James Thomas, Jr.

Gilt framed color portrait of James Thomas, Jr. standing next to a table holding a bundle of tobacco.
James Thomas, Jr. holding tobacco (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

James Thomas, Jr. (1806-1882) was an influential Baptist lay leader and philanthropist and a longtime trustee and major financial supporter of Richmond College.1 He was among the founding trustees of Richmond College and remained an active member of the board for 42 years, until his death, serving twice as board president (1872-1873 and 1880-1882). His donations at times facilitated the college’s growth before the Civil War closure of the campus in 1861, and his 1866 pledge of $5,000 was critical to the college’s post-war survival. He was considered “the most famous of all mid-19th century tobacco manufacturers,” once referred to by the national credit rating firm of R.G. Dun & Company as “one of our richest men.”2 His business success and resulting fortune were heavily reliant on extensive use of enslaved labor. Those he enslaved and held in Richmond alone through leasing agreements with other enslavers numbered 131 in a single year.3  

The biographical material below provides an overview of Thomas’s life,4 including his business success; support for Richmond College and other Baptist institutions; role as a prominent Baptist lay leader; wider influence; and his active involvement in the slave system over at least 25 years. Additional information, including names and biographical details of some of the individuals held by Thomas, is available at James Thomas, Jr. and Enslavement.

Early Life

Hand-drawn antique map showing the Thomas family’s Caroline County property and Mt. Vernon Church.
Location of the Thomas family’s Caroline County property and Mt. Vernon Church (mistakenly recorded as “Vermont”) (1862 Hotchkiss map, Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Thomas was born in King William County, Virginia on February 8, 1806. Before 1810, his parents, James Thomas, Sr. (1765-1852) and Elizabeth G. Andrews Thomas (1768-1848), relocated their family to Caroline County, Virginia, where Thomas spent most of his childhood and early adult years. His father was a Revolutionary War veteran, landholder, and enslaver, holding 17 people when Thomas was four and 20 when he was 14.5 The family was affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal church, and according to one source, James Thomas, Sr. donated the land for Mount Vernon Methodist Church in the year of his death. The church was reportedly named for “Vernon,” the Thomas family plantation.6 

Business Growth

1839 news clipping about Thomas’s purchase of tobacco.
Report of Thomas’s purchase of approximately 4,000 pounds of tobacco for his factory operations, Richmond Enquirer, March 2, 1839 (Virginia Chronicle)

Thomas’s elder brother, Archibald Thomas (1796-1861), who would also be among the founding trustees of Virginia Baptist Seminary in 1832 and a longtime trustee of Richmond College, had already established his tobacco business in Richmond when James Thomas left Caroline County to begin his own business efforts around 1827. After a brief period in Richmond, by spring 1829 Thomas was working in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he handled tobacco trade as part of his employer’s contract with the French government. When the French selected a new agent, the shift financially destabilized Thomas and resulted in his temporary concentration on the flour business. Between 1830 and 1832, he returned to tobacco to make his fortune, establishing his own company with $300 of his funds and $300 provided by his father.7

Business Development

Thomas capitalized on the country’s increasing desire for lighter (milder and sweeter) tobacco products and his access to enslaved labor to secure a position as one of the top tobacco manufacturers in the country. He was credited as the “inventor of Light-pressed tobacco in all its varieties,” and he responded to the boom in tobacco use in California by using an innovative packaging technique that increased the mold-resistance of chewing tobacco plugs during shipping around South America.8 The process allowed him to monopolize much of the West Coast tobacco market.9 Thomas also understood the value of attractive packaging, enclosing each plug in a “golden yellow wrapper leaf” that set his products apart from the competition.10 His various brands included Nectar, Diadem, and Eldorado tobacco. According to an 1868 history of manufacturing, Thomas was said to need “only fifteen or twenty minutes to design and execute a given style or sample brand when requested.”11 By January 1853, his success resulted in the U.S. Navy’s request that he bid to supply the Navy with 100,000 pounds of tobacco.12 That year’s assessment of Thomas by R.G. Dun & Company described him as “rich and getting richer.”13 His pre-war factories were reportedly the “largest in the United States, and for the purposes to which they were devoted, the most complete of any in the world.”14 

