Enslavement in the Early Years


Information on this page was largely adapted from Shelby M. Driskill’s “A Season of Discipline”: Enslavement, Education, and Faith in the Life of Robert Ryland, Report Two of the 2019-2021 University of Richmond Inclusive History Project, led by Dr. Lauranett L. Lee. The material below covers the years 1832 to 1840, when Richmond College was chartered. Details of enslavement during the Richmond College years will be included in the next phase of An Unfolding History.

Virginia Baptist Seminary began with just two teachers and fewer than a dozen students, its operations already dependent on the forced labor of enslaved individuals. The first enslaved person recorded as laboring for the institution’s students and faculty was a child named Sam, who was soon joined by others. Their numbers increased as the student body grew following the relocation of the campus to the Columbia estate in 1835.1 The names of individuals who were leased to the seminary by Robert Ryland (1805-1899) and other enslavers appear in ledger entries that record their “hire” payments, the term denoting the leasing of enslaved people. These entries only cover individuals under the auspices of the boarding department; it is possible that others were leased by the institution whose names are not known.

Known names of enslaved persons leased to Virginia Baptist Seminary:

Sam     Mary     Fanny     Caroline     Isabella     Nancy     Celia     Albert     Abby     Christian

Sam, Mary, and Fanny were enslaved by Robert Ryland; Caroline, Isabella, Nancy, Celia, Albert, Abby, and Christian were enslaved by others.

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Those held at the seminary’s Spring Farm and Columbia campuses performed forced agricultural and domestic work such as cooking, laundry, and cleaning. According to one recollection, they also visited students’ rooms once a day to refill their oil lamps, and the level of direct “servants’ attendance” to students increased during in the Richmond College era.2

Sam, Mary, and Fanny 

Prior to the seminary’s opening, Ryland agreed to fill the role of steward in addition to his leadership and teaching duties. As steward, Ryland was responsible for securing and managing the domestic and agricultural labor force at Spring Farm and then at the Columbia estate. Like other enslavement-era stewards, Ryland first drew on those he himself enslaved, leasing their labor to the institution and recording the profits among his personal receipts. Ryland’s correspondence and ledger entries offer brief glimpses of the lives and labor of three people he held who were also connected to seminary operations: Sam, Mary, and Fanny. During the seminary years, there are records of Ryland having been paid directly by the institution for the use of Sam and Fanny. Mary labored in the Ryland household where students ate. There is also an account of Mary in the context of a member of the faculty, William F. Nelson, and his family, indicating that she, too, labored for the seminary.3 

Sam (d. 1849), the first enslaved person whose labor was leased by the institution, was likely 10 to 15 years of age in 1831, when he was given to Robert Ryland by Ryland’s father, Josiah Ryland (1767-1850),4 a large-scale landholder and enslaver in King and Queen County, Virginia.5 At the time, Robert Ryland lived in Lynchburg, Virginia with his wife Josephine (1807-1846), their infant daughter, Ann Peachey Ryland (1831-1832), and Mary (d. 1837), an enslaved woman or girl who was also given to Ryland by his father. Within months of Sam’s arrival in Lynchburg, the entire household relocated to Henrico County, where Ryland would lead the newly formed Virginia Baptist Seminary at Spring Farm. As part of his employment agreement, Ryland provided the child’s labor for the communal use of students and faculty before the first session began. In anticipation of the first students’ arrival, Ryland wrote to his father: “The Board has agreed to give me 200$ from now to Xmas besides boarding my family, for acting as steward & teacher & for permitting my furniture & boy Sam to be used here as common stock.”6

Passage of Ryland's handwritten letter to his father.
Excerpt from Robert Ryland’s July 7, 1832 letter to Josiah Ryland (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

The following year, Ryland asked his wife to convey to his father that he sought additional enslaved “servants” and cows for the seminary campus: “I can’t think he will decline giving me some servants and some cows.”7

Passage of Robert Ryland’s 1833 handwritten letter to his wife.
Excerpt from Robert Ryland’s October 7, 1833 letter to Josephine Ryland (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

In 1833, Ryland wrote to Josephine Ryland, who was overseeing the operations of the campus while he was away, that Sam was to negotiate the purchase of ice for the campus should there be a need: “tell Sam to buy from Mr. Young’s ice-house in the best terms he can.” Sam was also expected to provide domestic labor in the main Spring Farm building where the Ryland family resided and the students ate (“Sam can work in the house”).8 Between 1835 and 1838, Ryland recorded what he was owed for Sam and Fanny’s labor for the institution and when he received payment from the board.9 

