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Cadet researches the history of free and enslaved Black men at VMI

As controversy erupted over the treatment of Black cadets at the Virginia Military Institute, a senior at the school decided to study the contributions of African-Americans to VMI in its early days. Christopher Hulburt said the institute did not own slaves but rented them from local businessmen. Two were musicians.

“Michael Lisle played the fife, and Ruben Howard was a drummer. They composed the original institute band.”

At first, Hulburt was puzzled that these men played such a visible role, but he notes the administration made it clear Lisle and Howard were not soldiers in training.

“They wore red coats, white trousers and cocked hats. That’s nothing like our uniforms," he explains. "Although these men marched alongside the cadets, they were not equal to the cadets.”

And when they weren’t making music, the two hauled water and shined shoes. Unlike students at UVA and West Point, young men at VMI were not allowed to bring slaves of their own to their campus.

VMI's valedictorian did extensive research on the contribution of African-Americans to the military institute.
VMI's valedictorian did extensive research on the contribution of African-Americans to the military institute.

In the mess hall, they were served by two other enslaved men: Anderson Dandridge and Jack the Baker.

“One of the hard parts of studying enslaved individuals is that they’re not referred to by their full names, and often their surname is the name of their owner. It’s not a name that they chose or that their family shared,” Hulburt says.

Few slaves could read or write, so he found no journals or letters that might help us to understand their experience. There were, however, written records showing Jack the Baker to be a popular guy.

“There are several instances where cadets or alumni referred to him in letters or editorials to the local newspaper as a kind man, a good baker. They remarked that cadets seldom left his quarters without a baked good.”

Hulburt also discovered a community of free people of color in surrounding Rockbridge County, including an enterprising businessman named Diego Evans.

“He operated a coach throughout Lexington, he sold cigars and he also cut the hair of cadets for several years.”

Evans apparently made many friends in the area – people who would help him travel to Africa when a new country was founded there by former American slaves.

“In the summer of 1850, Lexington hosted a send-off for Diego Evans and for another freed African-American, and this sendoff was held at Lexington Presbyterian Church. They let the two individuals and their families sit in pews that were traditionally reserved for white southerners, and there were speeches given by several prominent Lexingtonians . They wished them success.”

On the other hand, Ruben Howard who played the drum and marched at VMI , had to leave Lexington, even though he asked a court to let him stay.

“He was caught coming back into Rockbridge County after visiting his mother in the North with abolition materials, and there was a law at the time prohibiting any abolitionist newsletters or newspapers from being brought into Rockbridge County. Howard was in his 70’s. He had rheumatoid arthritis, he had several children, and when this happened it was in the winter, so he petitioned the court for permission to leave in the spring .”

But prominent men in Lexington wanted him gone, and a court insisted he leave.

Cadet Christopher Hulburt wrote a thesis on these people of color – a 75-page report that draws one important conclusion.

“I don’t think the day-to-day operations could have taken place without Michael and Ruben and Jack the Baker and Anderson Dandridge’s contributions.”

Hulburt hopes to learn more about the African-American experience, perhaps as a graduate student of history.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief