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Piecing together a mysterious past

South Boston News
Born in Clarksville in 1870, Erasmus Lafayette Baskervill graduated from the Boydton Institute, read Greek and Latin and rose to the position of archdeacon in the Episcopal Church’s South Carolina diocese. All of his six children went to college, some to the Ivy League. Fans of the Boydton Institute and other now-defunct historically black schools think there are scores of fascinating stories like his to be discovered. (Photo courtesy of Charles Farrar)
SoVaNow.com / October 20, 2010
Retracing the Trail of Equality

For some sites on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail, the history is all there, well-documented and freshly remembered.

For many others, it’s shrouded in the passage of time, neglect or racial bias.

Mecklenburg’s two stops on the trail are particularly mysterious, but the unrelated research of two men is dovetailing serendipitously.

•••

Bill Gray of Richmond is active with the Old Brunswick Circuit Foundation, a United Methodist nonprofit that works to celebrate and preserve “the cradle of Methodism” in 16 Virginia and North Carolina counties. In that territory – and now back in the Methodists’ possession – is the original site of Randolph Macon College in Mecklenburg.

But Gray, an RMC alumnus himself and a retired businessman, has become equally captivated by what the site was used for later: the black Boydton Academic and Bible Institute.

In the late 1870s, the private Institute was, like similar schools of its day, established to educate the first people out of slavery, so they could seize the American dream for themselves, so they could become the first free African-American leaders.

“People need to know the untold story of the people who went to these schools and went on to become important,” says Gray. But records are scant because “no one was paying attention to what ‘they’ were doing.”

Gray has little to go on: catalogs from 1888-89 and 1907-08, and a prospectus from 1931-32 are his mainstays.

Like many such projects, the school was underfunded and changed hands and leadership during its 56-year tenure.

“There are no records to amount to anything,” he laments.

Today, Gray is working against the clock to capture the oral histories of people who have been identified with the school and of finding out where they ended up, “the idea being to show it was an important educational institution for black people in the nation and certainly in the area.”

The Old Brunswick Foundation isn’t certain what it will do with the site. Perhaps it will become, in part, a history museum. Perhaps a satellite college of some sort, Gray says.

•••

One of the Boydton Institute’s most famous students was surely civil rights pioneer Vernon Johns. But among its most interesting graduates may have been Erasmus Lafayette Baskervill – a Clarksville native born to freed slaves David Skipwith Baskervill and Millie Ann W. Baskervill – who became an archdeacon in the Episcopal Church.

“The Baskervill story, as unique as it is, is the story of many of the blacks who came out of the Institute,” says Charles Farrar, a Mecklenburg native himself who recently wrote his master’s thesis on Baskervill. The historically black schools established during Reconstruction “took as their mission to educate that first crop of young black folks to the promise of America, and these young people took that mission very seriously.”

According to Farrar’s research, Baskervill graduated in 1894 (at age 24) and hightailed it to New York City, where he joined the U.S. Army and distinguished himself in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, leading “colored” troops.

He married a Granville County woman who was a teacher at the Institute, Mary Effie Taylor, and enrolled in a divinity school set up in the basement of a white Richmond church to train blacks.

He wound up at the black Calvary Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., a spin-off mission of white churches, Farrar said. Eventually, he became leader of essentially every black Episcopalian in the state, overseeing about 25 churches or missions and about six parochial schools. At one point he had 65 teachers reporting to him.

“His mission in life was to bring that first generation … out of the cotton fields and out of the kitchens of the old plantations, to the extent that he could,” Farrar says.

When the diocese couldn’t fund all his ambitions, Baskervill himself traveled north to raise money, often from sympathetic whites.

Dying in 1937, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery after sending all six children to college, including to Ivy League schools.

No full-fledged Baskervill biography exists, and Farrar, an artist living in Concord, N.C., is toying with the idea of expanding his thesis into a book.

“It is an amazing story,” he says.

•••

A footnote: Farrar’s thesis received high recognition within the international Episcopal Church; he received his degree in England from none other than Archbishop Rowan Williams, head of the 77-million member Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part.

Both Gray and Farrar plan to attend tomorrow’s Civil Rights In Education Heritage Trail Conference in South Boston.

• Visit the Boyton Institute site on U.S. 58, just west of Boydton.

• Visit Mecklenburg’s other stop, the Thyne Institute site, on Route 47 in Chase City; no buildings remain.

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