Robert Ryland

Robert Ryland, undated photograph (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

The first 35 years of University of Richmond history are nearly synonymous with the life and work of Robert Ryland. Across those decades, Ryland served as both the institution’s first president and leader of its Board of Trustees. He also taught a variety of subjects and often directly oversaw the dormitory and dining system. He quickly became the public face of Virginia Baptist Seminary and then of Richmond College as it grew and gained national attention, even as he managed the minutiae of student life, campus finances, and the faculty. Without him Richmond College, and by extension the University of Richmond, may not have existed.

Accounts of Ryland’s work at the institution, often including his ministry at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, have been published across two centuries and form a central part of the university’s early historical narrative. Research conducted in recent years has provided a fuller picture of Ryland’s life and influence, expanding understanding of his institutional and ministerial contributions and also providing details on his participation in enslavement.

In addition to the biographical summary below, details of Ryland’s institutional role on two campuses are included in Formation & Early Years. The material about Robert Ryland in this exhibit is largely adapted and excerpted from A Season of Discipline”: Enslavement, Education, and Faith in the Life of Robert Ryland by Shelby M. Driskill (2021), the second report of the Inclusive History Project initiated by then-University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher and led by Dr. Lauranett L. Lee. 

Early Life & Education

Robert Ryland was the third child of the wealthy and prominent King and Queen County, Virginia, Baptist lay leader Josiah Ryland (1767-1850) and his second wife, Catharine Peachey Ryland (1776-1858). He grew up at Farmington, his father’s extensive plantation.1 Josiah Ryland was a deacon of nearby Bruington Baptist Church, an institution significant to both Virginia Baptist history and the national growth of the denomination. The Ryland family held its own daily religious gatherings at Farmington, and Ryland described this “uniform habit” as the foundation of his own faith.2 

Farmington was also an informal gathering place for key Baptist figures. Ryland’s early spiritual inspiration, Robert Baylor Semple, was the widely respected minister of Bruington and a frequent visitor. As a child Ryland would “often shed secret tears, after praying I might not shed them” while listening to Semple preach. During his adolescence he was determined to prepare himself for baptism and despite prolonged despair over his lack of a dramatic conversion experience, he was ultimately convinced that “the Spirit . . . . [operated] differently on different individuals” and was baptized in August 1824 at age 19.3

News clipping showing the beginning of Ryland’s “My Experience and Call to the Ministry."
Robert Ryland, “My Experience and Call to the Ministry,” The Colloquium, 1889 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Semple had been educated by the founder of Humanity Hall and this connection may have influenced Ryland’s attendance at the Hanover County boarding school in his teenage years. After studying standard subjects and ancient languages at the school, Ryland hoped to enroll at Columbian College (later George Washington University), a Baptist institution supported by Semple, but his further formal education was not guaranteed. Josiah Ryland had provided his elder sons with farms in the vicinity of Farmington, and it appears that Ryland was expected to follow his brothers into land ownership. He resisted, defending his desire for an education and extolling both the merits of Columbian College and the potential social advantages his additional education might provide the family.4 His father eventually conceded, and Ryland began his studies at Columbian on September 6, 1823.5 Although he felt out of his depth shortly after his arrival at college—characterizing his class rank as “not respectable” and dwelling on his unpopularity with fellow students—he soon stabilized and then thrived as a scholar.6 Ryland’s priorities—commitment to ministry and education as a public pursuit and a means of personal fulfillment—remained with him for the rest of his life. Although both would force him to economize in his early professional life and at times distanced him from some of the immediate benefits of his father’s affluence, his determination to following a different path than his brothers did not mean renunciation of family wealth. At times over the next 27 years, Ryland accepted money from Josiah Ryland and requested enslaved “servants” from Farmington at least twice.7

Passage of Ryland’s 1823 handwritten letter to his father.
Robert Ryland’s April 19, 1823 letter to his father asking to be allowed to attend college (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Early Career

Ryland graduated from Columbian College on December 20, 1826. Although he continued to feel that he had not been truly called to the ministry, he committed himself to pastoral work and was ordained on April 21, 1827.8 His father offered him a farm and “all the appliances for its culture” if he would remain in King and Queen County and work under Semple’s guidance at Bruington, but Ryland resisted the prospects of working in the eminent pastor’s shadow and being limited to part-time ministry.9 Instead, he began his career leading a small congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia.10 Ryland soon captured the religious enthusiasm of the Second Great Awakening, and his congregation and reputation expanded rapidly, justifying construction of a permanent church built to his specifications. He preached before white and Black congregants during his Lynchburg years and, while Ryland was himself an enslaver, he formed an attachment to a renowned formerly enslaved minister named York Woodson (c.1800-1834).11 When Woodson was caught in the suppression of Black ministry following Nat Turner’s Revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, Ryland attempted to seek an exception from Lynchburg’s mayor that would allow Woodson to continue to preach without fear of being whipped.12 The mayor would offer no assurance, and Ryland remained convinced that a loss of ministerial purpose led to Woodson’s early death.13

Institutional Leadership

Passage of Robert Ryland’s 1833 handwritten letter to his father.
Robert Ryland to Josiah Ryland, May 13, 1833 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

