman came to the door. She explained that her voice was not good because she recently had a bout with cancer. She told us that she actually had attended the school from 1935 until 1942. She was 7 to 14 years of age. She said that girls came from the north, but she was a local girl and also attended the school. Her husband had also attended school until he went into the military service during World War II. I thanked her for giving us the information and asked her if she wished acknowledgment for her kindness. She told me her name was Louise Faulkner and her husband was George William Faulkner.
The big abandoned building was a combination of class rooms and girl's dormitory. In the back of the place is a little red building that was a store house. On the site of the present church there was a kitchen and a nearby library. On the left of the church was the site of the boys' dormitory.
Bluestone Harmony Academy and Industrial School; Keyesville, VA
We looked into the building and could see the desks and the old black board. There were also some pictures on the wall still there. There were bits and pieces of an old story about a girl named Alice remaining on the blackboard. The building is gray with age. Amazingly it still stands. The remains of a crumbled stairway to the second floor still stood.
He attended Virginia Union in the 1911-1912 season (Cathy Mundale, archivist, Virginian Union University, October 23, 1997). At Virginia Union he took care of horses and mules housed in an unused gray stone barn which his wife, Altona, observed was still standing at the remotest end of the campus. Virginia Union University is located at 1500 North Lombardy Street at Lombardy Avenue and Brook Road, close to downtown Richmond. It is in the black business community of Jackson Ward. Jackson Ward, located in the heart of downtown, north of Broad Street, includes historic 2 Street, the Maggie Walker House (home to the first female bank president in the United States) and the Bojangles Statue of the famous tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Virginia Union began as the Wayland Seminary, the same school Booker T. Washington had attended earlier. The American Baptist Home Mission Society opened the school in the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. They named the school in honor of Dr. Francis Wayland who was quite instrumental in the organization and maintenance of the seminary. It had a rival school, the National Theological Institute, but in 1869 the two schools merged under the name of "Wayland Seminary." Wayland Seminary continued until 1889 when it was decided to merge the school with the Richmond Theological Seminary under the new name of Virginia Union University at Richmond, Virginia (Fitts 1985:177&181-182). By act of the Virginia Legislature in 1900 the name was changed to Virginia Union University. In 1932 Hartshorn Memorial College, a Negro woman's college nearby, founded in 1883, was co-ordinated with Union University.
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