Robert Ryland and Enslavement
Details of Robert Ryland’s relationship to enslavement—his defenses of slavery as a minister and public figure, his role as an enslaver and use of the hiring out system, and his oversight of enslaved laborers at Virginia Baptist Seminary and Richmond College—appear across a range of documents. Letters, ledger pages containing personal and institutional financial details, receipts, newspaper items, tax and census documents, and other material illuminate his considered position and daily actions. Examples are below. These documents are detailed at length in Shelby M. Driskill’s “A Season of Discipline”: Enslavement, Education & Faith in the Life of Robert Ryland, the 2021 UR Inclusive History report on Robert Ryland. Information about institutional involvement in enslavement can be found in Enslavement in the Early Years (1832-1840).
Public Statements & Positions (1824-1898)
After a brief period of anti-slavery thinking while Ryland was a college student, his support of enslavement solidified. He began enslaving individuals himself and hiring them out to businesses, households, and the institutions he led as his defenses of slavery appeared in nationally distributed publications. His position was grounded in a theoretical view that allowed for “humane masters.” He had considered the morality of enslavement and accepted it, despite a conviction that in an ideal world it would not be necessary. This thinking aligned with the that of fellow Baptist minister and Richmond College trustee Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880). Both men viewed themselves as positioned between two extremes they found unacceptable: excessive physical brutality on one side and abolition on the other. Ryland’s justifications for enslavement also included economic needs, white unwillingness to perform domestic labor, and what he believed to be the will of God.
1824 At age 19, while a Columbian College student, Ryland gave a vivid public address on the work of the American Colonization Society in which he referred to enslavement as “evil” and a “legalized crime.” He envisioned the removal of freed Black people from the United States as a remedy, returning the nation to “innocence,” while using formerly enslaved Christians to counter Islam on the African continent.1
1835 A decade later, Ryland had established his own household and assumed leadership of Virginia Baptist Seminary (which became Richmond College in 1840). He was himself an enslaver and also oversaw the institution’s leasing of enslaved labor from others. Between August and September 1835, he contributed a long examination of his position on slavery to the Christian Watchman, a Boston-based denominational publication, and was among clergymen who developed anti-abolition resolutions published in the New York Spectator.
His open letter in the Watchman was directed to Francis Wayland (1796-1865), a theologian, academic, and the author of a frequently used moral philosophy textbook. Wayland had briefly considered the morality of enslavement in his book, sparking Ryland’s criticism. “It is one thing to theorize,” Ryland wrote, “and another to act” on the “momentous question” of slavery. He wrote of three “difficulties” with manumission (release from enslavement) and abolition:
- Enslavers who freed those they held would have to continue to care for individuals who could not care for themselves;
- In Virginia, those who were freed were required to leave the state and, he wrote, “servants of humane masters” preferred enslavement to “expatriation and freedom”; and
- White people would not work for wages to do the work that enslaved people were forced to do, particularly the “drudgery of domestic business” that “slaves have always performed.”
Ryland concluded that he hoped he would not be viewed as an advocate for the idea of enslavement, and that he felt “the perplexity of the subject.”2
A month later, Ryland was among 14 influential clergymen (one of four with ties to Richmond College) who met in Richmond and resolved to oppose the “unhallowed schemes of abolitionists,” whom they viewed as interfering with the “domestic relations of master and slave.” Ryland and the other ministers saw themselves as adhering to the guidance of Jesus and his followers who had “uniformly recognized the relations of master and servant.”3 While Ryland had touched on biblical arguments in his August open letter, the Richmond resolutions directly linked him to proslavery Christianity—the use of the New Testament to justify bondage and forced labor.
1848 Ryland published a catechism (answers to questions using biblical sources) under two titles: Scripture Catechism for Coloured People and Scripture Catechism for the Instruction of Children and Servants. Ryland treated the literacy of the small book’s readers as assumed, and it has been viewed as indicative of his support for the literacy of Black people (though the publisher’s introduction emphasized that it was intended for oral instruction). In the catechism, Ryland stressed deference to white “masters,” even when they were cruel. Historian Charles F. Irons writes that, despite Ryland’s potential use of the catechism as a “thinly veiled literacy program,” he was also “making the case that a well-regulated system of paternalistic instruction—not abolition—was the best way that owners could care for their slaves.”4
1852 In a sermon given in response to the murders of members of an enslaving family by a woman held by them who was a member of First African Baptist Church, Ryland emphasized that enslaved and free Black congregants must remain submissive to white people. He also stated, “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.”5
1857 Ryland’s speech before the alumni of Columbian College, which was featured in news items over the following years, addressed his fear of regional division in the face of Southern defenses of enslavement and Northern calls for its abolition. The speech notes his conviction that slavery was a condition of capitalism. He asked his audience to “Rebuke those politicians . . . who are continually exasperating the public mind and urging measures to weaken the bonds of union.” After posing the question of why God would have allowed enslavement in the United States, Ryland argued that slavery might end in “a few centuries” when a rising population would sufficiently drive down wages and the “economy may induce capitalists to prefer voluntary operatives.”6
1858 Ryland issued a public response when he incorrectly believed a rumor was circulating in a Virginia county that he was an abolitionist. This was a year following an anonymous accusation that he was spreading abolitionism through his use of Francis Wayland’s textbook. To quell the suspected new rumor, which he thought was intended to discourage parents of prospective Richmond College students, Ryland placed a “card” in the Religious Herald in which he stated:
I feel it my duty to say . . . that I own about a dozen slaves; that I have never manumitted one, and do not design doing so; that I do not think emancipation safe or humane to either master or servant; that I have no sympathy or correspondence with the abolitionists; and that I do not think it morally wrong under existing circumstances to hold slaves.7
1861 Ryland’s report to the Education Board of the Virginia Baptist General Association reflected his strengthened sectional allegiance. He wrote that the South could no longer accept ministers from the “corrupted region” of the North, which had harbored a “long-cherished hatred . . . toward the institutions of the South.”8
1864 In a sermon at Mount Olivet Church in Hanover County, Virginia, Ryland called on whites and Blacks to rally to the Confederate cause and to imagine the social and racial inversion should the Union prevail: the North would “curse our servants with a really more intense slavery. They [would] hire our private citizens to work as d.l. [likely “day labor” or “day laborers”] on the farms . . . once owned by them, & to crown all our miseries, they wd turn out a brutal soldiery to insult & dishonor our high-toned women whom they would afterwards employ as cooks, & milk-maids, as washers & seamstresses.”9
1865 Five months after the end of the Civil War, in the September 1865 annual circular letter of the Dover Baptist Association (a regional association of Baptist churches), Ryland publicly considered shifts resulting from the end of enslavement and “the trying relationship” his white audience was “made to occupy with the colored people.” He acknowledged that formerly enslaved individuals might leave the places they were held and their former enslavers (described as “their quiet homes and old friends”) and seek work elsewhere (“experiments in the new fields of life that are open to them”); advised that white people avoid treating newly free individuals with “neglect” or a “vindictive spirit”; urged racially mixed congregations to retain their Black members and commit to evangelical outreach to the recently emancipated; and stressed the importance of the literacy of Black people. To some degree, his advice was grounded in self-interest, fear of reprisal by the formerly enslaved and the prospect of interference by “strangers,” likely those from the north seeking to promote equality. Since he believed that white “safety and happiness” now depended on Black “good will towards us,” Ryland argued that opportunities for the formerly enslaved to earn a living through paid labor would be mutually beneficial. Black individuals would be able to provide for themselves and their families and white former enslavers would secure “a thrifty peasantry” of freed Black people. Ryland emphasized that the cost of this “corps of domestics” would roughly equal the expenses of holding enslaved people, and cost far less that the use of “imported foreigners.” Workers from abroad, he continued, “do not understand our character and habits” and would “be ever aspiring to an equality with their employers.”10
1880 In his history of First African Baptist Church, Ryland recalled his time as pastor there, his baptisms of members, his ministerial priorities, and other aspects of the church’s early decades. He also addressed the belief among some white people that “all negroes are alike,” praising specific members of his former congregation. Ryland concluded by sharing his feelings on emancipation, “The negroes are now all free, and I am heartily glad of it, though I say nothing of the agencies and methods by which the event was accomplished. They are our fellow-men—our fellow-citizens—and many of them our fellow-Christians.” Ryland then called for recollection of the “leading doctrine” of Christianity: “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”11
1898 A year before he died at age 95, Ryland recorded his thoughts on enslavement in The Colored People. He fondly recalled those enslaved by his father, urged an end to “all prejudice and indifference,” called for a focus among white readers on the “temporal and spiritual interests” of Black people,12 and again addressed why God would have allowed enslavement. His answer is aligned with the priorities of the colonization movement, to which he remained committed for most of his adult life. He wrote that, after the enslavement era, which he called “a season of discipline,” God “had in view, first, the salvation of a vast throng of benighted souls, who would not otherwise have been saved, and then to send them and their descendants, properly qualified to illumine the two hundred millions of Africans yet in darkness with the light of the gospel.”13
Records of Personal Enslavement (1832-1865)
While Federal Census enumerators did not collect the names of enslaved people, the census data does provide information on the number of individuals held by Ryland in 1840, 1850, and 1860, along with their ages and, after 1850, a description of their skin color (“black” or “mulatto”).
Enslaved Individuals Connected to Robert Ryland: Federal Census, 1840-1860
1840: 9 individuals, including 4 children under the age of 1014*
1850: 13 individuals between the ages 8 and 6015
1860: 15 individuals, including adults and children ranging in age from 1 to 7516**
*In 1840, Ryland was recorded in the census as the head of household for the Richmond College campus.
**The 1860 entries represent three different locations. The first is under Robert Ryland’s name; the other two are instances in which enslaved persons in others’ entries are identified as having been “hired” from Ryland.
Brief references to individuals Ryland enslaved and held appear in his personal letters across three decades. Selected examples are provided below.
Mary & Coffee (1831)
Along with the first mention of Mary in his letters, Ryland refers to an enslaved man named Coffee who was being leant to him by his father for a short period:
I expect to go to house-keeping within 2 weeks, tho it will be hard squeezing to get bread & butter. I will thank you, therefore, to send Coffee up as soon as you can spare him . . . I hope Coffee will behave better than Mary does. She promises to be a very bad girl. Don’t forget to give him a Pass, stating where and to whom he is coming.17
Sam, Fanny & Matilda Banks (1842)
Three people are mentioned in Ryland’s 1842 description of hiring out: Sam, who as a child was given to Ryland by his father and who was the first known enslaved person to labor for the institution; Fanny, whom Ryland held for at least 14 years; and Matilda Banks, whom he held for at least 22 years:
Negroes are hiring for less in town this year than last—especially tobacco factory hands. I get $120 for Sam however, and that is $120 more than I fear I shall get for his last years work as the young man who hired him proves to be doubtful. Fanny has the same home at $45—Matilda at $30[.]18
Maria (1842 & 1845)
Maria had been held by Ryland since 1832. In his 1842 letter to his father, Ryland had noted her pregnancy and indicated she already had a child or children: “Maria expects to increase her family & what to do with her I know not. We have no room for her, and yet I can find no home for her. I wish she was away.”19
Three years later, Ryland sent Maria, possibly with at least one child, to his father’s King and Queen County, Virginia plantation, where his wife, Josephine Ryland, was then staying. He asked Josephine to explain the situation to his father, specifically that he would have preferred to auction Maria, but this might have offended the Black congregants at First African Baptist Church:
Should Papa express any displeasure at m[y] sending Maria home, tell him that my chief aim was to avoid exciting prejudice in the African Ch[urch] in Town & thus of weakening my power to do them good. This would have been done by putting her up at auction. For while they all feel that owning slaves is no ground of objection to a preacher, I think they would generally hear the gospel less kindly from the lips of a minister who should sell one at auction.20
At times in the 1840s, Ryland would act as a purchasing agent, buying enslaved individuals for the purpose of freeing them once he was repaid with interest. Ryland viewed this as an “investment” but ended the practice with John:
A few days ago, we lost an old man, named John, who lived in the city & whom I bought some 4 years ago to prevent his being separated from his wife — He lacked about $150 — of paying back his purchase money — He is the last that I mean to relieve in this manner.21
Unnamed “Servants” (1850)
Ryland’s father, Josiah Ryland, had provided him with enslaved people a number of times between 1832 and the elderly man’s death in 1850. That year, Ryland wrote to his mother regarding the enslaved people designated for him in his father’s estate. He preferred that they arrive before the traditional “hiring day,” when one-year positions were filled in factories and households:
It has occurred to me that if there should be a division of the servants before you send your turkeys over, that you might find room in the wagon for the servants that fall to me. If so, you will oblige me by sending them along with Tunstal [an enslaved man who transported goods and family members]. They can walk part of the way. They will have to be hired out, and it is better for them to come before New Year’s Day.22
Thom was held by Ryland between at least 1848 and 1864. Like Walker Lee, Matilda Banks, and many others, Ryland hired Thom out and collected the payment for his labor. Richmond College was one of the locations where Thom was forced to work. In 1852, the college rehired him out for a month to the downtown Richmond tobacco factory of college trustee James Thomas, Jr. (1813-1882). Ryland wrote a memo stipulating that the $10.33 earned for a month of Thom’s labor be credited to the college:
Thom began work at Mr. James Thomas’ Factory on Monday the 2d of August at $2.00 per week. Dr. Hudgins [Dr. A.G. Hudgins, then the steward of Richmond College] will be able to tell when he stopped work. He will also collect the money as it is to be credited on his books to the College for the present session.23
Walker Lee (1859)
Ryland routinely hired out Walker Lee to one or more factories between 1851 and 1863. Lee became ill in 1859. In a letter to his son, Ryland first described the illness of his wife, Betty Ryland, and then wrote, “Walker too has not been to the Factory for 1 1/2 months.”24
Between Ryland’s matriculation at Columbian College in 1823 and his death in 1899, he kept precise records of his income and expenses. From 1831 to 1865, those he enslaved appeared in both categories. Ryland recorded payments for medical care, the purchase of their clothes, and occasional cash payments that he provided instead of clothing. He kept accounts of his profit from the labor of those he “hired out,” and in 1864, his earnings from his sale of Maria and Parthena. In addition to Mary, Sam, Fanny, Thom, Matilda Banks, Walker Lee, John, Maria, Parthena, and unnamed “young servants,” others whose lives are glimpsed in Ryland’s ledgers are Lucy, likely Lucy Stepney, who was a primary caregiver of the Ryland children and held between at least 1842 and 1865; Louisa, held between at least 1848 and her death in 1863; Violet Weavely, held in the Ryland home between 1848 and 1856; Sally, held between at least 1849 and 1864; Judy, held between 1849 and 1863; and Ellen, held between at least 1849 and 1864. Ellen was one of the men and women Ryland hired out each year, and in 1860 he noted that she had been arrested "as a runaway,” reducing his $90 payment for her labor by $5. A woman named Aggy, the mother of two or more children, was also held by Ryland between at least 1844 and 1863.25
Ryland’s preserved receipts from the 1850s shed light on his purchases for his family, his tax payments, and items designated for those he enslaved. Examples between 1854 and 1855 include combined invoices and receipts from medical practitioners and merchants and bills from tax assessors.
Visits from Dr. James Beale (1854-1855)
James Beale, a medical doctor in Richmond, billed Ryland for multiple visits to three women Ryland enslaved: Matilda [Banks], Violet [Weavely], and Sally. These repeated visits may have corresponded to pregnancies. In all cases, the women are referred to by the abbreviation “svt.,” for “servant.”26
Shoe Purchases (1854)
In 1855, Ryland was billed by W.T.W. Taylor for his previous year’s purchase of shoes and boots for his children and those he enslaved. Taylor designated enslaved people with “St” for “servant.” Shoes were sold for Lucy, Ellen (here spelled “Ellin”), Violet [Weavely], and Judy. For Thom (here spelled “Tom”), Ryland purchased a pair of brogans (heavy boots).27
City Tax Assessment (1855)
Ryland’s tax payment to the city of Richmond on one of his properties included three individuals he enslaved who were associated with that house. Names are not included in this and similar tax records.28