While in Lynchburg, Ryland was sought after as an educator and administrator. He had refused a leadership position at Columbian College in 1830 and resisted the Virginia Baptist Education Society’s plan to form a permanent institution in the state the same year, attributing both to concerns over institutional financial vulnerability. When he was recruited in 1832 to lead the planned Virginia Baptist Seminary, however, he accepted the position, writing his father that he had “concluded to make an experiment” of the opportunity.14 While the formative goal of the seminary was the preparation of future ministers, Ryland insisted on a curriculum that emphasized the liberal arts, convinced that “science, and literature, and language” must be the first subjects taught because “They will prepare the student for those sacred subjects.” To Ryland, liberal arts and theology were both “desirable” but “if one must be omitted at school, let it be the latter.”15 This attention to non-theological subjects helped fund the institution in its earliest years. The number of “literary students,” those studying the liberal arts and paying full tuition, quickly exceeded the number of subsidized students preparing for the ministry.

Cover and excerpt from Ryland’s 1836 Baptist Education Society sermon.
Robert Ryland’s “A Sermon Delivered Before The Baptist Education Society of Virginia,” June 4, 1836 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Ryland operated in multiple roles at the Seminary, a pattern that would continue in the Richmond College era. He oversaw the small faculty and student instruction as the institution’s principal, taught required subjects, managed enrollment challenges (such as students departing early for ministerial posts), raised funds, planned crops, and, because the board had difficulty finding a steward, oversaw general campus operations. This included the system of room and board for students and faculty. In this role, like stewards at Columbian College and other institutions, Ryland exploited the labor of those he enslaved and individuals leased by the seminary from other enslavers to perform duties including meal preparation, agricultural labor, and the maintenance of the campus.

In these early years, various forms of student resistance irritated Ryland. Students objected to the manual labor requirement and what they considered the messy condition of the campus, but were most vocal about the quality of the food. Ryland conceded that the food was “too plain,” but thought the student response was disproportionate, writing to his wife that “it has never been as bad as some contemptible students have represented it.”16 Ryland’s overall commitment to providing students with a substantive education remained unchanged. He also viewed the seminary as a path to his own intellectual fulfillment—“an opportunity to cultivate my mind more extensively” while surrounded by educated men—though the scope of his responsibilities hindered his participation in scholarly life.17 The seminary grew substantially in its early years, with a steady increase in enrollment: 14 in 1832, 25 in 1833, and 39 in 1834.18 In 1835, trustees relocated the campus from Spring Farm in Henrico County to the elegant Columbia estate close to Richmond’s then-city limits.19 Enrollment leapt to 60, and the institution began to draw increasing attention from Baptists and the general public. 

Ryland supplemented his salary with ministry at area churches and hiring out those he enslaved, but his finances were heavily strained due to his pattern of paying boarding department expenses with his own funds and then awaiting repayment from the institution.20 He described himself as “in need of funds” in July 1835 when he was “obliged to borrow $400 to pay the debts of the boarding house.”21 In 1836, he accepted a one-year chaplaincy position at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. During this period, Josephine Ryland (1807-1846) remained at the seminary and oversaw its boarding department, assisted by her mother, Ann Norvell (1783-1881).22 The chaplaincy may have offered Ryland a measure of financial relief, but he also viewed it as a chance for rest and intellectual stimulation. Some seminary students were concerned that his absence meant the institution was “ruined” and were relieved when he returned. Ryland immediately resumed the full breadth and burden of his responsibilities, including managing a significant drop in enrollment.23 By 1839, the seminary was back on more solid footing. As plans were designed to charter the institution as a college, Ryland anticipated that the hire of a steward would relieve him of duties he disliked and allow him to focus on family. He acknowledged the negative effect of the work on his family and that Josephine Ryland had “often complain[ed]” that he prioritized his labor for the seminary over her.24 

1843 news clipping introducing the first of Ryland’s essays on Richmond College.
First of Robert Ryland’s 1843-44 essays on Richmond College in the Religious Herald, November 23, 1843 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society) 
Old survey map showing the original downtown campus of Richmond College.
Detail showing Ryland's residence on the Richmond College campus, 1865 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Survey (Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of History and Culture)

The Richmond College era began with the institution’s charter in 1840. Ryland became president of the college and head of its Board of Trustees, which replaced the Virginia Baptist Education Society as the institutional governing body. His internal duties included teaching and leading the faculty, at times housing them in his own home on the campus;25 acting as parental figure, disciplinarian, academic advisor, and recruiter to students; overseeing workers including enslaved individuals laboring for the institution; developing the curriculum; leading board meetings; and navigating the often challenging financial situation of the new institution. He also acted as the public face of the college, managing public controversies, raising money throughout his time as president (at times, serving as the general agent or chief fundraiser), and writing frequent items in the Religious Herald that shared news of the institution targeted to potential students and their parents. Ryland recruited students while traveling, and at one point, in an attempt to increase the student body, offered personally to advance money for suitable students to fill available spots.26 Under his leadership, the institution’s reputation grew steadily. Many students continued to write to him for decades and recalled him with fondness. One remembered often seeing Ryland through his office window at night and thinking, “if I had to live the life he is leading, life would hardly be worth the sacrifice he is making.”27  

Between 1840 and 1850, Ryland’s role as the college’s leader included his handling of a student expulsion, public perception of a controversy over dancing, an outbreak of scarlet fever on the campus, and incidents of student drinking. Ryland described his relief at the hire of a steward in 1842, which meant that he would “now have less money to handle, less to do with Negroes, less collecting, less vexation of the spirit, but more leisure, more time to read & visit with friends.”28 

The 1850s saw significant growth of the college spurred by the successful fundraising led by several agents, including Ryland. This resulted in significant improvements to the campus and increasing regional and national attention.

