The Experiment at Dunlora



Painted portrait headshot of Edward Baptist.
Edward Baptist (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

In response to the calls for a system of formal ministerial education from some members of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, two temporary home-based centers were initiated by the newly formed Virginia Baptist Education Society (VBES) to fill the educational needs of aspiring ministers until a permanent institution was established. Edward Baptist (1790-1863) of Powhatan County and Eli Ball (1786-1853) of Henrico County—both Baptist ministers and vice presidents of the VBES—agreed to teach and mentor students at their respective residences between 1830 and 1832. 

Edward Baptist’s center was housed at Dunlora, the approximately 900-acre plantation where he, his wife Judith Eliza (“Eliza”) Eggleston (1799-1870), and their family had lived for more than a decade, sharing the home of his wife’s aunt, Ann Hickman. Baptist handled Hickman’s affairs and oversaw the estate of her late husband, William Hickman (d. 1821), which included nearly 60 enslaved persons in 1830. Before beginning the ministerial education center, he had previously operated the Dunlora School, a classical academy, on the property.

Over the two-year existence of the center at Dunlora, up to 20 ministerial students studied with Baptist. Although a surge in revival activity in the area often drew the students away from the center’s formal classwork to opportunities to preach, their success at increasing the membership of area churches reassured some who were previously reluctant to embrace formal ministerial education. 

With the purchase of Spring Farm in Henrico County by Education Society trustees and their formation of a permanent institution, Virginia Baptist Seminary, Baptist and Ball’s temporary home-based centers ceased operations in 1832.

Historical Interpretation and the University’s Founding

Color photo of Baptist's grave maker inscribed with lamp of knowledge, his name and birth and death dates, and roles.
Marker at Edward Baptist’s Alabama gravesite (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

For more than a century, the formation of Virginia Baptist Seminary in 1832 was considered the founding of what became the University of Richmond, while the education centers run by Edward Baptist and Eli Ball between 1830 and 1832 were treated as institutional prehistory. In 1932, for example, under the leadership of President Frederic W. Boatwright (1868-1951), the university celebrated its centennial with extensive publicity, events, and a fundraising campaign. Over the next two decades, growing enthusiasm for the story of the ministerial education center at the Dunlora plantation on the part of Boatwright and his successor, George M. Modlin (1903-1998), resulted in the adoption of 1830 as the institution’s founding date and the university's celebration of its 125th anniversary in 1955. In conjunction, university trustees funded the placement of a marker at Edward Baptist’s Alabama gravesite commemorating his role as founder of “the Academy which later became the University of Richmond.”

In a 1947 article detailing Edward Baptist and Dunlora, Boatwright described the size and evident prosperity of Dunlora, referring to the house Hickman and Baptist’s family shared as a “substantial main building” that sat with “several outbuildings, smokehouses, etc.” When Modlin incorporated the plantation’s links to the university into his 1955 address celebrating the 125th anniversary of the institution, he spoke of an auxiliary building constructed for students, a “building of 3 or 4 rooms provided by Elder Baptist.” His attention to a simple, modest structure offered a powerful contrast to the university’s size and public profile in the mid-20th century.1 Numerous newspapers published stories emphasizing the university’s “birth in a farmhouse,”2 an oversimplification of the Dunlora period that can now be augmented with additional details.

Black and white photo of delapidated wood cabin and chimney surruonded by overgrown brush; closeup image of old color map showing Powhatan county.
Remains of an outbuilding thought to have housed the educational center run by Edward Baptist at Dunlora plantation (Photo circa 1980, Reprinted in John Reuben Alley, University of Richmond, 2010)

Edward Baptist & Education

Edward Baptist (1790-1863) was a highly educated, wealthy, and denominationally influential Baptist leader, described as a “scholar, planter, and preacher,” and a “chief leader in Christian education among Virginia Baptists [who] deserves to be held in everlasting remembrance.”3 When he died in 1863, he was praised as a beloved and inspiring figure who remained committed to his faith at his last moments.4

Between 1830 and 1832, Baptist supervised the education of up to 20 total ministerial students at Dunlora, the first of whom was William Allgood.  

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Baptist’s guidance of his students rested on his academic background and his multiple leadership roles both within and outside of the Baptist church. He had earned two degrees from Hampden-Sydney College between 1813 and 1815, first studying medicine and then, after his Baptist conversion, focusing on theology. He reportedly held the “best private library of any Baptist minister in Virginia,” and in an account of the formation of the Baptist General Association of Virginia in 1823, he was remembered as the only minister with a college education.5 He supervised multiple congregations and advocated for both the organization of Virginia’s Baptist associations and the formal education of future ministers. He was said to have “suggested the formation of the Baptist General Association and the Virginia Baptist Education Society” and authored the constitutions of both organizations.6 As an influential figure and thinker, Baptist engaged in significant doctrinal debates in the pages of the widely circulated Religious Herald