Thomas extended his business beyond local and regional markets through a network of agents, located throughout the United States, as well as in Europe and Australia. The agents often competed with one another for his business, and at times Thomas would shift prices to cultivate this competition.15 Some sold only Thomas’s products, making them entirely dependent on him.16 The agents “introduced Thomas’s brand to jobbers, grocers, retail merchants, and other dealers,” part of a system of communication and distribution which both “drummed up business and prevented sharp price fluctuations.”17 At one time, the bulk of Virginia tobacco was distributed through New York, and agents there regularly courted Thomas for favorable shipping arrangements and pricing.18 The city was so central to the distribution of Thomas’s products that merchants as close to Richmond as Fredericksburg ordered products like Eldorado from New York—but then appealed directly to Thomas to expedite the transport process.19 

Clipping of old ads listing Thomas tobacco brands.
Left: Daily Exchange (Baltimore) advertisement for Thomas’s manufactured tobacco brands, December 31, 1858 (Chronicling America); Right: Nevada Journal (California) advertisement for Thomas’s tobacco products, July 1, 1853 (Chronicling America)

This network of agents also provided Thomas with rapid market feedback, reporting on what was selling and suggesting alterations that would increase demand. Beginning in the 1850s, they influenced him to “keep it light” (using lighter colored tobacco rather than dark), to replace tin foil with higher end wrapping material, and to increase supply of specific products. In response to agent feedback, Thomas created brands tailored to individual regions or unique to particular agents.20 At times Thomas followed agents’ advice, but his wealth shielded him from their sustained influence. Unlike other manufacturers, he never borrowed funds from his agents.21

In 1852, Thomas began cultivating direct relationships with retailers who would travel to Richmond to procure manufactured tobacco from him. This shift angered his agents, but they had no real power to wield over him: “Your own sales (we hear all about them) interfere ruinously with us, though it is all right and we do not, dare not, complain.”22 They knew the extreme popularity of his brands and his dominance of the market allowed him to ignore their protests.23

At least three times over the course of his career—1853, 1865, and 1882—he incurred significant losses in factory fires, but in the first two cases, his overall wealth allowed him to rebuild, and in the third, the year of his death, he still retained enormous wealth.24

Two of Thomas’s former business managers became prominent tobacconists themselves, as well as Richmond College trustees. His nephew, Dr. Robert A. Patterson (1826-1912), later led the R.A. Patterson Company, which produced Lucky Strike brand tobacco. Thomas C. Williams, Sr. (1831-1889), a former clerk in Thomas’s company, left Thomas’s employ to form a tobacco partnership with Patterson in the years prior to the Civil War. Once the war began, Thomas responded to the resulting uncertainty and his long-standing health challenges by inviting Williams to return to the company as a partner. The business became known as T.C. Williams & Company (sometimes “Thos. C. Williams & Co.”). Thomas remained involved in key aspects of the business. Together, Thomas and Williams relocated the bulk of the company’s operations to the Danville, Virginia area and away from Richmond, which felt increasingly vulnerable due to the war.25 In the months preceding the announcement of their partnership and the relocation of much of the business, Thomas had received word that the Confederate government was seeking to lease his Richmond buildings and that some of those enslaved on his farm were about to be impressed by the Confederacy to labor on fortifications.26 For portions of the remaining war years, Thomas shared his Danville property with the Williams family.27

1862 news clipping about James Thomas’s partnership with Thomas C. Williams.
Announcement of partnership between James Thomas, Jr. and Thomas C. Williams, Daily Dispatch, May 21, 1862 (Virginia Chronicle)


Thomas’s factories, home, and farms were operated using the labor of more than 100 enslaved adults and children by 1860. Federal census data provide snapshots of the numbers of individuals he held in Richmond during three censuses over 20 years. 