By 1860, many associated the solidity of Richmond College with Ryland’s leadership. The college was showing numerous signs of success, with 114 students, new academic departments, a law department under consideration, a building campaign underway, and an endowment of $100,000.29  

More information on the Richmond College era will be included in the next phase of An Unfolding History.

Newspaper ads seeking hire of servants and proposals from builders.
December 28, 1855 Daily Dispatch item seeking “hire” of “servants” for campus, with money paid “for” and not “to” those hired; July 10, 1860 Richmond Whig advertisement for builders to construct the Central Edifice

As the institution thrived, so did Ryland’s personal finances. His tax receipts show increases in his property including ownership of a carriage, real estate, and enslaved people associated with specific properties. His personal estate was valued at $53,000 by the end of the decade, which according to one estimate would have the present-day value of $1.87 million.30 During this period, Ryland deepened his personal reliance on the “slave hire” system, hiring out more of those he held. The period of momentum and prosperity for the institution, and Ryland himself, abruptly halted with the start of the Civil War and closure of the campus that began in the 1861-62 session and extended to the end of the war. 


Two handwritten letters from Ryland to his wife.
Two letters from Robert Ryland to Josephine Ryland; left, detail of August 9, 1831 letter that reflects their personal relationship; right, a July 12, 1841 letter containing Ryland’s instructions for those laboring on the campus (both courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Ryland married Josephine Norvell in 1830 after a courtship often focused on deepening her religious life. Their letters include his urging her to seek the personal relationship with God that was central to the Baptist faith, her accounts of spiritual struggle, and details of their growing mutual affection. Their 16-year marriage spanned the establishment of his position as an academic leader, minister, and public figure. During Ryland’s frequent and prolonged absences for fundraising and ministry tours, Josephine Ryland at times played an essential role in overseeing institutional operations.

As the seminary and then the college grew, the Rylands were frequently beset by personal grief and family illness. Their first child, who came with them from Lynchburg, died in the seminary’s first year of operation. Four more children were born during Ryland’s work at the seminary, two of whom died there. Of the four born from 1840 on, two died during Ryland’s service at Richmond College—the last at birth in 1846, with Josephine also dying on October 28, 1846 at age 39. She and the unnamed infant were buried with the exhumed remains of the children who had previously passed away: Ann Peachey, Robert Hall, John Hollins, and Roberta.31 Ryland was overwhelmed by grief and later remembered that it “felt as if the horizon of my life were overcast with dark clouds, all my schemes of happiness were blasted, the world itself was a blank.”32  

In June 1848, Ryland married Elizabeth “Betty” Thornton (1821-1905). They had three children and remained together for 51 years, until Ryland’s death in 1899 at the age of 95.33 

News clipping announcing the ordination of Ryland's son..
Ordination of William Semple Ryland with charge given by Robert Ryland, Richmond Whig, August 23, 1859

Ryland was a particularly involved father, supporting his sons’ and daughters’ personal lives, educational paths, and professional efforts. His oldest son, William Semple Ryland, pursued a ministerial career, which was a source of pride and pleasure for his father. Robert Ryland remained connected to his immediate and extended family for his entire life, visiting Farmington and writing scores of long and detailed letters, which were preserved and collected by Ryland family members in the 20th century and are now held at the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.  

Enslavement & Race

Clipping of Ryland’s published arguments against abolition.
Early example of Robert Ryland’s published arguments against abolition, Christian Watchman, August 21, 1835

During Ryland’s early years, enslaved adults and children held by his family were present in all major facets of his life.34 Later, enslaved “servants” were forced to labor on the campuses of both his boarding school and college.35

Ryland was briefly drawn to anti-slavery thinking during his college years, but by age 30 his support for the practice of enslavement had solidified. Even at his most idealistic, he believed an end to enslavement was contingent on the removal of Black people from the United States,36 and his involvement with the American Colonization Society, which began while he was a student, lasted 76 years and included his term as its national vice president.37 From 1835 to 1865, he privately profited from enslavement and publicly defended it. 

As an adult, Ryland was given enslaved people by his father, ownership of whom he sometimes sought directly.38 Of the at least 24 adults and children he held over 33 years, some were bound to his household; but he “hired out” a large number, leasing these men, women, and at least one child to individuals, enterprises, and the institution he led. In his personal accounts, Ryland would carefully record the names of those he hired out and the profit he earned from their labor. 