Painting imagining scene of Edward Baptist at Dunlora: he is standing with one student, three others are in the background working at a table, and a woman is entering the door.
Edward Baptist and the Beginnings of Education by Sidney E. King envisions the establishment of an education center at Baptist’s home, Dunlora, in 1830 (Copyright and courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Baptist also served as an officer of the Powhatan County auxiliary of the American Colonization Society, which advocated for the migration of free Blacks and emancipated slaves to Africa. During Baptist’s years of service as one of the auxiliary’s two vice presidents, an 1821 article suggests its members’ concerns centered on what they considered the “corrupting” influence of free Black people who were acquiring influence through a “dangerous ascendency” over enslaved people. The members insisted the rapidly growing number of free Black people subtracted from the “wealth and strength, and character, and happiness, and safety of the country” and that the removal of this population was “the dictate of patriotism.”7

For at least four years preceding Baptist’s opening of his ministerial education center, the plantation he ran had been home to the Dunlora School, a classical academy he founded and oversaw where students were instructed in standard subjects as well as bookkeeping. By 1826, Baptist had moved to a supervisory role, employing a teacher for the day-to-day work with the students.8 With the 1830 start of the Dunlora experiment in Baptist education, he returned to direct instruction. 

Book inscribed by Edward Baptist with his name, Dunlora, and the year 1830.
Signed flyleaf of Edward Baptist’s Greek Concordance, the small green book held by Baptist as depicted in the King painting recalling the establishment of the education center at Dunlora (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)

Despite VBES’s initial intentions for the center, formal education at Dunlora proved inconsistent. In his history of the period, Robert Ryland (1805-1899) wrote that “‘the boys’ were more occupied with prayer-meetings and revival-services than with their books in the class-room.” Ryland added that Baptist’s supervision of both the “large farm” at Dunlora and “several important churches” kept him from providing the necessary “training [and] systematic work” that the students required.9 While Baptist later acknowledged that academic work had been “greatly interrupted” by the remarkable revival activity in the area, he also emphasized that the students’ preaching in the area helped build churches by bringing in new members. The students’ evangelical achievements placated some Baptists who were previously concerned that the formal education of ministers devalued divine calls to preach. According to Baptist, some of those who once feared that a school for ministers was “a ministerial factory” meant to “manufacture . . . preachers by education” became convinced that “in truth it was a school for the improvement of those gifts and talents which God Himself had bestowed.”10 

Baptist minister and former Virginia Baptist Historical Society President Thomas Sydnor (1860-1890) referred to the center as a “School of the Prophets.”11 Among its students were Alphonse Paul Repiton (1808-1876), who later led churches in North Carolina, and Joseph S. Walthall (d. 1870), a preacher in Mississippi, tutor (instructor) at Richmond College, minister in Newbern, North Carolina, and associate editor of the Raleigh-based denominational newspaper, The Biblical Recorder.12

Enslavement at Dunlora 

In addition to his ministry and educational endeavors, Baptist held Ann Hickman’s power of attorney and handled her affairs, managing the Dunlora plantation and Hickman's late husband’s estate, which included 61 enslaved people in 1821.13 The 1830 census showing Ann Hickman enslaving 57 individuals on the property suggests that the enslaved population on the plantation remained largely unchanged over the intervening nine years. 

Dower Slaves and Their Children

Of the 61 people who were held on the plantation in 1821, 28 adults and children were also separately listed as Ann Hickman’s “dower slaves,” a legal provision made in her husband’s will that meant none in the group could be freed or sold but would instead remain a consistent part of her wealth and would pass to her designated heir at her death. This resulted in precise records of the children born to the women in the group, since each infant increased the overall value of the dower. Hickman was required to report the children’s names, their dates of birth, and the names of their mothers to a Powhatan County representative. 

The records detail the births of five children before the education center was opened: Charity (b. March 17, 1821), Sizzy (b. May 1, 1825), Bristo[w] (b. May 9, 1825), Oscar (b. December 22, 1826), and Martin (b. June 18, 1828). In the enumeration of the plantation in the 1830 census, 18 children under the age of 10 were among the 57 people held by Hickman and overseen by Baptist.14 During the final months of the Dunlora experiment, Polly, the 29-year-old mother of Sizzy, Martin, Oscar, and Celia (born in the September 1830), was pregnant with her fifth recorded child. By August 28, 1832, when she gave birth to her daughter, Agnes, the Dunlora experiment in ministerial education had ended.15

Records of some of Polly and Tabb's children; both women were considered the "dower slaves" of Ann Hickman (Library of Virginia)

Enslaved Individuals Named in Dunlora Records

Two other primary sources recording names of those enslaved at Dunlora have been located: William Hickman’s estate inventory and the “List of Ann Hickman’s Slaves Held for Life.” A transcription of the names and other information pertaining to the enslaved persons included in those documents is below.

