Virginia Union University

Historical Significance

Virginia Union University is one of the six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Virginia. The school that would become Virginia Union was founded by the American Baptist Home Missionary Society and the National Theological Institute in 1865 with a mission to "free the mind of the newly emancipated through education in a humanistic environment." The school was initially headed by Reverend Nathaniel Colver, a northern abolitionist. In 1867 he rented the land and buildings at 15th and Franklin Street from formerly enslaved Mrs. Mary Anne Lumpkin, whose late husband, Robert, was a slave dealer and incarcerated slaves waiting for sale at this site. 

The Institute's success in its first few decades can be attributed to the support of black ministers and community leaders. Because of antebellum laws prohibiting the education of slaves, the vast majority of African Americans were illiterate. Often, only ministers of freed communities knew how to read and write, and they directed teaching efforts at the Institute.

In 1870, the school outgrew its location at Lumpkin's Jail and moved to the United States Hotel building at 19th and Main Streets, where it was known as the Colver Institute. In 1876, the name of the school was changed to the Richmond Institute. The Institute was the first in the South to employ African-American faculty and teaching assistants. During the 1890's, a merger of several American Baptist Home Missionary Society schools was implemented. The Richmond Institute merged with Wayland Seminary of Washington D.C., Hartshorne Memorial College of Richmond, and Storer College of Harper's Ferry, West Virginia to become Virginia Union University in 1899. Virginia Union was established at the Hartshorne Memorial College location at Lombardy Street and Brook Road.

Virginia Union University has produced many prestigious alumni, including the first black governor of Virginia (and of any state, since Reconstruction), Lawrence Douglas Wilder; the first black mayor of Richmond, Henry L. Marsh; and the first black admiral of the U.S. Navy, Samuel Lee Gravely, Jr. Virginia Union has also been fundamental in the education of numerous college presidents, and of more than one-tenth of the black ministry in the United States. 

Physical Description

Virginia Union University is located on 65 acres in North Richmond. Seven buildings on the campus were constructed between 1899 and 1901 by John H. Coxhead of Buffalo, New York. They are made of local Richmond granite and are designed in a Richardsonian Romanesque style. Northern philanthropists funded the 1899 building campaign of the seven core buildings of the campus which are named and inscribed in honor of their respective donors. The campus is laid out in the style of campus planning by post-Civil War architects of land grant colleges, and it includes the Belgian Friendship Complex exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, consisting of a pavilion and bell tower.

Geographical and Contact Information

William Clark Library
Building 1500
N. Lombardy Street
Richmond, Virginia
Phone: 804-524-5600