Edenborough G. Corprew was born to George and Grace Corprew in Deep Creek Village just outside Portsmouth, in about 1830. While his parents and younger siblings were free by 1860 and enjoyed considerable prosperity—showing $400 of both real estate and personal property in the federal census of that year—some accounts place E. G. Corprew in slavery until the coming of the Union army in 1862. Even before the Civil War, he already had considerable contact with the world outside Virginia because of the traffic on the nearby Great Dismal Swamp Canal. Perhaps this familiarity with interstate travel is what prepared him to look outside Virginia during the war, when he united with Northern blacks and the American Baptist Home Mission Society in an attempt to bring political and religious assistance to freedpeople.
The Union army occupied Portsmouth in May 1862. This not only allowed Northern philanthropists to come into the city, but it also permitted greater freedom for black Virginians to travel out of the area. On October 4–7, 1864, Corprew and four other free black Virginians—R. D. Beckley, Sampson White, James P. Morrison, and William Keeling, all from Union-occupied territory—attended the National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse, New York. Over four days, members of the convention advocated equal rights for black Americans and urged, then involved in a heated electoral contest, to make emancipation a condition of peace.
After the convention, Corprew returned to Virginia and tried to implement the egalitarian vision described at Syracuse. He may even have joined the United States Army; pension records from 1890 suggest that Corprew enlisted in the 1st United States Colored Cavalry under an assumed name. Edward Sparrow, “Edingborough G. Corprew, alias,” enlisted on December 10, 1864, and served until February 1, 1866. Because the 1st United States Colored Cavalry was based in Hampton, Virginia, near Corprew’s home, this is a plausible scenario.
The only reason to doubt Corprew’s military service is that he worked full time as a missionary for the American Baptist Home Mission Society at the same time that he was supposedly serving in the army. During the calendar year after his commission as an assistant missionary on June 1, 1864, Corprew taught school during the week to 100 students and on Sundays supervised the education of 260 more. He was promoted to full missionary status in 1865 and began to preach and to baptize new converts while continuing his work as an educator. He remained on the Society’s payroll until 1868.
Eventually, Corprew assumed the pastorate of Zion Baptist Church in Portsmouth and stopped working for the Baptist Home Mission Society. He built Zion into a thriving community of almost one thousand members by 1873. More important, he became moderator of the Colored Shiloh Baptist Association in 1869, the state’s largest and most important black Baptist association. As a prominent resident of the Tidewater area, Corprew was uniquely situated to help bind together all of the state’s newly autonomous African American Baptists into one organization. He helped bring together the Richmond-based Shiloh Association and the Norfolk, Virginia, Union Baptist Association to form the Virginia Baptist State Convention. By 1871, he was corresponding secretary of a successful statewide convention.
Corprew died in 1881.