Celebrating Black History Month
Each February we focus on honoring the significant contributions made by African Americans in our country, and in Surry County, Virginia. Surry has a rich cultural heritage and has been home to many persons of African descent who have sacrificed and contributed to the history, culture, and economy of our community. We would like to introduce you to some of them:
Dr. John Jefferson Smallwood
John Jefferson Smallwood was born enslaved on September 19, 1863 in Rich Square, North Carolina. His parents, Mary Eliza (the daughter of Nat Turner) and David Jefferson Smallwood were sold along with his siblings while he was still an infant, Following emancipation, he obtained an education, earning his Ph. D degree, and achieving significant experience on the lecture circuit. He came to Surry County, Virginia to build a school that would offer a high level of education to disadvantaged rural Black youths. The institute he founded in 1892 was named the Temperance Industrial and Collegiate Institute.
The Institute offered students three years of high school training and four years of college level courses. Estimates indicate that more than 2,000 students attended the school. Students grew their own food, performed in public plays and musical programs, operated a sawmill, mattress factory, a cannery, and operated a electrical generator which supplied electricity to the Town of Claremont for many years following its installation in 1912.
Following Dr. Smallwood’s untimely death in 1912 at the age of 49, the Institute was renamed Smallwood Memorial Institute in his honor. The school closed In 1928; all assets were sold, and the once impressive structures were left neglected. Years later the land was sold and cleared leaving no sign of this significant historical landmark.
A monument memorializing Dr. Smallwood can be found in the church cemetery at Abundant Life Christian Church near the Town of Claremont in Surry County, VA.
Goodman Brown (1840-1929) was a descendant of Scipio Brown, an enslaved man who had been given his freedom many years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Thus, Goodman was born into a free, property-owning Black family in Surry County, VA. Goodman served in the US Navy aboard the USS Maratanza and in the 1870’s (post-Civil War) became involved in politics. In 1887 he was elected to represent Prince George and Surry Counties in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Descendants of Goodman Brown still reside in Surry County today. Some of their stories are told at Winfield Farms.
Born enslaved on August 9, 1842, Adam Boykin spent his early years in Isle of Wight and Surry Counties. Little is known about his childhood, but one can imagine that hard work began early for Adam. However, it is documented that Adam Boykin joined the Union Army’s 37th United States Colored Infantry, Company H, at Wilson’s Wharf in Charles City County on June 16, 1864. This unit fought in the Battle of the Crater, the Battle of New Market Heights, the attacks on Fort Fisher in Wilmington, NC (1864-1865), and the capture of Raleigh, NC on April 13, 1865. Adam remained with his unit until it was disbanded on February 11, 1867.
Boykin had been one of 38 Black soldiers from Surry County who enlisted with the United States Colored Units during the Civil War. Miraculously, all of them returned to the County following the war - and Adam Boykin returned in 1867 as a free man! He remained in Surry County for over 60 years, recognized and acknowledged within the community as a public servant, church clerk and deacon, caregiver for his extended family, property owner, election official, and community advocate.
In 1916, Adam Boykin purchased 95 acres from John W. Rogers along Route 615 (Carsley Road) for $300. This property has remained in the Boykin family ever since.
Adam Boykin passed away on March 29, 1927, at the age of 84 years, leaving a growing family that shared Adam’s dedication to education, faith, and community service.
Leslie Garland Bolling
Leslie Garland Bolling (1898-1955) was born in Surry County, Virginia to Clinton C. and Mary B. Bolling. He was educated in Surry before attending Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and Virginia Union University. After graduating from VUU, he resided in Richmond, Virginia for the remainder of his life.
Bolling began carving wood in 1926 using rudimentary tools. Over his lifetime, he produced approximately 80 carvings, the most significant of which are his series of seven figures representing daily activities of Blacks for each day of the week. Although he was a successful sculptor, he made his living as a porter, letter carrier, and utility worker in the Richmond community.
"Mother" Amelia Howard
Prior to Emancipation there were no schools for Blacks in Surry County. In 1865, “Mother” Amelia Howard was sent to Surry from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by the Freedmen’s Bureau to help establish churches and schools for those who were newly emancipated. Although Gravel Hill Baptist Church had been established shortly before her arrival, Howard did help start seven other churches including: Mount Moriah Methodist Church, Mount Nebo Baptist Church, and Mount Joy Baptist Church (now Jerusalem Baptist Church) along with several schools. She was given the honor of serving as Superintendent of Colored Schools in Surry County, Virginia. By 1870 the percentage of Black children attending school was 27.75% as compared to 28.5% of white children. This demonstrates the tremendous advancement made in educating the previously enslaved population in only five years’ time.
Although Howard's racial identity remains in question, it can be acknowledged that she was so accepted and beloved by the Black community in Surry County that she was considered to be family and was, therefore, awarded the title "Mother".
These stories, along with many more, will be interpreted as part of the Surry County Cultural Trail anticipated to launch in May 2024.
Click here for more information on the Surry County Cultural Trail.