Enslaved Individuals Enumerated under Thomas's Name in Richmond in the Federal Census

1840: 45 individuals, including four boys under the age of 1028

1850: 92 individuals, including 38 children and teenagers under 1829

1860: 131 individuals, between ages 5 and 50.30

No items found.

Those recorded on census enumeration days in Richmond do not reflect the total number of enslaved people held by Thomas over more than 25 years during the enslavement era. He leased many individuals for a year at a time, and individuals he held during non-census years only would not have been included in the figures. Births, deaths, purchases, and sales of adults and children from year to year and those Thomas held on properties outside the Richmond area are also not reflected in the census totals.

While census entries do not provide names of enslaved people, records located in digital and physical archives often include names and some items reveal details of the individuals' lives and experiences: 

  • Thomas placed advertisements offering rewards for the return of enslaved people like Thornton Gregory and Joseph Hill, who escaped his factories and the control of his overseers.31 
  • Thomas’s business papers include receipts and correspondence detailing his purchase of many individuals such as James, Robert, and Peter, and his leasing of others including John Griffin and Charles Fleet.32 
  • Other correspondence includes Thomas’s instructions for the physical punishment of an enslaved man named Alfred and details of his profits from the private sale of a man named Henry, who was then held in the Richmond slave jail of Silas Omohundro (1807-1864) before being sent “to the south.”33 
  • Long itemized lists of services and goods sold to Thomas for his factories include the names of the enslaved people he held. Names were carefully recorded next to each instance of medical treatment and each pair of shoes or set of clothes. Thomas also maintained lists of money spent on clothes for those in his factories. This was in part due to terms of typical slave leasing agreements (then referred to as “slave hire”), which often stipulated that the “hirer” return an enslaved person with a new set of clothing at the end of the leasing term. 

Richmond newspapers included accounts of individuals like Sarah Ann Jackson, Peter Haskins, and Nelson, whose lives were recorded as a result of their encounters with the criminal justice system. Some of these men, women, and children were “owned” by Thomas and some were leased (“hired out”) to him for a year at a time. When convicted of crimes such as playing music on the street, theft, being without a required pass, and being “out of track” (at a location considered too far from where they labored or lived), they were whipped between 10 and 39 times.34

News clipping of report that Sarah Ann Jackson, enslaved by Thomas, received 10 lashes for trespassing.

Report of Sarah Ann Jackson’s conviction and punishment, Daily Dispatch, March 4, 1853 (Virginia Chronicle)

Newsclipping of newspaper notice offering $100 reward for return of Thornton Gregory, who escaped Danville factory.

Notice placed by Thomas offering a reward for the return of Thornton Gregory, who escaped enslavement, Daily Dispatch, July 19, 1862 (Virginia Chronicle)

Printed receipt form with handwritten details about the purchase of James, Robert, and Peter for $1200.

Receipt for Thomas’s purchase of James, Robert, and Peter, January 13, 1852 (Courtesy of Duke University)

Handwritten letter from James Thomas

Thomas describing his return of Hannibal, an enslaved man, in a letter to John Enders, December 1853 (Courtesy of Duke University)

Handwritten receipt for the purchase of Isaiah for $1200.

Thomas’s purchase of Isaiah from John M. Warrick January 8 1853 (Courtesy of Duke University)

Handwritten bill and record of payment.

Bill paid by Thomas for the whipping of Edward Hancock “by order of the Magistrate,” February 19, 1853 (Courtesy of Duke University)

Handwritten receipt for payment for digging of grave for James.

Thomas’s payment for the grave of a child named James, August 1853 (Courtesy of Duke University)

Handwritten request for payment from James Thomas for purchase of enslaved child named Ben and printed and handwritten receipt showing payment of $737.50 for Ben.

Thomas’s purchase of Ben,  January 9, 1853 (Duke University) 

More information on those held by Thomas can be found in James Thomas Jr. & Enslavement.

