Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893)


Samuel Chapman Armstrong was the founder of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). Armstrong’s father served as the kingdom of Hawaii’s minister of education and emphasized student labor as a key part of schooling. The younger Armstrong enlisted in the Union army during the American Civil War (1861–1865) and commanded regiments in the United States Colored Troops. After the war he worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau and began planning a school to train black teachers. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute opened in 1868 and emphasized labor alongside academics. The institution produced African American educators across the South, most notably Booker T. Washington. In 1878 Hampton’s mission expanded with the admission of Native American students. The growth intensified Armstrong dependence on benefactors and in turn left it further exposed to the rising racism among American whites. In his later years academics at Hampton were publicly de-emphasized in favor of its trade-school programs. Armstrong died of a stroke in 1893.

Early Years

Samuel Chapman Armstrong Birthplace in Hawaii

Armstrong was born on January 30, 1839, on the island of Maui in the kingdom of Hawaii, where his parents were missionaries. Of the family’s ten children, he was the youngest of three sons and the fifth of eight children to survive infancy. His father, Richard Armstrong, was a Presbyterian from Northumberland County, Pennsylvania, and his mother, Clarissa Chapman Armstrong, came from a Congregationalist family from Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

As a youngster Sam Armstrong exulted in the outdoor life that the Hawaiian Islands provided. A serious student first at the Punahou School and then at its collegiate branch, Oahu College, he was also a prankster who secretly lowered the flag of the American Consulate in tribute to the death of a family pet and hanged his sisters’ dolls to thwart their “i-doll-try.”

Armstrong’s most important model in shaping his own life was his father, who had become a government servant as well as minister of the largest native church in Honolulu by the time Armstrong was an adolescent. Richard Armstrong was a member of the king’s Privy Council, minister of education and, ultimately, superintendent of public instruction. In the schools that the senior Armstrong created for the people of Hawaii, he inculcated the principle of manual labor whereby students helped support the cost of their education and acquired useful skills by farming or practicing crafts such as blacksmithing, carpentry, and barrel making. For most of his teenage years Armstrong was his father’s secretary, and the experience influenced his own approach to education.

Richard Armstrong was killed in a horseback-riding accident in 1860. His bereaved son followed his father’s last wishes and journeyed to the United States for the first time to attend Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. There he completed his last two years of college education. He was housed and given special training by the college president, Mark Hopkins, who became another important influence in Armstrong’s life and career. Under Hopkins’s tutelage he refined his concept of practical or useful education, which played down the academic benchmarks of a classical education in favor of teaching students how to make a living and be good Christians.

Union Colonel Samuel Chapman Armstrong

The Civil War did not initially concern Armstrong, who still identified Hawaii as his homeland. His parents had opposed slavery, but Armstrong had met few African Americans before coming to the United States. After graduation, however, many of his schoolmates, including future president James A. Garfield, enlisted in the Union army, and Armstrong soon followed. He wrote a friend that the war should not end until “every slave  … can call himself his own, and his wife and children his own.” He joined the 125th New York Infantry and was commissioned a captain. The regiment fought at Gettysburg, where Armstrong earned a promotion to major. By April 1864, he was a lieutenant colonel in command of the 9th United States Colored Troops Regiment, then stationed in South Carolina and subsequently transferred to the Army of the James. By October 11 he had been promoted to colonel of the 8th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, Twenty-Fifth Corps. At some point he was breveted brigadier general. During the final assault on Petersburg on April 3, 1865, Armstrong’s troops were among the first to enter the city after it was abandoned by the Confederate army. The 8th Regiment received, in Armstrong’s words, “a most cheering and hearty welcome from the colored inhabitants of the city, whom their presence had made free.” In the aftermath of the war he commanded black troops in Virginia and Texas.

Marriage of a Colored Soldier at Vicksburg By Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau

From 1866 to 1868 Armstrong served as assistant subcommissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) for the district covering the lower peninsula between the James and York rivers as well as Surry and Isle of Wight counties and portions of the Eastern Shore. He strove to reduce the huge population of homeless refugees by pressing former slaves to accept employment as farm laborers. As a result some blacks felt that Armstrong and his associates at the bureau sympathized more with the defeated white landowners than with the freed African Americans they were charged with aiding. Armstrong was himself deeply committed to assisting the black population, but he also believed in the superiority of the white race. He sought to train the freed people so that they might better compete within the constraints of their circumstances.

Hampton Institute

Group Portrait at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute

Even before the Freedmen’s Bureau closed down at the end of 1868, Armstrong had acted to create a school to train black teachers who would in turn educate other African Americans. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute accordingly opened in April 1868. It was not to be an ordinary school. Armstrong incorporated many of the lessons about education he had learned from his father and from Hopkins but also introduced ideas of his own. For example, he believed that the future for African Americans depended on the strength of their families. Thus, Hampton was coeducational in order that future married partners could be educated together.

Hampton Institute emphasized practical knowledge. Students took courses in English, arithmetic, basic science, geography, and history, including what was then known of African history. In addition, all students were required to work in the school shops or on the school farm. Many critics have charged that Armstrong’s program mirrored and even reinforced convictions that blacks were suited only for manual labor. Whereas some of this criticism of Hampton is justified, especially in Armstrong’s last years and after his death, his initial design was strictly practical. Hampton had no endowment, and most of its early students were impoverished. Manual labor in the school’s fields and shops subsidized their education. Furthermore, most graduates expected to go into teaching, and because most southern schools for blacks remained open for fewer than six months a year, teachers needed supplemental skills to support themselves and their families.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute

Armstrong’s design succeeded. Within a decade graduates of Hampton were teaching thousands of black children all over the South. Alumni were also entering professional fields such as medicine and law and participating in politics. In fact, Armstrong not only helped many of them to obtain advanced educations, but he also depended on black members of the General Assembly to assist him in securing additional funding for the institute.

In 1878 Armstrong initiated a program for Native American students at Hampton. Many of the Indian students distinguished themselves, but with that program the nature of the school began to change. As the institute grew, so did its need for donors. Armstrong increasingly gave up supervision of day-to-day operations in order to raise funds to keep the school going. By the 1880s he was much celebrated among northern philanthropists. In 1887 his alma mater, Williams College, and in 1889 Harvard University each honored him with an LLD.

Samuel Chapman Armstrong's Grave

Hampton grew more and more dependent on major benefactors who set restrictions on how their contributions could be used. A rising national tide of racism made it easier to rationalize industrial education and manual labor than to advocate genuine black advancement, and Armstrong eventually succumbed to those pressures. Academics at Hampton were publicly de-emphasized in favor of its trade-school programs. Coping with new pressures, raising money, and overseeing the school took their toll. After suffering one stroke in 1891, Armstrong died of a second one on May 11, 1893. As he had requested, he was buried in the student cemetery on Hampton’s campus.


Booker T. Washington

Armstrong’s life and legacy have been subjected to much criticism, partly because he may have inspired Hampton’s most famous graduate, Booker T. Washington, to advocate a philosophy of accommodation to racial segregation. Such criticism has some validity, but it also distorts by oversimplifying Armstrong’s design for Hampton. Moreover, he laid down a solid foundation, and the school survived. More than a century later Hampton is a respected small university with an honored past. This achievement is, in part, also a result of the continued dedication of Armstrong’s descendants to the school he founded.

Armstrong married his first wife, Emma Dean Walker, of Stockbridge, on October 13, 1869. She died on November 10, 1878, after many long illnesses. Their two daughters, Louise H. Armstrong and Edith E. Armstrong, both taught briefly at Hampton Institute as adults, and the former married William Scoville, who served as secretary of Hampton’s administrative board from 1918 to 1935 and as an institute trustee from 1941 until his death in 1943.

A Biography of Samuel Chapman Armstrong

Armstrong did not remarry until September 10, 1890, when he wed Mary Alice Ford in Montpelier, Vermont. A teacher at Hampton Institute at the time of their marriage, she briefly resumed work as an educator at Hampton after the general’s death and then returned to her native New England, where she directed summer camps. They had two children. Their son, Daniel Armstrong, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and commanded the Negro Recruit Training Program at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Waukegan, Illinois, during World War II (1939–1945). Their daughter, Margaret Armstrong, married Arthur Howe, president of Hampton Institute from 1931 to 1940, and their sons in turn served on the school’s board of trustees from the 1950s into the 1970s.

January 30, 1839
Samuel Chapman Armstrong is born on the island of Maui in the kingdom of Hawaii, where his parents are missionaries.
Richard Armstrong, a Presbyterian minister and a secretary in the government of the kingdom of Hawaii, is killed in a horseback-riding accident.
April 1864
By this date Samuel Chapman Armstrong is a lieutenant colonel in command of the 9th U.S. Colored Troops Regiment, stationed in South Carolina.
October 11, 1864
By this date Samuel Chapman Armstrong is colonel of the 8th U.S. Colored Troops Regiment, part of the Union army's Twenty-Fifth Corps.
April 3, 1865
Union troops occupy Petersburg.
Samuel Chapman Armstrong serves as assistant subcommissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau for the district covering the lower peninsula between the James and York rivers as well as Surry and Isle of Wight counties and portions of the Eastern Shore.
April 1868
The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a coeducational school for African Americans, is founded in Hampton.
October 13, 1869
Samuel Chapman Armstrong marries Emma Dean Walker, of Stockbridge. They will have two daughters.
The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute accepts Native American students, most of whom come not from Virginia but from the western United States and territories.
November 10, 1878
Emma Dean Walker Armstrong, wife of Samuel Chapman Armstrong, dies after many long illnesses.
Samuel Chapman Armstrong receives an LLD degree from his alma mater, Williams College.
Samuel Chapman Armstrong receives an LLD degree from Harvard University.
September 10, 1890
Samuel Chapman Armstrong marries Mary Alice Ford in Montpelier, Vermont. They will have two children.
Samuel Chapman Armstrong suffers a stroke but survives.
May 11, 1893
Samuel Chapman Armstrong dies of a stroke. He is buried in the student cemetery on the campus of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute.
  • Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
  • Engs, Robert Francis. “Armstrong, Samuel Chapman.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 212–215. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
  • Engs, Robert Francis. Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia, 1861–1890. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004.
  • Harlan, Louis R. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader, 1856–1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • Lindsey, Donal F. Indians at Hampton Institute, 1877–1923. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
  • Spivey, Donald. Schooling for the New Slavery: Black Industrial Education, 1865–1915. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1978.
APA Citation:
Engs, Robert & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/armstrong-samuel-chapman-1839-1893.
MLA Citation:
Engs, Robert, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1839–1893)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 23 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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