Handwritten list of enslaved persons recording their names and value.
List of enslaved persons contained in the inventory and appraisement of the estate of William Hickman, Powhatan County, Virginia (Courtesy of the Library of Virginia)
Handwritten list recording the names of enslaved persons and their approximate ages.
“List of Ann Hickman’s Slaves Held for Life,” January 30, 1821 (Courtesy of the Library of Virginia)
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Transcription of names of enslaved persons listed in William Hickman's estate inventory and as Dower Slaves held by Ann Hickman (* indicates person whose name appeared on both lists):

  • Aaron, age unknown
  • Agness, age unknown
  • Ailse*, “about 50” years old
  • Alfred, age unknown
  • Amanda, age unknown
  • Anderson*, age 9
  • Armistead, age unknown
  • Beck, age unknown
  • Betty, age unknown
  • Billy Lewis*, “about 50” years old
  • Bob, age 4
  • Bristo[w], Infant born May 9, 1825; mother: Tab[b]
  • Celia, Infant born September, 1830; mother: Polly
  • Charity, Infant born March 17, 1821
  • Charles, age unknown
  • China, age unknown
  • Daniel, age 12, age unknown
  • Daniel*, “about 48” years old
  • Dinah*, age 1
  • Emma, age unknown
  • Frank, age unknown
  • Frederick, age unknown
  • Giles, age unknown
  • George, age unknown
  • Hannah, age unknown
  • Henry*, age 7
  • Iris*, “about 40” years old
  • Iris, age unknown
  • Isaac*, age 9
  • Isbel*, “about 19” years old
  • Jacob, age unknown
  • James, age unknown
  • Jeffry*, “about 25” years old
  • Joe*, age 11
  • John, Infant born December 26, 1830, mother: Tabb
  • Judy, age unknown
  • Landis, age unknown
  • Letty, age unknown

  • Lewis “the Blacksmith,” age unknown
  • Lucinda*, “about 38” years old
  • Lucy, age unknown
  • Marbarum, “about 50 years old”
  • Maria, age unknown
  • Martin, Infant born June 18,1828; mother: Polly
  • Mary*, “about 17” years old
  • Mencer, age unknown
  • Milly*, “about 21” years old
  • Michael*, age 10
  • Ned*, “about 48” years old
  • Ned Bristow, age unknown
  • Nelson, age unknown
  • Nick, age unknown
  • Norborne, age unknown
  • Oscar, age unknown
  • Oscar, Infant born December 22, 1826; mother: Polly
  • Patience, “about 80 years old”
  • Peter*, age 15
  • Phillis*, age 2
  • Polly*, “about 18” years old
  • Rachel, age unknown
  • Rosetta, age unknown
  • Sam, age unknown
  • Sarah*, “about 23” years old
  • Serby*, age 55
  • Sizzy, Infant born May 1, 1825, mother: Polly
  • Stephen, age unknown
  • Tab [a.k.a. “Tabb”]*, “about 35” years old
  • Tom, “about 40” years old
  • “Young Bristow,” age unknown
  • Will, age unknown
  • [Illegible], age unknown
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Edward Baptist After Dunlora

Following the VBES trustees’ purchase of Spring Farm as the location of Virginia Baptist Seminary, Edward Baptist was asked to lead the planned institution, but declined, citing health issues. Instead another highly educated Baptist minister, Robert Ryland, assumed the combined roles of principal/superintendent, teacher, and steward, which eventually led to his presidency of Richmond College in 1840.

In 1835, Ann Hickman, Edward and Eliza Baptist, their children, and a large group of enslaved people left Virginia for Alabama. In the following years, as Baptist established his Marengo County plantation, Oakland, he maintained a high profile as a respected Baptist figure. Following his election to the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, he was offered the position of president of Howard College, but declined due to his fragile health. Baptist also refused influential ministerial positions distant from his home, citing his hesitation to put those he enslaved in the hands of an overseer. Those Baptist enslaved were enumerated in Federal Census entries: 28 people in 1840, 51 in 1850, and 54 in 1860.16

James Clarke’s Escape

Old newspaper clipping of ad placed by Baptist offering a reward for James.
Edward Baptist, “Notice” (Daily Dispatch, May 21, 1862)

A man named James Clarke, originally from Virginia, was among those held by Baptist at Oakland in Alabama. Clarke escaped in 1862. Baptist, thinking Clarke would try to locate his parents in Virginia, placed an advertisement in Richmond’s Daily Dispatch seeking Clarke’s apprehension. Referring to him as “my dining room servant,” Baptist offered “a reasonable reward” for Clarke’s arrest and detention in jail. He published the advertisement several times between May and June.17 Five years after Emancipation, a man named James H. Clarke appeared in the 1870 census with his wife, Adie, and their children, Anthony and James. Clarke lived with his family in Richmond, where he worked as a barber. His description and age match Baptist’s 1862 advertisement.18

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