White Saviors of Black Colleges? Samuel Armstrong and Hampton Institute

Were there white founders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities? Yes.  Does this fact contradict the legacy and mission(s) of these colleges? Absolutely not.  Following the Civil War (1865), the only entity with the resources and financial backing that could help accomplish this goal was the Freedmen’s Bureau.  Officers of the Bureau by nature were ex-Union officers, like Oliver O. Howard and Samuel Armstrong.  Were some of these officers self-seeking, sure they were.  However, the majority were well-intending Christians, honestly interested in equipping freedmen with the tools and training to elevate themselves socially and economically.  A major proponent of this idea was Samuel Armstrong.

Howard, director of the Freedmen’s Bureau appointed Samuel Armstrong to lay the foundations of Hampton Institute. Armstrong was born in Wailuku, Hawaii, to American missionaries, Richard Armstrong and Clarissa Chapman.  It was here in Hawaii that Armstrong was introduced to missionary work.  A major influence in his life was his father, as minister of public instruction, the elder Armstrong was in charge of building 500 Hawaiian free schools and schools of higher educational work.  This example left a lasting imprint on the young Samuel.  Of this impression he recalled, “it meant something to the Hampton School, and perhaps to the ex-slaves of America, that, from 1820-1860, the distinctly missionary period, there was worked out in the Hawaiian Islands the problem of emancipation, enfranchisement, and Christian Civilization of a dark-skinned Polynesian people in many respects like the Negro race.”[1]

Armstrong graduated from Williams College in 1862, and by August of that same year entered the Army as Captain of the 125th New York Volunteers.  It was here that Armstrong was first introduced to the Black race, taking command of the Ninth U.S. Colored Troops.  His first impressions were mixed.  In a letter to Archibald Hopkins in December 1862, Armstrong wrote, “I am a sort of Abolitionist, but I have not learned to love the Negro.”  This comment is important in gaining a complete picture of Armstrong.  Critics have categorized Armstrong as a racist, who was only interested in developing submissive industrial workers.  While it is true that Armstrong’s familiarity with Blacks before founding Hampton Institute was minimal, Armstrong’s perceptions of race rapidly evolved, maturing during his tenure as commander of Black troops.[2]

By January 1863, his views were steadily changing.  He wrote, “as Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel of the Ninth and Eighth Regiments of U.S. Colored Troops… my experiences convinced me of the excellent qualities and capacities of the freedmen.  Their quick response to good treatment and to discipline was a constant surprise.”  Armstrong was more ignorant than racist.  Certainly his two years experience working with Black troops completely altered his unenlightened and previous prejudices toward Blacks.  He concluded that their enslaved conditions were only preconceived barriers, and that they deserved as good a chance at making their own way as any other people.  By September 1863, Armstrong had committed himself to assisting freedmen in finding a place in American society.  As George Foster Peabody, the second president of Hampton Institute, recalled of Armstrong in 1918, “the work to which his later life was dedicated was not based on emotional sympathies, nor on traditions of abolitionism but on a maturing view of life and duty.”[3]

Armstrong was responsible for approximately 35,000 free Blacks, primarily for overseeing the distribution of nearly 20,000 rations per day.  His duties also consisted of visiting and reporting on the conditions of the freedmen, reuniting scattered families, settling legal disputes, and maintaining overall order.  Armstrong observed that “trouble was expected but there was not a ripple of it… their resource was surprising; the Negro in a tight place is a genius.”  These conclusions pushed Armstrong more and more to the idea of creating a permanent school for the purposes of educating the freedmen.[4]

After the war however, Armstrong found himself unemployed.  Armstrong eagerly wrote a letter to Oliver Otis Howard, soliciting work.  Howard obliged.   Armstrong was placed over the Fifth sub-district of Virginia, covering ten counties, with its headquarters at Hampton.  It was here that Armstrong united with the efforts of Mary Peake, and the “Standard of Excellence” was put into motion.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was initially created to fulfill a specific need as well as to meet a unique social and economic condition.  Armstrong’s plan for educating Blacks was, “to train selected Negro Youths who should go out and teach and lead their people, first by example, by getting land and homes; to give them not a dollar that they could earn for themselves; to teach respect for labor, to replace stupid drudgery with skilled hands, and in this way to build up an industrial system for the sake, not only of self-support and intelligent labor, but also for the sake of character.” Armstrong was vehemently committed to community building, and providing the means for Blacks to become self-sufficient.[5]

