Notes from Roanoke Weekly Press

Robert J. Boland (1850–1918)

Robert J. Boland was a physician and African American leader in Roanoke. The Georgia-born Boland earned his medical degree in Michigan. He arrived in Virginia in 1886, possibly becoming the first black doctor to complete the new Virginia Board of Medical Examiners test. Five years later he settled in growing Roanoke, headquarters of the Norfolk and Western Railway, where he became a substantial property owner and a newspaper editor. Boland died in Roanoke in 1918. MORE...

 

Boland was born on October 23, 1850, in or near La Grange, Georgia, the son of an enslaved woman whose name is not recorded. His father, whose name may have been John Boland, was the son of his mother's owner. Early in 1865 Boland escaped from slavery and went to Atlanta, where he worked as a janitor at the Storrs School for Colored Children. He moved to Detroit in 1868 and supported himself as a waiter while completing elementary school and three years of high school. In 1879 Boland began a two-year apprenticeship in the office of Dr. Charles Pratt, training that helped prepare him for admission to the Michigan College of Medicine in 1881. The first African American to attend the Detroit-based medical school, Boland graduated in 1883, at which time he was also a member of Detroit's Young Men's Christian Association and superintendent of the Sunday school of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Boland practiced medicine in Detroit for three years. In 1886 he married a seamstress, Perdita E. Golden, and moved to Virginia, where he received a license to practice from the Board of Medical Examiners on April 9, 1886. He may have been the first African American to take and pass the examination that the new Virginia Board of Medical Examiners administered to new physicians. Boland opened his office in Hampton and had at least one son before 1891, when he moved to Roanoke. He paid $400 for a corner lot at Rutherford Avenue and Second Street in the black neighborhood of Gainsboro. Boland practiced medicine, built a large two-story house, and amassed a substantial amount of property. In 1912 he opened a new two-story office on Commonwealth Avenue two blocks from his previous address. By the time of his death Boland owned eight rental properties in Roanoke and a farm nearby. His personal property included the belongings of a man of education and prosperous social status: a piano, a valuable library, his medical equipment, and an automobile. Indeed, Boland was said to be the first African American in Roanoke to own a car. He married twice after the death of his first wife, but the name of his second spouse has not been discovered. His third wife was Kate Taliaferro. Boland's two additional sons included Jesse L. Boland, a well-known aviator and later, as Master X, a soothsayer and local celebrity in Richmond.

A man of medium size who wore his hair long, Boland was a leading figure in Roanoke's African American community during a time when the population grew rapidly as the shops and headquarters of the Norfolk and Western Railway attracted people to Roanoke in search of work. He was editor of the Roanoke Weekly Press in 1891, but the length of his association with the newspaper is uncertain. Boland was a member of Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, where his third wife played the organ. She also taught piano in their large house. Boland died of chronic nephritis, or Bright's disease, in Roanoke on November 16, 1918, and was buried in that city in Old Lick Cemetery.

Time Line

  • October 23, 1850 - Robert J. Boland is born in or near La Grange, Georgia, the son of an enslaved woman whose name is not recorded. His father, whose name may have been John Boland, was the son of his mother's owner.
  • Early 1865 - Robert J. Boland escapes from slavery and goes to Atlanta, Georgia, where he works as a janitor at the Storrs School for Colored Children.
  • 1868 - Robert J. Boland moves from Atlanta, Georgia, to Detroit, Michigan, and supports himself as a waiter while completing elementary school and three years of high school.
  • 1879 - Robert J. Boland begins a two-year apprenticeship in the office of Dr. Charles Pratt.
  • 1881 - Robert J. Boland is admitted to the Michigan College of Medicine.
  • 1883 - Robert J. Boland graduates from the Michigan College of Medicine. He is also a member of Detroit's Young Men's Christian Association and superintendent of the Sunday school of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
  • April 9, 1886 - Robert J. Boland receives a license to practice from the Virginia Board of Medical Examiners. He may be the first African American to take and pass the examination.
  • 1891 - Robert J. Boland serves as editor of the Roanoke Weekly Press for an unknown length of time.
  • 1912 - Robert J. Boland opens a new, two-story medical office on Commonwealth Avenue in Roanoke.
  • November 16, 1918 - Robert J. Boland dies of Bright's disease in Roanoke. He is buried in Old Lick Cemetery in Roanoke.
Further Reading
Hanawalt, Leslie L. "From Slave to Physician: Robert J. Boland (1850–1918)." Detroit in Perspective: A Journal of Regional History 2, no. 3 (Spring 1976): 189–203.
Kern, John R. "Boland, Robert J." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 55–56. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Kern, J. R., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Robert J. Boland (1850–1918). (2014, January 9). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Boland_Robert_J_1850-1918.

  • MLA Citation:

    Kern, John R. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Robert J. Boland (1850–1918)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 9 Jan. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 7, 2013 | Last modified: January 9, 2014


Contributed by John R. Kern and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography