ENTRY

Blackwell, James H. (ca. 1864–1931)

SUMMARY

James H. Blackwell served as a principal of and helped develop the high school curriculum for Manchester’s first African American school. Blackwell was raised in the city (later annexed by Richmond) and worked under the tutelage of Anthony Binga, a prominent pastor. He was one of three teachers selected when Binga was named principal of the school, and Blackwell ultimately succeeded his mentor. After Richmond absorbed Manchester in 1910, city rules stipulated that no African American could serve as principal. Blackwell also helped create two financial service companies, though they met with limited success. He died in 1931. In 1951 the school where he taught was named for him, and in turn the institution gave its name to the Richmond neighborhood of Blackwell.

First Baptist Church of Manchester

James Heyward Blackwell was born on February 5, 1864, although the date is uncertain. (Some sources have suggested February 5, 1862, or February 1865.) He was the eldest of two sons and two daughters of James W. (probably William) Blackwell and Charlotte Chatman (or Chatham) Blackwell. He was probably born a slave in Marion. By 1870 the family had moved to Manchester, across the James River from Richmond, where his father was a stonemason. Although Blackwell’s parents could not read or write, they encouraged him to obtain an education. In or after 1872 he came under the tutelage of Anthony Binga, the only African American teacher in Manchester’s public schools and pastor of the First Baptist Church, to which Blackwell belonged. Blackwell went on to graduate in 1880 from the Richmond Theological Institute (later Virginia Union University).

On September 5, 1880, Blackwell began his career as a teacher in New Kent County. After two terms he returned to Manchester, where blacks had successfully lobbied for the employment of African American teachers. The city’s school for blacks opened in 1882 with Binga as principal and Blackwell as one of the three teachers. He succeeded Binga as principal in 1888. On May 29, 1891 the school graduated its first students from a three-year high school curriculum that Blackwell had initiated.

Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers

On July 8, 1885, Blackwell married Annie Estelle Jordan, a Petersburg teacher and sister of William H. Jordan, a member of the General Assembly. They had two sons and one daughter. Considered one of the area’s rising young men, Blackwell became a speaker and organizer for the United Order of True Reformers. In 1891 he helped found the Virginia Industrial Mercantile and Building and Loan Association. He served as secretary and general manager of the ambitious enterprise, which according to its state charter proposed to operate general mercantile stores, to hold yearly fairs showing the “industrial and material advancement of our race,” and through loans to enable “persons of limited means to secure comfortable houses for their families.”

The association did not survive the economic depression of the 1890s. As conditions improved, however, Blackwell and eleven others chartered the Benevolent Investment and Relief Association on February 19, 1898. Blackwell again served as secretary and manager. He reported on April 2, 1902, that the company employed eighty-two people and had issued more than 12,000 insurance policies. Despite initial success the company dissolved about 1906. It faced stiff competition from several other Richmond insurance companies operated by African Americans, and the expense of handling numerous small policies made it difficult to build the cash reserves necessary for survival.

In 1910 the cities of Manchester and Richmond consolidated, and Blackwell’s school was named the Maury School. Because Richmond did not permit blacks to serve as principals of public schools, he was demoted to a teacher after twenty-two years in his post. Even more disheartening, the high school students were sent to the larger Armstrong High School. Blackwell remained de facto chief administrator of the Maury School until 1916 when, with completion of a new annex, it was renamed the Dunbar School and a white man became principal.

Blackwell developed still more outlets for his talents. For twenty years he was treasurer of the Virginia Baptist State Sabbath School Convention. He aided in the survival of the Smallwood Institute, located at Claremont in Surry County, after the death in 1912 of its founder, John J. Smallwood. In addition to serving as the school’s secretary, he was its president in 1915 and 1916. In partnership with his elder son, James H. Blackwell Jr., he organized the Southside Realty Company. Blackwell also served as an officer of the Hawkins Company and the World’s Wonder Chemical Company, both manufacturers of beauty products, and for a time he was president of the Loprice Land Corporation. His two sons enjoyed successful professional careers. James H. Blackwell Jr. was a Richmond physician and longtime secretary of the Old Dominion Medical Society, and George W. Blackwell became a lawyer and politician in Chicago.

James H. Blackwell School

After more than forty years in public education, Blackwell retired in 1922. During the remainder of his life he managed two employment agencies, the Interstate Colored Teachers Agency and the Better Service Bureau. Blackwell died in Richmond on October 14, 1931, and was buried in the family plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery in that city. In 1951 the Dunbar School became a combined elementary and junior high school, and the following year the Richmond School Board renamed it the James H. Blackwell School. An elementary school alone since 1970, it has given its name to the surrounding neighborhood.

MAP
TIMELINE
February 5, 1864
James H. Blackwell is born, probably enslaved, in Marion.
1870
By this year the family of James H. Blackwell has moved from Marion to Manchester, across the James River from Richmond, where Blackwell's father is a stonemason.
ca. 1872
James H. Blackwell comes under the tutelage of Anthony Binga, the only African American teacher in Manchester's public schools and pastor of the First Baptist Church, to which Blackwell belongs.
1880
James H. Blackwell graduates from the Richmond Theological Institute (later Virginia Union University).
September 5, 1880
James H. Blackwell begins his career as a teacher in New Kent County.
1882
Manchester's school for blacks opens with Anthony Binga as principal and James H. Blackwell as one of the three teachers.
July 8, 1885
James H. Blackwell marries Annie Estelle Jordan, a Petersburg teacher and sister of William H. Jordan, a member of the General Assembly.
1888
James H. Blackwell succeeds Anthony Binga as principal of Manchester's school for blacks.
1891
James H. Blackwell helps found the Virginia Industrial Mercantile and Building and Loan Association. He serves as secretary and general manager.
May 29, 1891
Manchester's school for blacks graduates its first students from a three-year high school curriculum initiated by James H. Blackwell.
February 19, 1898
James H. Blackwell and eleven others charter the Benevolent Investment and Relief Association, with Blackwell serving as secretary and manager.
April 2, 1902
James H. Blackwell reports that the Benevolent Investment and Relief Association, chartered in 1898, employs eighty-two people and has issued more than 12,000 insurance policies.
ca. 1906
The Benevolent Investment and Relief Association, chartered in 1898, dissolves.
1910
The cities of Manchester and Richmond consolidate, and Manchester's public school for blacks is renamed the Maury School. Its principal, James H. Blackwell, is demoted to teacher because blacks are not allowed to serve as principals of public schools in Richmond.
1915—1916
James H. Blackwell serves as president of the Smallwood Institute, located at Claremont in Surry County.
1916
The blacks-only Maury School is expanded and renamed the Dunbar School.
1922
James H. Blackwell retires from public education.
October 14, 1931
James H. Blackwell dies in Richmond and is buried in the family plot at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
1951
The all-black Dunbar School in Richmond becomes a combined elementary and junior high school.
1952
The Richmond School Board renames the all-black Dunbar School the James H. Blackwell School.
FURTHER READING
  • Kneebone, John T. “Blackwell, James Heyward.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 528–529. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Kneebone, John. Blackwell, James H. (ca. 1864–1931). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/blackwell-james-h-ca-1864-1931.
MLA Citation:
Kneebone, John. "Blackwell, James H. (ca. 1864–1931)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 25 Oct. 2021
Feedback
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sponsors  |  View all