Page of Ryland’s handwritten record of income in 1851.
Robert Ryland’s 1851 record of income showing his Richmond College and First African Baptist Church salaries as well as his income from the hire of Tom, Matilda, Louisa, Walker, Ellen, and Sally (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Ryland’s roles as pastor of Richmond’s First African Baptist Church and as leader of Richmond College occasionally embroiled him in controversies centered on enslavement. To some with more extreme proslavery beliefs, Ryland was thought to be insufficiently supportive of the slavery system. Accusations against him intensified in the late 1850s as anti-abolition feeling swept Richmond. In 1858, following what he mistakenly believed to be another round of criticism, he published a blunt public affirmation of his support for slavery.39

Ryland’s roles at two Black institutions—First African Baptist Church (1841-1865) and Richmond Theological Institute (1868)—are described briefly below. Further details on Ryland’s role as an enslaver and his views on slavery and race can be found in Robert Ryland & Enslavement.

First African Baptist Church

Ryland’s rise as a public figure was propelled by both his administration of Richmond College and his leadership of one of the largest congregations of enslaved and free Black people in the South. He was recruited to lead the church by Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880), Richmond College trustee and pastor of First Baptist Church, where Ryland attended services with his family. While Black congregants at the church had attempted to separate from the white members decades before, it was only when the vastly outnumbered white congregants desired a new location that the racial split moved forward. Because of constraints on Black assembly and ministry following Nat Turner’s 1832 revolt, members of the “African Church” were required to have a white leader. Ryland assumed leadership in October 1841.

First African Baptist Church congregants standing and seated in front of the church.
Detail, Matthew Brady image of First African Baptist Church, 1865 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

His decision to accept the position grew out of his long search for a permanent ministerial post after years of travel to outlying churches and his deeply held belief that Black and white people deserved equal access to biblical teachings. His personal feelings about his ministry to a church made up of thousands of Black adults and children varied over the next decades. In 1847 he wrote that the position “accords well with my tastes” and that he felt “honored with the privilege of preaching to them & of doing what little I can to aid them to heaven.”40 In 1866, however, after his departure from the church, Ryland wrote that preaching to white audiences was “more congenial to my feelings” than preaching to “the blacks.”41 

Over his decades of leadership, Ryland worked in support of the church and its congregation and, like others who advanced proslavery Christianity, he used the church to argue for enslavement. He recorded the first and last names of the thousands he baptized, including the names of their enslavers or, on occasion, their status as “free.” He defended the church’s existence and aspects of his leadership against challenges from those who were against any organized worship by enslaved people, performed marriages and funerals, and in 1855, praised the Black deacons he admired in a series of nationally distributed essays. He raised money and leant funds for the construction of Ebenezer Baptist Church when the congregation of First African Baptist Church grew too large for its building. Throughout this period, however, he did not support assertions of Black agency that threatened the slave system.42 In his account of praiseworthy deacons, for example, he omitted one of the most promising and admired, Thomas U. Allen (c.1815-1849), who had sought freedom from enslavement and pursued ministry and higher education in the North.43 Ryland also used his position to recruit for the American Colonization Society, weeding out those he did not think worthy of manumission and transportation to Liberia, and in sermons and his Scripture Catechism for Coloured People (1848), he cited scripture to support enslaved individuals’ deference to “masters.”44

Title page and excerpt from Ryland's Catechism book.
Ryland’s Scripture Catechism for Coloured People, 1848 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Ryland was bothered by legal constraints on Black ministry and literacy. As minister to a congregation that included some of the most significant Black ministers in the area, he established a pattern in which he would ask them to stand during services to provide a prayer or exhort the congregation in addresses that were long, powerful, and evocative of sermons. Ryland described this measure of ministerial freedom as “recompense for [the] slight” of their not being able to preach.45 He largely avoided interfering with the enslaved and free Black deacons who managed most church operations. To support existing literacy of congregants, he created a lending library and printed a hymnal, skirting legal constraints on reading instruction.

Late in his life, Ryland wrote, “Our bodies are diverse in color, but our souls, if they have any color, are by nature equally dark, and by the blood of the Lamb, may be made equally white.”46 These convictions regarding the equality of souls did not affect his approach to earthly equality. In a sermon delivered during one of several organized attacks on the church by proslavery extremists, Ryland emphasized that the existence of First African Baptist Church and the freedom of its congregants to worship depended on their adherence to the socially and legally enforced racial hierarchy: “God has given this country to the white people. They are the law-makers—the masters—the superiors. The people of color are the subjects—the servants—and even when not in bondage, the inferiors.”47 Congregants’ memories of Ryland reflect the complexity of his role. Some recalled him with anger, others with affection, and others with a mix of emotion.

Ryland continued to lead First African Baptist through the Civil War years, but his position was destabilized following the Confederate surrender. Black Union soldiers accused him of giving a pro-Southern sermon and attempted to remove him from his position, but church members intervened on his behalf.48 After it was reported that Ryland again preached a sermon at the church in which he was said to have taken “strong Rebel ground,” he was called on to report to the Federal Provost Marshal.49 He attempted to resign as pastor in May 1865, but the majority of church members refused to accept his departure.50 The following month, three weeks after Black leaders had organized a meeting at the church of more than 3,000 Black Richmonders who were raising alarms about police brutality, Ryland resigned.51 He later wrote that he had done so out of “a belief that [the congregation] would naturally and justly prefer a minister of their own color.”52

Due to the numerous connections between Richmond College, its leaders, and First African Baptist Church, a brief overview of the church’s early history is provided at First African Baptist Church.   

Civil War & Later Years

Like many elite Virginians in the years preceding the Civil War, Ryland had supported the slavery system while also dreading the prospect of secession and armed conflict. In an 1861 open letter, he wrote that despite “deeply deplor[ing]” the need for war, following the threat of “invasion and subjugation” of the “beloved South,” its people had no choice but “stern resistance or abject submission to unconstitutional power” to defend “all that makes life worth possessing.”53 Once Virginia joined the Confederacy, he converted large portions of his wealth to Confederate funds and recommended that Richmond College do the same, resulting in the post-war devastation of his personal holdings and the institution’s endowment. In 1864, Ryland told a mixed-race audience that Black and white people would all suffer should the North win the war: Northerners would “curse our servants with a really more intense slavery” and “turn out a brutal soldiery to insult & dishonor our high-toned women whom they would afterwards employ as cooks, & milk-maids, as washers & seamstresses.”54 

Immediately after the war, and at the request of the board that he still led, Ryland and another professor prepared to reopen the campus. The work included unsuccessful attempts to locate the contents of the college’s library, which had been removed by the Union army, as well as again recruiting students, this time for an anticipated high school on the campus.55 By March 1866, word reached Ryland that key donors and trustees—Jeremiah Bell Jeter, James B. Taylor, R.H. Bagby, and A.M Poindexter—wanted him to resign as the college’s president. This may have been due to his advocacy for the board to invest in Confederate funds, his vocal opposition to the institution taking on post-war debt, or a combination of both. On March 23, 1866, he wrote a letter of resignation from his two positions—college president and head of the board—but he was persuaded to remain in the latter role.56 The board acknowledged his resignation as college president with a resolution recognizing his “unselfish devotion.”57

First page of Ryland’s handwritten letter of resignation as President of Richmond College.
First page of Robert Ryland’s letter of resignation as President of Richmond College, March 23, 1866 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Ryland found work at distant churches and two city institutions.58 He was a part-time teacher of moral science, Latin, and history at the Richmond Female Institute between 1866 and 1868. The school provided him with housing for his family and two rooms for servants.59 Between 1867 and 1868, he was also a teacher at the Richmond location of the National Theological Institute, formed to offer ministerial instruction to freedmen. The Theological Institute was located at the former site of Lumpkin’s Jail, the notorious slave prison known as the Devil’s Half-Acre. Ryland published a letter explaining his decision to teach Black men in which he focused white readers on the need to prevent the Northern teachers from dominating the field of Black education. He argued for his own suitability for the role since he had “labored, on the Sabbath and in other spare hours, with honest zeal, for their spiritual welfare” and emphasized that he would make it his “special aim” to use his Black students as a means of spreading conciliation with “the white people.”60 His decision to teach at the institute shocked Jeremiah Bell Jeter, then senior editor of the Religious Herald, but he acknowledged Ryland’s qualifications and extenuating circumstances, likely a reference to his financial losses.61 Ryland’s tenure at the institute was brief. While a published explanation described his resignation as motivated by his belief that the institute could hire two female teachers for the cost of his salary, his private letters at the time indicate that the work with the Black students did not satisfy his professional desires: “My pupils were so unimpressionable that the work was almost purely mechanical. Did you ever fancy that turning a grindstone all day without sharpening the iron would be harder work than if it [should] sharpen it?”62

Five story campus building surrounded by lawn and trees at top of hill.
The former Southwest Virginia Institute, where Ryland served as chaplain (later Virginia Intermont College), c.1915 (Internet Archive)

In 1868, Ryland accepted the leadership of Kentucky Female College and resigned from the Richmond College Board of Trustees that May. He remained at the women’s college until 1871, then moved to positions at Lexington College (1871-1878) and Henry Male and Female College (1878-1881). Between 1893 and 1897, while in his late 80s and early 90s, he served as chaplain of the Southwest Virginia Institute. He also continued to work when he could as a guest minister, preaching before white and Black congregations. While frustrated that he could not secure a permanent ministerial position, he relished preaching before “the destitute” and those “willing to receive the gospel from the lips of an old man.” As for his personal spiritual journey, Ryland remained convinced of his own “great unworthiness,” writing at the age of 85 that, despite “many humiliating failures,” he had tried to “live a Christian life.”63 While his finances were consistently strained in the decades after the Civil War, when word reached him that he had been described as poor, one congregant recalled him saying, “I want it distinctly understood that I am not poor. I have a bank up yonder . . . a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”64

Ryland continued to demonstrate the same seeming contradictions on the subject of race that he had prior to emancipation. In 1885, he wrote of his concern for Black female domestic workers in Kentucky who were on the verge of being displaced by British immigrants.65 In 1891, however, he distinguished between the work that white people once expected from those they enslaved and that available from those he referred to as a “new generation of Negroes” who were “far above hard work.” “The women are worse than the men,” he continued. “If you hire them, they study how little work they can do to avoid dismission, & as soon as they can get money enough . . . they are gone!”66 A year before his death, Ryland wrote The Colored People, a small publication that included his thoughts on enslavement, colonization, and the lives of Black people following emancipation. Still hoping for eventual removal of Black citizens from the United States, Ryland wrote that the enslavement era was “a season of discipline” which God had allowed as a means of spreading Christianity in Africa through colonization. Ryland described “a natural and mutual race-prejudice between whites and blacks” but also emphasized his belief that all souls were equal in the eyes of God, and urged his white readers who employed Black workers to provide them with fair wages and reading material.67 

Death & Memorialization

Oil portrait of Ryland standing with one Richmond College diploma with seal and ribbon in his right hand and his left hand on top of a stack of rolled diplomas.
Portrait of Ryland with Richmond College diplomas (University Museums, photograph by Taylor Dabney)
News article about Ryland’s death, including a sketch the of elderly Ryland.
Article following Robert Ryland’s death, Richmond Dispatch, April 25, 1899 (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

During Ryland’s final years, Richmond College honored his contributions to the institution. While he had hoped to be buried in Kentucky, he agreed to the trustees’ request that he be interred in the institutional plot at Hollywood Cemetery, on the condition that Betty Ryland be buried beside him at her death. After suffering a brief illness, Ryland died at age 95 on April 23, 1899 in Kentucky, at the home of his daughter Roberta.68 A special meeting of the board was called on April 24 to announce his death, with the trustees also appointing a committee to recommend means of honoring Ryland and reflecting their “high appreciation of the very valuable services he rendered to the denomination and the cause of higher education as President of Richmond College from its formation in 1832 to the year 1866 when he resigned that office.”69 

Describing the institution itself as “a monument” to Ryland’s “fidelity, industry, wisdom, and learning,” in June 1899, the board also named a wing of a central campus building begun during Ryland’s presidency the Robert Ryland Memorial Building.70 In December 1910, as plans were being made to relocate Richmond College to its current campus, Ryland Hall on the Broad Street campus was destroyed by fire. In 1915, the board named the new administration building on the new campus Ryland Hall, recognizing Robert Ryland and longtime Richmond College treasurer and secretary Charles Hill Ryland (1836-1914), who had recently died.71 More information about Charles Hill Ryland, nephew of Robert Ryland, can be found below.

In 2021, following extensive research into the life of Robert Ryland, including his enslavement of adults and children and his published support for slavery, the 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 Ryland Hall, which is now known as the Humanities Building.72  

Excerpt of handwritten Board of Trustees minutes concerning a "R. Ryland Memorial."
June 13, 1899 Board of Trustees minutes recording the decision to name a portion of the administration building on the Broad Street campus in memory of Robert Ryland
Bronze plaque from the former Ryland Hall recognizing Robert Ryland.
Plaque installed in 1924 in the former Ryland Hall on the current campus
No items found.

The Ryland Family and the University of Richmond

In spring 1962, the University of Richmond Alumni Bulletin referred to the Rylands as “the most distinguished family connected to Richmond College and the University of Richmond.” Beginning with Robert Ryland’s leadership of Virginia Baptist Seminary in 1832 and extending to the present day, nearly 70 members of the Ryland family have attended or served the institution as students, faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees. Among those whose lives and work have been entwined with the institution’s history are Charles Hill Ryland (1836-1914), Josiah Ryland (1830-1903), Marion Garnett Ryland (1872-1927), Garnett Ryland (1870-1962), and Charles H. Ryland (1913-2009).

Charles Hill Ryland (1836-1914)

Painted portrait of Charles Hill Ryland.
Portrait of Charles Hill Ryland (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Charles Hill Ryland, the son of Samuel P. Ryland (1803-1886) and Catharine Hill Ryland (1804-1881) and nephew to Robert Ryland, was born on January 22, 1836 at Norwood, his father’s plantation in King and Queen County.73 He matriculated at Richmond College in 1854 and during his two years as a student, founded the Philologian Literary Society.

After withdrawing from college and serving as a teacher until 1859, he joined the first class of students at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, then located in Greenville, South Carolina. His studies in Greenville were interrupted by the start of the Civil War.

During the next four years, Ryland was a missionary to the Confederate Army, served as Treasurer and Depository of the Army Colportage Board (distributor of Bibles and religious publications), and worked as the steward of the Engineer Bureau Hospital in Richmond, located at Cary and 19th Streets opposite Castle Thunder prison.74 Two of the former warehouse’s upper floors had been converted to wards that held enslaved patients who had been forced to come to Richmond to build the city’s fortifications. The hospital was severely overcrowded and the subject of strong critique by the Richmond Daily Examiner and an investigation commissioned by Samuel P. Moore, the Confederate Surgeon General, and undertaken by Dr. W.A. Carrington. Concerns included a lack of bedding, unsanitary conditions, and high mortality rates.75 Ryland publicly responded that the characterization was a “gross misrepresentation” arising from enslavers disgruntled that they were unable to retrieve those they enslaved from the hospital, though he acknowledged some shortcomings.76

Ministry & Baptist Service

First page of Charles Ryland's handwritten Christmas sermon.
Ryland's 1873 Christmas Sermon (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Ryland was ordained as a Baptist minister at Bruington Baptist Church on May 30, 1863. He subsequently served as the pastor of several Virginia congregations between 1865 and 1907: Carmel Baptist Church, Caroline County (1865-1866), First Baptist Church, Alexandria (1869-1874), Taylorsville Baptist Church (1879-c.1888), and Walnut Grove Baptist Church (1882-1907, a congregation also served by Robert Ryland following the Civil War).

Ryland's interest in the compilation and preservation of Baptist history led to his directorship of the American Baptist Historical Society and his founding of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society (VBHS), which was located at Richmond College and remains at the University of Richmond today. He served as the VBHS secretary between 1881 and 1914 and was described by Baptist historian G.W. Beale as having done more “for the discovery and preservation of the materials of our denominational history than any other man of his day.”77 Many of Ryland’s own sermons and notes are held by VBHS. He also undertook an extensive effort to collect the papers of Robert Ryland, now housed at VBHS, which provide essential information about Robert Ryland, Virginia Baptist Seminary, and the early years of Richmond College.

He also served in numerous other Baptist leadership roles, including as trustee of Columbian University (formerly Columbian College and later George Washington University), the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Richmond College.

Richmond College

When the future of Richmond College was in doubt following the near total loss of its endowment due to investment in Confederate funds, Ryland was part of the effort to re-open the institution. He later took on a remarkable array of important roles, many simultaneously, including trustee (1873 until his death in 1914), treasurer (1874-1911), secretary to the Board of Trustees (1875-1914), and librarian (1883-1914).

Ryland did much to increase fundraising from individuals and congregations and to stabilize the finances of the institution. While he was treasurer, the college’s endowment expanded from $75,000 to $640,000. The 1913 edition of the college’s yearbook, The Spider, was dedicated to Ryland, “who has devoted his life with singular consecration to the interests of Richmond College.”78

Ryland was also superintendent of grounds and buildings and a significant force in relocating the College to the University’s current campus. He died on August 1, 1914, just over a month before the new campus opened. In 1915, a trustee committee recommended honoring him and Robert Ryland through the naming of Ryland Hall:

Your committee is of the opinion that the Board should be slow to apply names to the buildings at Westhampton and should do so only after giving each case careful consideration. For the present, the committee will make only two recommendations. One is that the administration building be named Ryland Hall and shall be marked with a tablet commemorating the services of Robert Ryland, first president of the college, and of Charles Hill Ryland, long secretary and treasurer.79

The portion of the building known as Charles Hill Ryland Hall fittingly housed the college library, which remained at that location until the opening of Boatwright Memorial Library in 1955.

Composite of dedication page and portrait of Charles Ryland and bronze plaque from former Ryland Hall honoring Charles Ryland.
Left to right: dedication and portrait from the 1913 Spider; plaque that designated the library wing of the building formerly known as Ryland Hall as a memorial space honoring Charles Hill Ryland

Ryland married Alice Marion Garnett (1846-1931) in 1869. They had seven children, many of whom were affiliated with Richmond College and later, the University of Richmond: Garnett Ryland, R’1892; Marion Garnett Ryland; Julia Brooke Ryland Knight; Samuel Peachey Ryland, R’1904 (a trustee from 1937 to 1954); Charles Hill Ryland, Jr., R’1896; Anne Elizabeth Ryland; and John Muscoe Garnett Ryland, R’1910. Additional information about the institutional roles of Garnett Ryland and Marion Ryland is below.

Josiah Ryland (1830-1903)

Josiah Ryland, brother of Charles Hill Ryland, was born on January 17, 1830 in King and Queen County. He matriculated at Richmond College in 1847, and he and Poindexter S. Henson became the first two graduates of the institution in 1849. Ryland’s memories of his student years are recorded in “Recollections of an Old Boy,” originally published in The Messenger in 1892.80 He detailed student life, teachers, buildings, classes, and enslaved laborers and a free Black woman who lived on the campus. He began his career as a teacher, but at the start of the Civil War, enlisted in the Confederate Army, serving as 3rd Lieutenant of the King and Queen County Artillery. He was captured in the early months of the war and held on Johnson’s Island, a Federal garrison and prison for Confederate officers in Ohio. 

Composite of newsclippings showing advertisements for Josiah Ryland's businesses and the headline of a story about his death.
Ryland's post-Civil War businesses and 1903 obituary (Virginia Chronicle)

Ryland returned to Richmond after the war and established himself first as a stationer and bookseller (at Starke & Ryland), then shifted to instrument sales (Ryland & Lee). He served as a subscription collector for Richmond College in 1853.81 He joined the Board of Trustees on June 12, 1866 (the day his uncle, Robert Ryland, stepped down as president of the college) and served as a trustee until his death in 1903.82 He was also involved in the Baptist denomination and was a deacon at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. 

Ryland married daughters of two Richmond College trustees: Callie V. Thomas Ryland (1836-1868), daughter of Archibald Thomas; and following her death, Julia Wortham Ryland (1846-1919), daughter of Dr. Albert G. Wortham. At his death on May 27, 1903, he was described as one of the most “widely known and generally beloved citizens of Richmond” and was interred in the college's plot at Hollywood Cemetery.83

Marion Garnett Ryland (1872-1927)

Composite of images of the stacks and window in the library, a portrait of Marion Ryland, and an excerpt of her typed letter about library resources.
Left to right: interior, Richmond College Library (For the Centuries, Boatwright Library); Marion Ryland, The Spider, 1927; one of Ryland’s letters to Frederic W. Boatwright advocating for library funding (1920, Frederic W. Boatwright Presidential Correspondence, Boatwright Library)

Marion Garnett Ryland, daughter of Charles Hill Ryland and Alice Garnett Ryland (1846-1931), was born in King and Queen County on September 13, 1872. She graduated from Richmond Female Institute (later known as the Women’s College) in 1890 and taught there for several years.84 In 1902, she matriculated at Columbia Teachers College, where she was awarded a scholarship designed to encourage the education of Southern teachers. Following graduation, she taught kindergarten and then English at the Horace Mann School in New York, at the time affiliated with Columbia Teachers College. 

Grace W. Landrum, Dean of Women at the College of William and Mary and Ryland’s lifelong friend, described Ryland as a talented scholar, linguist, writer, mathematician, and scientist who “could have held a professorship in any one of the three colleges of the University of Richmond” but instead “chose deliberately to be the medium between book and reader.”85 In 1909, Ryland began assisting her father in his role as college librarian and became the reference librarian by 1911. She also served as an advisor to the Women Students’ Self-Government Association.86 Following her father’s death in 1914, she succeeded him as college librarian.

Ryland believed in a highly personalized and welcoming approach to library service, resisting shelf labels in favor of providing personal direction, and making the reading room a place of “no warnings, no silence signs.”87 Her advocacy for library resources is documented in letters to administrators in which she highlighted urgent needs, including new furniture to replace desks and chairs that had seen “35 years of service, three moves, and a fire”; increased space; additional staff and higher salaries; and new books and materials.88 While the library space remained the same until the opening of Boatwright Memorial Library in 1955, Ryland succeeded in improving salaries and enriching the collection.89 

After struggling with a kidney ailment and encroaching blindness, Ryland died on June 8, 1927 at age 54. Her memorial service was held in the library. Students dedicated the November 1927 issue of The Messenger to her memory and reprinted the full text of the memorial service addresses and tributes from a number of figures, including President Frederic W. Boatwright, Grace Landrum, and Westhampton College Dean May L. Keller. Ryland’s mother donated $2,000 for a library endowment in her memory for the purchase of new books.90

Garnett Ryland (1870-1962)

Black and white photograph of Garnett Ryland standing with hands in pockets.
Garnett Ryland, University of Richmond Magazine, Spring 1962

Garnett Ryland, son of Charles Hill Ryland and Alice Garnett Ryland, was born in King and Queen County on December 17, 1870.91 As a student at Richmond College, he received three achievement medals—the Steel Medal (reading), the Woods Medal (declamation), and the Writer’s Medal; edited the student literary magazine; and, in his role as president of the Philologian Literary Society, “presided at Commencement.” Following his graduation in 1892, he earned a doctoral degree in chemistry at Johns Hopkins University in 1898.

For close to 20 years, Ryland taught at a number of institutions including Georgetown College, a Baptist institution in Kentucky (1903-1917). Initially an acting professor of chemistry at Richmond College, he became head of the Department of Chemistry in 1917, holding the position until his retirement in 1945 and teaching more than 2,500 students, many of whom went on to careers in medical fields. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the English Chemical Society, a member of the American Chemical Society, and president of the Virginia Academy of Science.

Ryland also chaired the Virginia Commission on Interracial Relations and was a trustee of Virginia Union University.

A scholar of Baptist history, he is, with William A. Harris, credited as a crucial developer of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society (VBHS). He served as its as secretary-treasurer, and continued his father’s extensive effort to collect the documents that constitute the Robert Ryland Papers, depositing them at VBHS as a resource for researchers. In 1955, he published his denominational history, The Baptists of Virginia 1699-1926.

Ryland married Mary Lewella Payne (1887-1980) in 1909 and the two had five children: Mary Ryland Fessler (1912-2000), Charles Hill Ryland (1913-2009), Alice Ryland Giles (1915-2013), Romulus Payne Ryland (1917-2002), and Hannah Ryland Sanger (1919-2010).

Following his death in 1962, memorialization of his life and work included the naming of the Garnett Ryland Memorial Room at the headquarters of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C. At the University of Richmond, the Garnett Ryland Prize was established by his friends, family, and former students to recognize outstanding chemistry graduates.

Charles H. Ryland (1913-2009)

Black and white headshot of Charles H. Ryland.
Charles H. Ryland (UR Magazine, Summer 1978)

Charles H. Ryland, grandson of Charles Hill Ryland (for whom he was named) and son of Garnett Ryland and Mary Lewella Payne Ryland, was born on October 26, 1913 in Georgetown, Kentucky, where his father was a professor of chemistry. After Professor Ryland joined the Richmond faculty, Charles Ryland was raised in a home adjacent to the campus before attending the University, graduating from Richmond College in 1936 and the Law School in 1939. 

Ryland was elected to the University’s Board of Trustees in 1961 and remained a trustee for the next 48 years. He also served as president of the General Society of Alumni and the Law School Association.92 In addition to his law practice, he was Commonwealth’s Attorney for Essex County, Virginia, and a member of the Warsaw Town Council. He led the Virginia State Library Board for three years and helped establish the library’s state court records conservation program.93

His involvement with the Baptist denomination included his presidency of the Baptist General Association of Virginia (1962-1963) and active support of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. Ryland was married to Elizabeth (Betsey) Lowell Ryland (1919-2008), and together they raised six children, five of whom are University of Richmond alumni. Charles H. Ryland died on October 22, 2009 and was buried in Hollywood Cemetery. The Rylands’ children established the Charles and Elizabeth Ryland endowed fund at the University in memory of their parents.

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