In the middle of Samford University’s campus, at the head of Centennial Walk, just below Davis Library, a black stone marker is set in the pavement. It reads:
This marker honors the memory of Harry, college janitor and servant of President Talbird. At midnight, October 15, 1854, he sustained fatal injuries as he roused sleeping students form the burning college building in Marion, Alabama.
Alarmed by the flames and warned to escape for his life, he replied, “I must wake the boys first.” Thus, he saved many lives at the cost of his own.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13
In the cemetery at Marion is a handsome marble shaft erected in honor of Harry.
It is right that Samford remembers Harry. Had the loss of life in the fire been more extensive, the thirteen year-old college might have simply folded. Instead the school, then known as Howard College and located in Marion, Alabama, built a new campus, now the site of Marion Military Academy. While the college closed during the Civil War, it was revived afterwards and in 1887 moved to the booming Birmingham area.
The university proudly celebrates that it is the 87th oldest college in the nation, but this marker is one of the few objects that links the current campus, opened in 1957, to the town where the college spent its first forty-six years.
Unfortunately, however, I know more than one person in the Samford community who has been misled by the word “servant” in this inscription. They have come away thinking Harry was a free man. He was not. He was the enslaved servant of President Talbird, one of nine human beings Talbird owned. The memorial Baptists erected in his memory in Marion stated that “he illustrated the character of a christian servant faithful unto death.” As a friend said to me the other day, despite the fact that Harry defied the warning to flee from the fire, his own life was not his to give.
Thankfully, Samford publications on the 150th and 160th anniversaries of the fire have clearly explained that Harry was enslaved. Unfortunately a more recent mention on the university’s website refers to him only as “servant.” When Alabama Baptists identified Harry as “servant of H. Talbird”” on the obelisk they placed above his grave in the Marion cemetery, they knew he was enslaved and were confident that others would too. I expect the same was true when the tablet on the present campus was inscribed to echo the Marion monument. But to describe him as something other than an enslaved person is to detach our selves from the reality of his life.
Memorial in Cemetery in Marion, Alabama
I’m reminded of all this because of the recent controversy over Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, describing the first Africans to arrive there four hundred years ago as “indentured servants,” not “slaves.”
Virginia is my home state. In 1619 those first Africans were sold at Old Point Comfort in my hometown of Hampton. It is the same point of land where my grandfather first arrived in Virginia by steamship a little more than three hundred years later. In fourth grade Virginia history, I learned that 1619 was a “red letter year,” because Africans and English women arrived and the first legislature met. And yes, I learned that those Africans were sold as “indentured servants” not as slaves.
I have no doubt that Northam learned the same thing from the same 1957 Virginia history textbook that we used in Hampton. As Rebecca Goetz, author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (2012), explained in the wake of Northam’s comments on Twitter, there was an absence of laws concerning slavery in Virginia in 1619 and in the early decades of the colony enslaved Africans exercised paths to freedom more easily than in later decades. Historians in the 1950s used this absence of laws to argue that the first Africans in Virginia were indentured servants, a status shared by many early English immigrants to Virginia. More recent historians have shown that to be false.
Goetz concluded, “When Northam said this morning that those people were servants, he was not engaging an earlier historiography. He was engaging in a narrative of white innocence, of Virginian innocence, a narrative that slavery wasn’t that bad.”
I worry that members of the Samford community might gain the same impression from the Harry memorial, or worse yet not understand that Samford’s early history is intertwined with slavery. My alma mater, the University of Virginia, is currently constructing a large Memorial to Enslaved Laborers on prominent site on the University’s world-renowned Grounds that they helped build and maintain. While Samford is now located 78 miles from the campus Harry and other enslaved people helped maintain, and probably helped build, it has had a memorial to an enslaved laborer on the center campus for decades. It is important that it is understood as such.