In 1853, Thomas was also a manager of the Virginia Colonization Society, an organization focused on the removal of free Black people from the United States in large part because of their potential influence on those still enslaved.35 

Civil War Years

1861 news clipping about the “Thomas Artillery”  equipped by Thomas.
The “Thomas Artillery,” Richmond Dispatch, July 31, 1861 (Virginia Chronicle)

Thomas’s support for secession was widely known. One Chicago newspaper referred to him as a “leading advocate for secession.”36 In an 1862 letter to a friend, he made his fears of a possible forced end to slavery clear: “I always felt that the earth never saw such scenes as would be when abolition got into power.”37 His support for the Confederacy extended to funding the Richmond-based military battery that became known as the “Thomas Artillery.”38 He did not, however, support the decision of the Richmond College board to invest the institution’s assets in Confederate funds. While details of the deliberations were not recorded in the board’s minutes, one person recalled Thomas “strenuously and vehemently” opposing the board’s decision to convert “bank stocks and city and railroad funds” to Confederate bonds.39

Anticipating the length of the conflict, Thomas began preparations for protecting his business following the capture of Fort Sumter. He organized his affairs with a particular focus on overseas connections and was said to have “laid in groceries for his large family, enough for five years.”40 Thomas moved “massive quantities” of tobacco to “London’s oldest and most respected tobacco firm” prior to the enforcement of a blockade on Southern trade. By giving the head of the London firm his power of attorney, Thomas was “virtually guaranteed of maintaining at least a portion of his vast wealth of tobacco and profits.”41 

In August 1861, the federal government seized 50,000 pounds of Thomas’s tobacco.42 By March 1862, he was considering options for relocating his manufacturing operations. He sought information on the Greenville, South Carolina area first, writing John A. Broadus (1827-1895), then a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (and at one time, a Richmond College trustee), to determine if there was a sufficient Black labor force in the Greenville area:

I do not know but in the multitudes of these troubles I may seek refuge with my family at Greenville . . . Now you may think I am alarmed; not so, no more than I was when the troubles first commenced. They are getting nearer to us but I trust they will never get to Richmond, and I don’t believe it; yet I fear it as a possibility. I wish to be prepared, if I can, to take care of my family. Have you many Negroes in your region? Do you all feel safe?43

When Thomas eventually shifted his operations in Danville, he retained his influence over members of the Confederate government in Richmond. In 1863, Confederate congressman (and Thomas’s future son-in-law and Richmond College faculty member and trustee) Jabez Lamar Munro (J.L.M.) Curry (1825-1903) closed a letter to Thomas with his willingness to do Thomas’s bidding: “Should I be able to serve you in any matter connected with the govt. of course, you have but to intimate your wishes.” Curry also recognized his service was not needed: “Your acquaintance with the chief officers however will give you, at all times, access to them.”44

Passage of J.L.M. Curry’s 1863 handwritten letter to Thomas.
J.L.M. Curry’s February 7, 1863 letter to Thomas noting Thomas’s access to leaders of the Confederate government (Duke University Libraries)

Following the war, after signing an oath of allegiance to the United States, Thomas wrote to President Andrew Johnson on June 21, 1865, to seek a pardon that would restore his rights as a citizen. While those whose wealth exceeded $20,000 were initially excluded from presidential pardons, there were liberal exceptions. Thomas wrote that while he had acquired more than $20,000 through his “long life of industry,” he otherwise met the requirements for amnesty: 

I have been for six or seven years in feeble health, have never been in service civil or military, I have seven children, but one son, he nearly blind and a minister of the gospel, with a large family dependent on me. I should now by virtue of the proclamation of Dec. 8th 1863 (which oath I took long since with a bona fide intention of observing all its requirements) and your own of May 29th 1865, be restored to all rights of citizenship. I submit my case to your Excellency with the oath accompanying this, and ask your favorable consideration.45 
Beginning of Thomas’s 1865 handwritten letter to President Andrew Johnson requesting a presidential pardon.
Thomas’s 1865 letter to President Andrew Johnson requesting a presidential pardon (Ancestry.com)

Thomas was pardoned in August 1865.46 While he had been a committed supporter of the Confederacy, Thomas “felt that God commanded him to obey established authority,” and advised a friend to recognize the changed circumstances and take the oath of allegiance to the United States just as he had: 

The Confederate authority has no existence and our allegiance is rightly due to the U. States—there can be no question or hesitation about this. If you want to be a citizen of the U. States with equal right of others—then the path is plain—I should say take the oath at once.47

Nevertheless, on May 13, 1867, Thomas was one of 20 men to provide $5,000 each toward former Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s $100,000 bail, freeing him from federal custody.48

Header of the 1867 Bail Bond of Jefferson Davis.
Copy of bail bond of Jefferson Davis, May 13, 1867 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

By the end of the war, more of Thomas’s property had been confiscated by the federal government, and Richmond factories and other structures in which he had ownership had been damaged or destroyed in the fires set by retreating Confederate forces. Yet his financial standing remained robust,49 because he had shifted significant funds overseas and the bulk of operations in which he had an interest had been moved away from Richmond.50 By 1867, R.G. Dun & Company reported “Thomas’s company is worth from $400,000 to one million dollars.”51 

Baptist Leadership and Support

While raised in a Methodist Episcopal family, Thomas followed his brother Archibald into the Baptist Church in 1827. Shortly after his arrival in Richmond and before he began his brief period in Lynchburg, he was baptized by John Kerr, an early supporter of ministerial education and the first president of the Virginia Baptist Education Society. This began Thomas’s career as an active and influential Baptist lay leader, and as a prominent member, trustee, and financial supporter of Richmond’s First Baptist Church for the next 55 years. Upon joining First Baptist, he quickly became a Sunday school teacher. Twenty years later, he had assumed leadership of the First Baptist Church Sunday school program and spent 19 years as its superintendent, raising the number of students to over 500 at one time.52 At his death in 1882, the Religious Herald referred to him not only as “the most influential and conspicuous member” of First Baptist Church, but also as occupying “the most eminent position of any Baptist layman in the entire South.”53

When fellow Virginia Baptist Seminary and Richmond College founding trustee Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880) was pastor of First Baptist, Thomas joined him as a key figure in effecting the racial division of the church, raising funds to facilitate the split that led to the 1841 formation of First African Baptist Church

Handwritten receipts recording contributions to First Baptist Church in 1842.
1842 receipts for two contributions from Thomas to First Baptist Church (Duke University Libraries)

In 1875, Thomas was actively involved in recruiting a pastor to replace J. Lansing Burrows (1814-1893). Seeking unsuccessfully to lure John A. Broadus from his position as a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Thomas wrote to Broadus’s brother, James M. Broadus (1812-1880):

[T]here is no other man in the South, or in the United States, that can fill [Burrows’s] place better than your brother, John A . . . Is such a preacher to spend his life in the schoolroom? Is he to continue to make sacrifices? And above and beyond all this, is he to sacrifice his wife and children entirely to the school? Is not this side of the question too grave a one to be lightly passed over?54

Thomas was more explicit in a subsequent letter, writing that the position would offer Broadus a home, $15,000 in life insurance for his family, and $5,000 per year as a salary.55 

Thomas supported a number of Baptist causes in addition to First Baptist. In 1849, he and his second wife, Mary Wortham Thomas (1823-1897) , transferred a lot in Richmond’s Oregon Hill neighborhood to the Oregon Hill Mission, eventually leading to the establishment of Pine Street Church.56 After the separation of the Southern Baptist Convention from the national organization of Baptists, Thomas served with Jeremiah Jeter and Robert Ryland (1805-1899) on its Foreign Mission Board.57 Thomas’s financial support was also essential to Baptist education efforts. 

Richmond College and Other Baptist Institutions

Richmond College

Richmond College board president Henry Keeling Ellyson (1823-1890) described Thomas as essential to “the establishment of Richmond College on a permanent foundation.”58 Thomas’s obituary reported, “next to his family and church, of earthly things he loved [Richmond College] best.”59 As a founding trustee and Richmond College’s first treasurer, he was actively involved in institutional business, including building plans, property exploration, and the recurring challenge of ensuring adequate faculty salaries, which he sometimes bolstered himself.60 When it was necessary for the institution to reorganize following its financial devastation during the Civil War, Thomas served on the reorganization committee that Jeremiah Jeter chaired.61

Thomas was credited with “frequent smaller gifts at critical periods” and at least two important larger gifts. One estimate placed his total donations to the institution at between $50,000 and $60,000,62 but at the time of his death, another noted that the estimate was not certain.63 

 “Many times,” one-time trustee John A. Broadus recalled, “when the finances fell short and the trustees were utterly at a loss, he quietly said that he would pay the debt, or that he would give so and so under such considerations, and the wheels were kept moving.”64

Thomas was also active in institutional fund raising. In an 1851 letter to Broadus, Thomas shared news of an endowment effort and his hopes for the increasing profile of the college:  

We had a Mass Education Meeting on Monday night at which it was proposed to raise and endowment of one hundred thousand dollars for Richmond College. Some twelve or thirteen thousand dollars was subscribed on the spot, a very small number of our brethren either from town or country present. From the spirit prevailing I trust good will come . . . I have strong hopes that our denomination in the State will rally around this college and make it what it ought to be—one of the first, worthy of the denomination and the state.65

Thomas’s reported objections to the investment of Richmond College’s assets in Confederate bonds at the start of the Civil War were prescient. The resulting collapse of the college’s endowment following the Confederate surrender led him to doubt the institution’s viability. When alumni brought the plight of the college to the Baptist General Association of Virginia in 1866, however, Thomas was persuaded to assist in raising the necessary funds. He offered a $5,000 pledge to stimulate rebuilding the endowment, then accompanied Richmond College’s agent (fundraiser), Abram M. Poindexter (1809-1872), as he raised money in Richmond. They solicited funds from “men of all denomination and no denomination.” The effort triggered pledges eventually totaling $75,000. While the amount was never fully realized in actual gifts, the funds collected still revived the institution.66 Six years later, when the board sought to augment the endowment and create a building fund, Thomas recommended raising the fundraising target from $100,000 to $300,000. According to Broadus, $150,000 was raised before a financial crisis struck in 1873, stalling the effort.67 In response to another crisis in 1878, the college’s treasurer, Charles Hill Ryland (1836-1914), saw only three possible responses: reducing salaries of faculty members, reducing the size of the faculty, or drawing from the institutional endowment. The board lowered salaries, and Thomas “relieve[d] the situation” by again personally supplementing professors’ salaries.68

Following Jeter’s death in 1880, Thomas succeeded him as president of the board. The board had committed to raise funds to construct the Jeter Memorial Library as an addition to the main campus building. Thomas helped ensure the success of the effort with a $5,000 pledge, specifying that the construction must not only build the new wing, but also complete long-unfinished elements elsewhere in the building, including infrastructure.69 Under Thomas’s brief board leadership, the college experienced “more favorable financial conditions,” which also permitted renovation of the Columbia mansion and construction of faculty residences and a dormitory.70 In 1881, the board sought to establish Schools (in effect, endowed chairs in academic departments) of philosophy and English. Thomas donated $25,000 to endow one of the positions.71 In a letter to the board, he wrote: “With my advancing years, my attachment for the College increases, and I wish to testify in some permanent form what I feel.”72 

Gilt-framed color portrait of Thomas.
Portrait of Thomas by Guiseppi De Sanctis (Gift of Mary Thomas, Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Thomas’s relationships with other Richmond College trustees were multi-layered, often mixing faith, family, friendship, and business. He worked closely with Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880) on behalf of the Virginia Baptist Seminary, Richmond College, First Baptist Church, the establishment of First African Baptist Church, the Foreign Mission Board, and other Baptist educational institutions. As pastor of First Baptist, Jeter officiated at the marriage of Thomas and his second wife, Mary Wortham Thomas.73 Several Richmond College trustees were his brothers-in-law: Charles T. Wortham (1813-1881), Edwin Wortham (1811-1885), and Dr. Albert G. Wortham (1810-1873). His niece, Callie V. Thomas (1836-1868), married Robert Ryland’s nephew, Josiah Ryland (1830-1903), one of the first graduates of Richmond College and a long-time trustee. Thomas’s daughter, Mary Wortham Thomas (c.1842-1903), married Richmond College professor (and later board president) Jabez Lamar Monroe (J.L.M.) Curry (1825-1903). Several trustees also had close business ties with Thomas. They included Albert Wortham, who provided medical care to those enslaved and held by Thomas; Edwin Wortham, whose retail business supplied Thomas’s factories; and Richmond College president Robert Ryland, who leased Thom, a man he enslaved, to Thomas as a laborer in one of his factories.74

Handwritten itemized doctor’s bill for medical care of persons enslaved by Thomas from February to May 1852.
Dr. A.G. Wortham’s bill for medical care of persons enslaved by Thomas, 1852 (Duke University Libraries)

Richmond Female Institute

Large three-story building with arched windows and two five-story central towers. There are people walking and horses and carriages on the street in the foreground.
Richmond Female Institute c.1854, Statistical Gazetteer of the State of Virginia . . . to 1854 (Internet Archive)

Thomas was also largely responsible for the establishment and financial stability of Richmond Female Institute. In 1851, Baptists had made education for girls and young women a priority, and an effort was soon under way to create a “female institute” in Richmond.75 Jeter and Thomas were founders of the resulting Richmond Female Institute, which was chartered in 1853 and opened in fall 1854 with 136 women enrolled.76 

Thomas wrote of the effort:

We are trying to get up a Female School here. I mean a Baptist school of the first order . . . . We have long felt the need of it. Episcopalians have educated daughters long enough and made Episcopalians of them.77

When Jeter created a joint stock company to provide initial funding, Thomas purchased all $20,000 in shares.78 He also reportedly provided the lot located between Clay and Marshall Streets that was the school’s home.79 Thomas also “stirred up leading ministers and laymen to see the importance of the undertaking” and continued to support the school after its opening.80 The institute was comprised of three departments: preparatory; collegiate, which was modeled on the academic structure of the University of Virginia; and Music and Ornamental, which provided students with fine arts instruction.81 Seeking to ensure opportunities “equal in grade to the best of our Colleges for young men,” it became one of the “largest and best known” educational institutions for girls and young women in the city.82 In the late 19th century, the institute became the Woman’s College of Richmond, and in the 20th century, it was tied to the formation of Westhampton College on the new campus of what became the University of Richmond.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Thomas was initially opposed to the 1853 formation of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, whose mission was to offer “theological instruction to Baptist students from all the Southern States.” According to John A. Broadus, who became president of the seminary in 1889, Thomas was an advocate for general education for future ministers, such as that provided at Richmond College, but did not see the benefit of specialized theological training. As a Virginian, he was also bothered that the institution drew ministerial students, such as Charles Hill Ryland, away to South Carolina. Following the Civil War, when the seminary was “almost entirely destitute” due to its reliance on planters’ bonds for its endowment, Thomas became a significant financial supporter and was credited with “again and again” making “valuable donations for the seminary’s current support and permanent endowment.”83

Family and Domestic Life

Large three-story brick home on a corner lot with flowering trees and a brick wall surrounding the property.
Undated Photograph of James Thomas, Jr.’s home on Grace Street (reprinted in Mary Wingfield Scott’s Old Richmond Neighborhoods, 1950)

Thomas’s first marriage was to Mary Cornick Pullen on December 10, 1832. They had two children, future minister and Richmond College Professor of Philosophy William Dandridge Thomas (1833-1901) and Mary Ella Thomas Quesenberry (1835-1865). Mary Pullen Thomas died in 1836. Thomas married Mary Woolford Wortham (1823-1897) in 1842. Their surviving children were Mary Wortham Thomas Curry (d. 1903), Laura Thomas Rutherfoord (1846-1932), Elizabeth Thomas Allison (1848-1876), Alice Thomas Connelly (1852-1917), and Gabrielle Thomas Pearson (1858-1924). Two children died in childhood: James R. Thomas (1852-1853) and Sallie A. Thomas (1850-1853).