For Armstrong, self-sufficiency could only be accomplished by first establishing strong examples of Black independence.  Armstrong elaborated on this concept stating, “it was to be an institution where “in the home, or the farm, or the schoolroom, students were to have the opportunity to learn the three great lessons of life, how to love, how to labor, and how to teach others.”  It was to be a socially conservative, yet an academically progressive Institute.  Meaning, as students matriculated through Hampton, the wider American society would be forced to accommodate, politically, economically, and socially to the emerging “new Negro,” thereby forcing the creation of new opportunities and upward mobility.  Through this progression, Hampton would gradually come to include more and more academic majors to the curriculum in supplementation of manual training.  Armstrong wrote, “this Institute should, I think, be polytechnic, growing step by step, adding new industries as the old ones shall become established and remunerative.”[6]

By 1880, Armstrong had accomplished one of his primary goals of encouraging land and home-ownership, as over 60 percent of graduates from Hampton owned their own homes and cultivated their own farms.  Indeed Armstrong’s approach to eradicating social problems in America may have had flaws, but his methods yielded unwavering results.  One of his most significant contributions manifested out of the work of one of his students, a graduate by the name of Booker T. Washington.  Washington arrived at Hampton in 1872, and grew to embody the potentiality of what Armstrong envisioned.  Arguably the brightest student to graduate from Hampton, Armstrong contended, “If Hampton had trained no other student in the seven years of its existence, the one now coming to the platform would justify all the costs and the sacrifices entailed by its founders.”[7]  This prophecy proved true in ways Armstrong never imagined.

A year later (1881) Washington founded Tuskegee Institute.  However, none of this would have been possible without the initial help of Armstrong, Howard and the Bureau.  Whether we are looking at the creation of HBCUs or the Civil Rights Movement, it is important to understand the dynamics of interracial cooperation.  Don’t get it twisted, Blacks have always acted as agents and have been autonomous, however, we must stop criticizing institutions/people who have benefited from the assistance of whites.  We can always accomplish more together than we will apart.

[1] The Armstrong League of Hampton Workers, Memories of Old Hampton (Hampton: The Institute Press, 1909), 1.

[2] Peabody, Education for Life, 78.

[3] Armstrong, Memories of Old Hampton, 6; Peabody, Education for Life, 78.

[4] Armstrong, Memories of Old Hampton, 7.

[5] Peabody, Education for Life, 99.

[6] Ibid., 108, 116.

[7] Arna Bontemps, Young Booker: Booker T. Washington’s Early Days (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1972), 57.


5 thoughts on “White Saviors of Black Colleges? Samuel Armstrong and Hampton Institute

    • Yes, Mary Peake, the mother of Hampton. Her sacrifices and contributions laid the foundations for the Institute. For this particular article, I wanted to place emphasis on Armstrong’s journey. Please check out one of our earlier post dedicated to the founding of Hampton and Peake’s contributions, it can be found here, http://wp.me/p1pgL7-5K

  1. Very interesting question at an amazing time in our country’s history. My great grandfather Lewiis Garnett Jordan, wrote a little booklet about his life, as a slave at the close of the civil war he mentioned General Armstrong l thought it appropriate to share their encounter: he wrote ” As I look in retrospect over the vista of the past, I am reminded what General Armstrong, the wise and good, great founder of Hampton Institue often said when questioned concerning the beginning of his work and the source of his ideas about: “I did not consciously set out to do any special thing and it seemed that I was led without my own effort from one step to another.” In much the same way I had been prepared for my ventures in life.”
    An amazing conversation between two men who left a wonderful legacy of service, how many young people have benefited an education and raised their families because Armstrong put one foot in front of the other and allowed himself to be led.

  2. Thank you for a wonderful, informative post. I realize it’s been a few months since you wrote this, but am curious if you have seen and your reaction to the documentary film “Tell Them We Are Rising.” From my perspective, the film provides a very superficial and one-sided view of Armstrong and Washington.

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