Educating the Disfranchised and Disinherited: Samuel Chapman Armstrong and Hampton Institute, 1839-1893

By Bair, Barbara | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, October 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Educating the Disfranchised and Disinherited: Samuel Chapman Armstrong and Hampton Institute, 1839-1893


Bair, Barbara, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Educating the Disfranchised and Disinherited: Samuel Chapman Armstrong and Hampton Institute, 1839-1893. By ROBERT FRANCIS ENGS. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999. xx, 208 pp. $32.50.

SAMUEL CHAPMAN ARMSTRONG was a Yankee by heritage whose first experience of Hampton, Virginia, was as a malaria patient in a wartime Union military hospital. The son of New England missionaries, Armstrong came of age in Hawaii. He was educated at Williams College and volunteered for the Union army. He fought at Gettysburg, and as an officer led black troops. The experience gave him his first real insight into the grand cause for racial rights, and his own possible role in it. Military service also provided him with a model for wielding personal authority over African American charges that he never completely abandoned in his latter career as an educator. In operating Hampton Institute, Armstrong drew most of its faculty from a pool of educated white New England females who had been raised in Republican families. Many of them had male relatives who proved to be influential donors to the school. Armstrong spent a good deal of his time away from Virginia, fundraising among the well-to-do and wielding his considerable boyish charm in the social circles in which his own parents had been raised, and from which both of his wives originated. He was believed by the northern philanthropists he courted to be ably carrying out the work begun by William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln.

To the members of the Virginia assembly and the white southern social elite with which he also hobnobbed, however, Armstrong demonstrated that he understood well the difference between championing the uplift of African Americans and promoting their equality with whites. He certainly seemed to accept the less than subtle meanings assigned to the concepts of "civilization" and "purity" that prevailed among most southern whites at the time. Armstrong was a realist who did what he had to do within the social and political constraints of his day to keep the institution up and running. Donors and federal funding sources to a great extent dictated policy and the profile of the student body.

It was in this spirit that Hampton, in 1878, began recruiting Native American students, whose attendance was provided for by government stipends. One can only imagine the cognitive dissonance suffered by the first Indian students, young Kiowa, Comanche, and Arapaho men who had been incarcerated in military prison at Fort Marion, Florida, after an uprising in Indian Territory. These western plains dwellers found themselves hoeing onion fields in the humidity of Tidewater Virginia. Blankets and loin cloths were replaced with jackets and trousers, and black pupils looked askance at Native Americans more comfortable sleeping under beds than on them. …

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