James and Mary Thomas were known for entertaining in their home and providing their guests with “lavish and cordial hospitality.”84 Their gatherings were said to have included “the best in Richmond society” and were thrown on “a princely scale.”85 Guests of the family included so many Baptists that their home was known to some as the “Baptist hotel.”86 During the 1859 Southern Baptist Convention, they reportedly hosted 80 guests.87 Mary Thomas was also actively involved in Baptist work in Richmond, serving on the board of the Baptist Home for Aged Women, which her daughter, Mary, helped to found with Kate Jeter (1824-1887), wife of Jeremiah Bell Jeter.88 


For decades, Thomas experienced periods of significant ill health, including painful digestive issues and “an aggravated form of dyspepsia, with apoplectic tendencies.” His death on October 8, 1882 was attributed to pneumonia.89 Upon learning that Thomas had died, the Richmond College Board of Trustees called a special meeting for the following day and adopted and published a resolution expressing “profound sorrow,” citing his service “from the foundation of the Virginia Baptist Seminary in 1832 to the chartering of Richmond College in 1840 and all through its subsequent history,” and noting “the debt which Richmond College owes to the sound judgement, the great financial ability, the untiring zeal & the noble benefactions of our lamented President.”90 The faculty and students likewise convened and adopted resolutions, the faculty’s conveying that “every member of the faculty has reason to feel deeply the personal loss” of Thomas’s death."91 

Large four-story building with tall trees in front of it. There are two figures in the foreground looking at the building.
“Richmond College, as completed, with its new dormitories, library, museum and art halls,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 11, 1886 (Courtesy of the James Branch Cabell Library, Virginia Commonwealth University)
Edward Valentine marble bust of Thomas.
Edward Valentine bust of Thomas (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

At the time of Thomas’s death, work on the Jeter Memorial Library was not yet complete, and the board elected to designate the first floor of the new wing as the Jeter library and the second, housing a museum, as Thomas Memorial Hall (also referred to as the Thomas Art Hall and Museum).92 Mary Thomas and the Thomases’ children donated $10,000 in 1885 to fund a museum lecture series focused on science, philosophy, and art in his memory.93 The space dedicated to Thomas opened on September 22, 1887, and was described as “truly monumental,” with “two stately halls” that eventually held scientific collections and “more than fifty paintings, rare photographs, and pieces of statuary.”94 The Thomas family commissioned a bust of Thomas by Edward V. Valentine (1838-1930), sculptor of notable southern figures, and largely known for his renderings of those associated with the Confederacy. The bust, along with a portrait of Thomas attributed to Guiseppi De Sanctis (1858-1924) and donated by Thomas’s family, is part of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society’s collection. 

As Richmond College was developing its current campus, the board appointed a committee to recommend names for the first buildings to be constructed on the new campus. In 1916, the board adopted the committee’s recommendation to transfer the memorial namings for Thomas and Jeter to the new campus with the naming of the first two campus dormitories, which had opened in 1913.95 

Beginning of the typed 1915 Report of the Committee on Naming Buildings.
Excerpt from the 1915 Report of the Richmond College Board of Trustees’ Committee on Naming Buildings, recommending naming new dormitories for Jeter and Thomas (For the Centuries, Boatwright Library)
Weathered bronze plaque installed in 1924 in the former Thomas Hall recognizing James Thomas, Jr.
Plaque installed in 1924 in the former Thomas Hall on the current campus

In 2021, the University of Richmond Board of Trustees initiated development of Naming Principles to guide naming decisions at the University. Those principles were adopted in March 2022 and included the stipulation that “No building . . . at the University should be named for a person who directly engaged in the trafficking and/or enslavement of others or openly advocated for the enslavement of people.” Accordingly, the board renamed Jeter Hall and Thomas Hall, which are now known, consistent with their initial designations on the original campus building plans, as Residence Hall No.1 and Residence Hall No.2, respectively.96 The professorship the board had named for Thomas was renamed the Richmond Professorship.

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