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Alum Spotlight – Sterling Gardner: “A feather in the Richmond cap!”

November 6, 2017

The timeline and early locations of what would become Virginia Union University are tricky, especially give the fact that Union started as four different institutions. But before there was a Virginia Union University there was Richmond Theological Seminary residing in the old United States Hotel, and before that there was a Colver Institute renting the land that was once Lumpkin’s Jail, and even before that for two years the campus-less Richmond Theological School for Freedmen sought to educate those who wished to become preachers.

Sometime in these early years, right after the Civil War, Sterling Gardner became a student of Colver Institute. As is unfortunately the case for many of these men and women, we know little of his early life besides the fact that he had been a slave in the household of Judge William Gibson of Augusta, Georgia.

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Judge William Gibson

How he came to be in the household is unclear but it very likely he was born a slave since the very name “Sterling Gardner” was a family name from Gibson’s mother’s family; the first Sterling Gardner being a Revolutionary War soldier. We do know from his own account that he was baptized at the Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, one of the oldest Black congregations in the United States.

We also don’t know what Gardner might have been doing during the Civil War, though he would have only been a young boy at the time. Gibson, however, became a Colonel in the Confederate Army.

Gardner enters our historical record at Virginia Union University’s Archive and Special Collections as a 14 or 15 year old boy writing letters to Richmond Theological Seminary President Charles Corey. Corey recalls him as being on the “earliest and most successful students” and he seems to have established a special bond with his professor/president. Certainly Corey thought he was providing Gardner with the chance for future advancements by helping him get financial help to attend Madison (now Colgate University) in Hamilton, New York.

But Gardner comes to us most clearly through those letters. Already as a young boy he had made the move from Augusta, GA to study at Richmond and his homesickness shines through. One remains from Gardner’s time in Richmond, writing to Corey who had taken a trip to New England. He tells Corey of the summer jobs he and his fellow pupils have taken. He has tried to find students to tutor while some of his friends are working in a tobacco factory or selling books.

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Madison (Now Colgate) University

His letters written from New York to Richmond the following year show a studious sixteen year old trying to make his way in the world. He did not have a very high opinion of his fellow classmates, demeaning them frivolous. In May of 1870 he wrote to Corey,

Things are very loose. There is no rule to govern the students. they go out or come in when they please. They stamp and hollorr [holler] in the hall at night, and also out in the yard. They just have their own fun…If I do not be very careful I will have the worst kinds of habits. Is it this way in all Colleges?

Not only the students, but the buildings of the institution left something to be desired in Gardner’s mind,

The hallways, in which the students sweep the trash out of their rooms, are swept out only once a week.
Old papers, hats, boots or shoes, collars, and other things are thrown from the windows, and remain around the building.

He also echos the worries of college students through the ages, wondering if he has enough money to make it through the semester. A statement that prompts Corey to send him a draft for ten dollars.

Despite this, Gardner was succeeding scholastically and winning numerous awards. The corresponding secretary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society wrote Corey to say “The case of Gardner is a feather in the Richmond cap!”. It must have been a lot of pressure for one student to have, one of the first to graduate this new school and prove to more established institutions that his education was sufficient. And it was not without push back, especially as he started to win accolades for his intelligence.

In a letter from March 1871, Gardner tells Corey he suspects that an award, rightfully his, was discontinued, solely because it was he, a black former slave, who had won it.

I have thought that the class wished to abolish the honors because I was in it and I have told some, in a way to avoid an appearance of pride, that I thought thus, but they deny that was the thing which moved them and they think that no one was moved by such a motive. There is no outward appearance of such a thing just now, but I am afraid that it is in some. Some of the other classes speak of doing the same thing, but my class was the first. The reason why they do it is, to promote the good feeling and friendship of the classmates, so that when we graduate we will not despise one another on account of honors, as it usually is…
I have not had an opportunity of ascertaining my standing from the professor’s since I rec’d your letter, but some of the class members say that I stood a chance for the valedict[orian]. I stand among the best scholars in everything, except speaking.

Gardner did graduate with “several prizes…[and] high honors” and paved the way for other early students, Joseph Edom Jones and David Nathaniel Vassar to attend Madison as well.

Gardner returned to Richmond and from 1872-1876 taught at what was by then the Richmond Theological Seminary. But back in his home church, Springfield Baptist

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William J. White

Church in Augusta, GA, his friend, William J. White, had helped co-found the Augusta Institute, a fore bearer of Morehouse College in 1867 and both he and school president Joseph T. Robert urged Gardner to come back home and teach there.

Both schools were under the auspices of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, and the board agreed to let Gardner transfer, with Jones replacing Gardner in Richmond, but they were not happy with the salary amount that Corey and Robert had proposed for their new professors. Corresponding secretary, S. S. Cutting wrote,

The Committee were unanimous in the opinion that the salary paid to Gardner was too large as also that asked for Jones. We wish to do what is just and right in the matter, and therefore ask you to reconsider the amount of salary you wish Jones to have and see if the sum cannot be considerably reduced. There are scores of white men who would be glad to teach for a much less sum, and who have had many years of experience. Why should [Illegible], Gardner, & Jones be paid a larger salary than our other white assistants. If it is because they are educated colored men, then certainly we are making unwise discrimination between the white and the blacks.

It is unclear whether Gardner and Jones got the salary amount requested. Unfortunately for Gardner it wasn’t to be a concern for long. In December of 1877, at only 23 years old, Gardner died of “consumption” and “heart disease”. The letters written to Corey, informing him of Gardner’s death says “he was so highly esteemed & loved in the Institute” and makes not that at his funeral “Judge Gibson, his former owner was also there & seemed much affected”. Gardner was exalted by President Roberts as “a most excellent Christian Scholar of great promise.” He was laid to rest in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Augusta. He was survived by his mother and at least one brother.

Judge Gibson may have been widely known and respected in his time, but Gardner soon became so as well, and at a much faster pace for much more admirable reasons. In just 23 short years of life, Gardner helped set up two HBCUs that still stand today – Virginia Union University and Morehouse College.

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