The Collegian
Monday, May 16, 2022

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What is that room on the side of the library?

Disclaimer: I am president of a campus ministry that is funded by the Virginia Baptist Mission Board, which is a partner organization with the Virginia Baptist Historical Society.

You walk by it every day if you have a class on the Richmond College side of campus. You see the "History Exhibits" sign and keep walking while wondering: "What the heck is that place? I should check it out some time."

And you're right. You really should.

That room is actually a whole lot of rooms, rooms that make up the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. Unbeknownst to many students at the University of Richmond, the school started as a seminary for Baptist ministers in 1830. In 1840 the school became a liberal arts college. One hundred years ago last Monday, the president of the college, Frederic Boatwright, moved the school to where it is today. He was quite a controversial figure because he was very young when he became president — 26, to be exact. Several professors quit and students burned Boatwright in effigy when he became president in 1894.

How do I know all of this? I visited the historical society.

The society has been continually collecting everything it can in relation to the history of the university. They have original journals and textbooks, photos, articles, every issue of The Collegian ever published and rooms full of other papers and artifacts.

The society also has rooms full of Baptist history, hence the name.

"[The society] exists to collect and preserve and share a Baptist history," said Fred Anderson, director of the society.

It has been a part of the university since the early 1900s and has stayed a part of the university, even when they were only given a small room in the basement of Puryear Hall when it was a chemistry lab.

Charles Hill Ryland was the treasurer and librarian of the university and he founded the society. His uncle, Robert Ryland, was the first president of Richmond College. Garnett Ryland, Charles H. Ryland's son, was the first director of the society, as well as a chemistry professor. Ryland Hall is named for Robert and Charles H. Ryland.

During the late 1940s the Baptist General Association of Virginia campaigned for a new library and gifted about $500,000, while the Women's Missionary Union gave the funds to build the space that houses the society today. The WMU dedicated the society as a memorial for martyrs who fought for religious liberty in Virginia.

Another exhibit in the society is a section of paintings that depict the stories of those martyrs. During colonial times, the only religion allowed in Virginia territory was the Anglican Church. Several other denominations had to fight to practice their religion, including the Baptists who are depicted in the paintings.

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Currently, about 600 researchers visit the society each year, Anderson said. The society has an entire floor, plus more rooms in the library, that are over-packed with journals, church records and university history that people can use as research materials. President Edward Ayers sent several of his graduate students from the University of Virginia to use the society for research that was later published.

Several historians also work on reading and transcribing journals, which the society then publishes. They also publish a children's series and an annual book on a historical topic.

The society is full of history and anyone can take a tour. Stop in and have a look. Even if you're not a history person, history reveals a past we could never be a part of without these writings and artifacts. It's fascinating to see and read and realize the connection to these people who lived before we were even ideas. The society is just one place to make those connections and it is definitely somewhere everyone should visit before graduating.

Contact news editor Stephanie Rice at stephanie.rice@richmond.edu

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