Hampton University

locations of schools taught by graduates of the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute from 1871 to 1876
locations of schools taught by graduates of the Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute from 1871 to 1876
Source: Library of Congress, Map of Virginia and West Va., North & part of South Carolina, Maryland & Delaware... (1876)

Hampton University traces its heritage back to a class taught on September 17, 1861 by Mary Peake under an oak tree now known as the Emancipation Oak. The students came from The Grand Contraband Camp west of Fort Monroe, where people who had fled from enslavement on nearby farms were congregating under the protection of Major General Benjamin Butler. He had refused to force them to go back with Virginia slaveowners who demanded their return, and instead declared them to be "contrabands of war" seizd by the Union army.

Few of the contrabands who reached Fort Monroe could read or write, much less do arithmetic. The first free public school in the United States, the Syms Free School, opened in the 21640's in Elizabeth City County. It was followed soom afterwards by the Eaton Charity School, but that access to education was offered to only white children.

In 1831, the General Assembly had outlawed educating people of color:1

...all meetings of free negroes or mulattoes, at any school-house, church, meeting-house or other place for teaching them reading or writing, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered as an unlawful assembly...

...if any white person, for pay or compensation, shall assemble with any slaves for the purpose of teaching, and shall teach any slave to read or write, such person, or any white person or persons contracting with such teacher so to act, who shall offend as aforesaid, shall, for each offence, be fined...

A free person of color, Mary Peake, taught the first formal class in the contraband camp on September 17, 1861. The oak tree on the grounds of Hampton University, where about 20 people gathered to be in the shade, is known today as the Emancipation Oak since the Emancipation Proclamation was read to an assembly there in 1863. General Butler formalized the training and initiated the Butler School, where the educational program for formerly enslaved people continued during the war.

The Union Army opened the Butler School for Negro children in 1863. After the end of the Civil War, the Freedmen's Bureau was given responsibility for the emnacipated slaves. Brigadier General Samuel Armstrong, the Superintendent of the Freedmen's Bureau in Virginia, opened opened Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute on April 21, 1868. Teachers trained at the institute got experience by practicing at the adjacent Butler School, which in 1889 became known as the Whittier School. (Booker T. Washington arrived in 1872. Nine years later, he started Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.)2

In 1866, Samuel Chapman Armstrong was appointed Superintendent of the Freedmen's Bureau for the district in Virginia that included the Peninsula. In 1868 he opened the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to "to train selected Negro youth who should go out and teach and lead their people." Funding was provided in part by the American Missionary Association. Students trained at the Hampton developed their skills by teaching at the Butler School, which continued in operation on an adjacent parcel of land.3

Virginia voters approved a new state constitution in order to re-enter the Union. When it went into effect in 1870, the new constitution ended the prohibition against teaching blacks and mulattoes how to read and write, a constraint imposed after Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831. The 1870 constitution included a requirement to create free public schools for all children irrespective of race:4

The general assembly shall provide by law... a uniform system of public free schools, and for its gradual, equal, and fall introduction into all the counties of the state...

Booker T. Washington walked to Hampton and became a student there in 1872. Like the vast majority of graduates in the first 20 years of the school, he became a teacher. He joined the faculty at Hampton, then in 1881 helped start Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

In addition to training black Virginians, Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute also enrolled Native Americans. The first group had been seized during the Red River War in 1874, when Native Americans left their assigned reservations in Oklahoma. In 1878, 70 people from Southern Plains tribes were sent to Hampton to be educated. The training of Native Americans continued there until 1923.

The school was renamed Hampton Institute in 1930. It was always led by white men until Dr. Alonzo G. Moron became president in 1949.

Hampton students staged the first lunch counter sit-in in Virginia in 1960. In 1978, Dr. William R. Harvey became the 12th president; he served until 2021. In 1984, early in his extraordinarily long tenure, the school was renamed Hampton University.5


Legal Segregation and "Jim Crow"

Race and Virginia

Syms-Eaton Schools/Hampton Academy



1. "History," Hampton University, https://home.hamptonu.edu/about/history/; "An Act to amend the act concerning slaves, free negroes and mulattoes (April 7, 1831)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, December 7, 2020, https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/an-act-to-amend-the-act-concerning-slaves-free-negroes-and-mulattoes-april-7-1831/; Helen Jones Campbell, "The Syms and Eaton Schools and Their Successor," The William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine, Volume 20, Number 1 (January, 1940), p.5, https://doi.org/10.2307/1920665; Mrs. F.M. Armstrong, The Syms-Eaton Free School, 1914, https://lccn.loc.gov/14009807 (last checked January 24, 2024)
2. "History," Hampton University, https://home.hamptonu.edu/about/history/ (last checked September 16, 2023)
3. "History," Hampton University, https://www.hamptonu.edu/about/history.cfm; "Samuel Chapman Armstrong," Hampton University, https://www.hamptonu.edu/about/armstrong.cfm (last checked October 7, 2021)
4. "Samuel Chapman Armstrong," Hampton University, https://www.hamptonu.edu/about/armstrong.cfm; "Virginia Constitution, 1870 - Article XIII, Section 3," for Virginians: Government Matters, https://vagovernmentmatters.org/primary-sources/516 (last checked October 7, 2021)
5. "History," Hampton University, https://www.hamptonu.edu/about/history.cfm; "Red River War (1874–1875," Oklahoma Historical Society, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=RE010 (last checked October 7, 2021)

over 1,400 Native Americans were brought to Hampton Institute between 1878 and 1923
over 1,400 Native Americans were brought to Hampton Institute between 1878 and 1923
Source: Smithsonian Institution, Group of Indian girls at Hampton Institute

Education in Virginia
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