Excerpt from handwritten ledger page showing the hire of Sam for $60 and Fanny for $20.
Robert Ryland’s 1834 ledger showing the hire of Sam and Fanny as expenses of the seminary boarding department (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)
Top of page of handwritten record of Ryland’s personal receipts in 1835.
Robert Ryland’s 1835 record of personal receipts showing income for “servants hired at Semy” in 1834 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Mary appears to have remained at the seminary during all or most of the years between 1832 and her death in spring 1837, laboring in the Columbia mansion where Ryland’s family then resided along with William F. Nelson, a member of the faculty, and his wife, who accused Sam and Mary of theft in 1836.10 Mary also acted as a caregiver for at least one of the Ryland children.11 In a letter to his sister, Elizabeth, Ryland shared the news that Mary died and included the name of her mother: “I suppose that you have heard that Mary—Beverly’s daughter is dead. She died last Spring.” This corresponds to Ryland’s March 1837 payment of three dollars to a woman he referred to as a “Black doctoress.”12

In 1838, Ryland anticipated being relieved of his steward duties and began to participate more fully in the “slave hire” system that shaped much of the region’s economic and social relations. He continued that practice for the next 27 years. Between 1838 and 1849, Sam was forced to labor for the James River & Kanawha Canal Company; in the home or business of L.R. Streeter, editor of the Richmond Weekly Star; and as a hand in two or more tobacco factories in the city of Richmond. Each year, Ryland leased Fanny out to households as a domestic servant.13 He carefully recorded in his personal receipts the money he was paid for the labor of Sam, Fanny, and others. In an example from 1841, he records the $110 he was paid for Sam’s labor in 1840 and notes that the amount he drew from Fanny’s domestic work was reduced due to her medical costs and “commissions,” indicating that he may have used an agent specializing in “slave hire” to place her.14

Top of page of handwritten private receipts from 1838.
Sam and Fanny’s labor represented in Ryland's records of his private receipts, 1838 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

By 1849, Sam appears to have been responsible for finding his own place to live, an urban slavery practice common in Richmond and other industrial Southern cities. That spring, Ryland brought the young man back to the campus to work in the dining room and in the garden. After a short period, Sam became ill with pneumonia and died 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Ryland wrote his father, calling Sam “the boy you gave me” and noting his family’s feeling of loss due to Sam being “very obliging.” He described his conversation with the dying man: “I talked plainly with him during his last sickness on eternal things—he said he had not lived as he ought to have done, but had a hop[e] in God’s mercy.” Also in 1849, Fanny’s name stopped appearing in Ryland’s personal accounts, which may indicate her death as well.15

“Hire” of Others

1837 news clipping concerning a smallpox outbreak.
Religious Herald notice concerning smallpox outbreak at the Seminary, January 13, 1837 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

The group of individuals forced to labor at Virginia Baptist Seminary extended beyond those known to have been enslaved by Robert Ryland. A newspaper item provides a glimpse of the lives of an unnamed mother and son, and ledger entries include names of men and women enslaved by unknown individuals who had leased them to the institution. 

In an 1837 item placed in the Religious Herald, Robert Ryland, Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880), and other members of the Virginia Baptist Education Society described an 1837 smallpox outbreak at the seminary, which they believed was the result of a visit from a “small negro boy,” who was hired out to “one of the factories” in Richmond. The child had visited his mother who was “hired to the seminary” and brought the disease with him. He was infected with what the notice described as varioloid, the milder form of the disease. It spread to “the woman in whose room the boy slept,” who was already confined because of “another kind of sickness.” The notice assured the public that there was no danger to students and that “the family have been repeatedly vaccinated.”16 Several weeks later, Ryland wrote a letter detailing the woman’s full recovery, and the return to campus of both students and professors. He then provided the rates for tuition and board and asked for prayers for the seminary.17 This “all clear” was reinforced by a brief news item in the Religious Herald published on February 10, 1837. There was no further mention of the child whose illness sparked the issue.

In the ledger page below, Ryland used the word “hire” to designate those who were leased from enslavers and notes the institutional expense of “Servants clothes”:

Servants clothes $28.37 1/2 Presents to [ditto: “Servants”] 2.50... Mrs Prichard 4.00, Sarah 7.50, Josephine $8.80… “Nancy’s (cook) hire $62.00. Celia’s [ditto: “hire”] $40. Albert’s [ditto: “hire”] 80. Nelly 3.18
Handwritten ledger page showing “Expenses of the Boarding Department” from 1839.
“Expenses of the Boarding Department 1839, 2n sessn" (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

“Hire” was paid for Nancy, Celia, and Albert, while it appears that Nelly was simply paid. The cost of “Servants clothes” was also noted, a common facet of “slave hire” agreements. Hire amounts and clothing payment appear numerous times in Ryland’s highly detailed records of boarding department expenses between 1832 and 1841. Other entries covering the seminary years show some individuals who were paid wages. At least one of them, Aggy Cooper, was likely the free Black woman who lived on the campus for decades. Other recorded names include Judy, Charlotte, Hardenia, “Agg–,” and Mary Crow.19 The status of these women is unclear.

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