Ralza Morse Manly was born on January 16, 1822, in Dorset, Bennington County, Vermont. He was the son of William Manly and Sarah Dunton Manly. After graduating from Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut, with a BA in 1848, he married Sarah Bemis Wright on August 16 of that year. They had two sons and two daughters before her death on August 18, 1881. He earned an MA from Wesleyan in 1851 and was admitted to the ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1857, although he devoted most of his energies to teaching prior to the Civil War. By 1862 Manly had beenand in 1864 he was ordained an elder in the New Hampshire Conference. From 1848 to 1862 he was a principal of several academies and seminaries in Vermont and New Hampshire, and served as editor of the Vermont Christian Messenger.
He enlisted in the 16th Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers in October 1862 and served as the infantrychaplain. On January 10, 1864, he was appointed chaplain of the 1st United States Colored Cavalry, at Fort Monroe, where he sought to educate the regiment’s African American soldiers. After the war, Manly began his long tenure in the development of African American education in postwar Virginia. He was assigned by special order, dated June 10, 1865, to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau). He became the assistant superintendent of education in Virginia, and within a few months was promoted to the state’s superintendent of education. Reflecting the rapid growth of African American education throughout Virginia, Manly reported ninety schools, 195 teachers, and 12,898 students in the First Semi-Annual Report on Schools and Finances of Freedmen, January 1, 1866. When the Freedmen’s Bureau ended operations in 1870, the boasted 412 teachers and more than 18,000 students. As superintendent Manly oversaw the construction and operation of the bureau’s schools, which were sometimes funded in part by local residents. He also traveled around the state inspecting schools and giving speeches on topics related to education, temperance, and household economy. He often noted the strong prejudice that white Virginians had against schools for former slaves and he advocated education as the most effective way to help the freedpeople expand their opportunities.
Virginians approved a new constitution in 1869 that included a provision for a free public school system, and segregated public schools opened throughout the state the following year. Richmond’s city council created a board of education in June 1869 and selected Manly as one of its members. He remained on the board until 1875. In August 1869, Virginia’sappointed Manly and others to the city council. Manly was elected to the council as a in 1871, serving until 1874, when the council was divided in two bodies. He won election to the new board of aldermen in May 1874 and served until resigning his seat in October 1877. While on the council, he facilitated the establishment of a racially inclusive, although segregated, public school system in Richmond. A member of the executive committee of the Jackson Ward Republicans early in the 1870s, Manly made an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the House of Delegates in 1873. He became a U.S. deputy collector of internal revenue in Richmond about 1877 and held the post until 1883.
Manly’s greatest contribution to postwar African American education lay in the training of African American public school teachers. He helped organize the Richmond Educational Association in 1867, and as its first president spearheaded the efforts to establish the Richmond Normal and High School. Constructed with funds provided by the Freedmen’s Bureau, the American Freedmen’s Union Commission, and the local African American community, the school opened to students in October 1867 and quickly gained a reputation as a high quality educational institution in the South.
Recognizing the need for African American teachers across the state, Manly devoted his energies to the school’s success. In a report for the superintendent of public instruction, Manly stated his belief that normal schools would provide African American educators with all the necessary qualifications required for success in the field. The Freedman’s Bureau transferred the school’s management to the Richmond Educational Association in 1870. By 1871, the Richmond Colored Normal School, as it was then known, had moved into a new brick building on Twelfth Street and Manly had become its principal. He served as principal until 1878 and again from 1883 to 1885. In 1876, Manly and the Richmond Educational Association donated the entire property to the city, with the condition that the school continue as a public normal school for African Americans.
Manly’s marriage to Mary Louisa Patterson, a former teacher at the normal school and a professor of English and rhetoric at Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, prompted his departure from African American education. They married in Flint, Michigan, on July 15, 1884, and had one son. He joined his wife on the faculty at Wellesley, where he taught logic and rhetoric between 1885 and 1890. Health issues led them to relocate to northern Georgia in 1892 and to San Diego in 1895. There he became a deacon at the city’s First Congregational Church.
Manly died at his home on September 16, 1897. He was buried in San Diego’s Greenwood Memorial Park. Graduates and current students of Richmond Colored Normal and High School honored him by holding an elaborate memorial service at the First Baptist Church and commissioning a life-size portrait for the school.