On a common walking path between Ryland Hall and Boatwright Memorial Library is a building that attracts researchers from all over the world, and houses a large collection of artifacts, artwork and archives. The Virginia Baptist Historical Society is an important part of the university tradition, and a place worthy of a further look.
Robert Ryland, the first university president, was also the pastor of the First African Baptist Church in Richmond, and the Baptists appointed members to the board of trustees. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, the Baptists in Virginia re-endowed the school after it was all but dissolved during the Civil War. Boatwright Memorial Library was also a Baptist donation in the 1940s.
When the society was founded in 1876, it asked the school to provide some space for it to keep its collections. When the campus was moved out of the city 100 years ago to its present location, the society was given space in Ryland Hall, then Puryear Hall. Eventually, there was a need for more space, and thanks to a donation from the Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union, the current building was erected in 1955 as a living memorial to the Baptists who had secured religious liberty.
Fred Anderson, the director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, said the society was the largest and oldest of its kind, and served as a cross between a Baptist Smithsonian and Library of Congress. It attracts Baptists and researchers from around the world, even as far away as China and Italy. About 600 researchers per year visit the society building to research for books, genealogy projects, and academic papers, Anderson said.
In addition to an extensive collection of historical records, the building also has a featured exhibit, a significant number of artifacts, an art gallery and a book shop of editions published by the society. Robert Ryland’s writing desk and a part of the steeple of the first Baptist church in America highlight some of the artifacts on display.
The featured exhibit currently is called “Free Indeed! Trials and Triumphs of Virginia’s Enslaved and Freedmen.” The exhibit includes explanations of Baptist’s relations with and thoughts on slavery, emancipation and the effect of the Civil War. The art and artifact exhibit works in conjunction with a searchable registry of 50,000 names of slaves and freedmen of Virginia, and a book published by the society titled "Free Indeed."
Anderson is currently working on the next series of the exhibit, which will focus on the reconciliation of the North and South after the Civil War, and how the events relate to Baptist and Virginian history. This exhibit should be open early next year.
The four-person staff is also responsible for a separate foundation, the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies. While the Historical Society looks after the collection and assists in research, the Heritage Center is focused more on education, and also serves as a think tank for Baptist issues in Virginia.
In 1999, the Baptists stopped appointing members to the board of trustees, and formed a new relationship with the university. The university still remains appreciative of its heritage, and Anderson said the Historical Society continued to be relevant to the campus.
“So many of the people on the walls went to school here,” Anderson said. “This is a place of historical discoveries. Of all people, a student should have an inquisitive mind. They ought to come by and peek inside. They can learn in here not only general Virginia and Baptist history, but also the history of their alma mater.”
Next time you’re walking past the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, follow Anderson’s advice and take a look inside. There’s a lot to see and a lot to learn.
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