Lynchburg City Schools Superintendent Crystal Edwards, left, marker proposer Jane B White, and Kelso relative Kelly Saunders just after the unveiling. / Joe Stinnett photo

 A New Jersey woman had a dream after she learned that her great-great-great uncle, who played a key role in the founding of public education in Virginia, would be recognized as a significant Virginian Tuesday in Lynchburg. 

While looking for a photo of him online, Kelly Saunders, Samuel Kelso’s great-great-great niece, ran across a reference to a Virginia Historical Highway Marker about Kelso proposed for the Lynchburg School Administration building. She lives in New Jersey, works in media relations for Con Edison in New York, and had discovered the relationship through family genealogy research and DNA matching. She told some of her co-workers she was related to an important Virginian, and her boss wanted a photo for the company to use for Black History Month.

She couldn’t find a photo online but she did run across a random mention of Lynchburg’s Jane B. White and her proposal for the marker, so she contacted her. Saunders says she thinks White “almost dropped her phone” in surprise when Saunders told her she was a Kelso relative.

In a telephone interview on the train from New Jersey to Lynchburg Monday, Saunders described her dream. She was looking down from above, watching herself and someone else sitting next to her. “I had a powerful feeling that it was my ‘Uncle Sam’ and that he wanted me to keep going and come down to Virginia … It was an inspiration.” She couldn’t make out any details of his appearance but experienced a strong feeling it was him, she said, and decided she needed to go to Lynchburg.

The Kelso marker is one of more than 70 state highway markers in Lynchburg, many of them for African Americans. / Joe Stinnett photo

She didn’t find a photo of him, nor has anyone else, but his contributions to public education and equal rights are very real and he was well-known in Lynchburg and Virginia during Reconstruction. The text of the marker reads:Samuel Kelso, born into slavery, became one of Lynchburg’s first African American teachers after the Civil War. He taught at a freedmen’s school on 12th St. and was later a trustee of the all-Black Polk Street School. Kelso was elected to represent Campbell County, including Lynchburg, at Virginia’s Constitutional Convention of 1867-68. There he voted with radical reformers and introduced a resolution calling for free public education open to all on an equal basis. In 1869 he was a delegate to the National Convention of the Colored Men of America, which protested the exclusion of Black Americans from civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. He was later a postal agent in Lynchburg.”

White considers him the founder of public education in Virginia. Lynchburg has about 70 state markers, second-most in the state after Richmond, and the second-most for African Americans, also behind Richmond. Two blocks on Pierce Street alone, home of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer and other Black notables, has six. Like the Kelso marker, many of the Lynchburg markers were proposed by White, who was also instrumental in the restoration of the historic Old City Cemetery. She said it’s possible that Kelso himself is buried there in one of the unmarked graves. White noted that when the marker program started in the early 20th century, all the markers were for white men, and said she was glad to help change that. The Kelso marker itself was sponsored by Dr. Robert Brennan, a member of the city school board, and his wife, and Charles B. White, a former member. Jennifer Loux, director of the marker program for the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said, “There have been relatively few markers erected (statewide) about the Reconstruction era. This marker helps to fill in that gap.”

In prepared remarks, Lynchburg Museum Director Ted Delaney said that few people in the city today know much about Kelso, who was a savvy politician and political organizer and the first African American elected to public office from Lynchburg. He stressed Kelso’s bravery in competing against seasoned white men and hostile newspaper editors in “a grim arena” of dehumanizing personal attacks.

 Delaney had a last minute conflict and his remarks were delivered by Doug Washington, a museum volunteer. Several school and city officials also paid tribute to Kelso. Vice Mayor Beau Wright mentioned the “astounding courage” Kelso must have had to educate and advocate for freedom during the racial turmoil following the Civil War. School Superintendent Crystal Edwards said, “As an educator myself it gives me great joy to be here tonight and celebrate his legacy.”

 After the ceremony inside, Saunders helped unveil the marker itself on Court Street, outside the school administration building, near the historic courthouse, where Kelso himself likely walked many times.

Lynchburg City Schools elementary violin students played prior to the historic highway marker unveiling in a performance that would have likely delighted Kelso himself, who taught many children in the years following the Civil War. Photo by Joe Stinnett.

Who was Samuel F. Kelso?

Kelso set about living up to his middle name, Freeman, within months after the end of the Civil War. Born into slavery, by September 1865 he was teaching at a school established by Lynchburg’s newly-freed African Americans and was on his way to becoming a prominent political leader in Reconstruction Virginia.

Little was recorded about Kelso’s antebellum roots or his family, although Kelly Saunders was able to learn a few details. He was born in 1825. He had a brother, Allen Kelso, and a sister, Willie Ann Kelso. His mother was well-regarded in the local Black community. His sister, Willie Ann, was apparently the same Willie Ann Kelso who was enslaved by Lynchburg’s wealthiest citizen, tobacco broker and railroad investor Samuel Miller. Samuel Kelso was married and lived at the corner of Eighth and Taylor streets in 1870, according to census records. His friends called him Sam.

Kelso’s school, another school also financed by the Black community, and a handful of other small schools set up by the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association and the U.S. Freedmen’s Bureau had about 600 children enrolled within months of the end of the Civil War. They were the foundation of today’s public school system in the city. The Freedmen’s Bureau superintendent in Lynchburg reported, “Several schools have been organized on our plantations under colored teachers … The (city) schools were permanently organized (Sept. 12, 1865.) We have a fine system of night schools just started, included entirely for those unable to attend day school. Writing is chiefly on slates, for want of other advantages.” 

The work of Kelso and many others prompted the white realization that if the Black community was going to educate its youngsters, whites had better start doing the same lest well-educated freedmen get ahead of them. By the 1870s both white and black families appreciated and supported the state schools, according to Virginia Humanities’ Encyclopedia Virginia.

In addition to teaching, Kelso was also educating himself, a privilege that had been denied to about half of Virginia’s population prior to the April 1865 Confederate surrender a few miles east of Lynchburg in Appomattox. He studied with Jacob Yoder, a young Pennsylvania man, who came to Lynchburg as a Freedmen’s Bureau teacher. Kelso befriended him, they often taught together, and Kelso sometimes took private lessons from Yoder to fill in gaps in his formal knowledge. Kelso was also a musician — he and his band performed twice and he had a separate solo at a formal exhibition program by the school children in summer 1866 at Camp Davis Church. (Camp Davis was the U.S. Army encampment in occupied Lynchburg.) Yoder wrote in his diary that the audience included Blacks, whites, and mixed race: “The whites consisted of Yankee Teachers, Bureau officers, military officers, Southern Union Citizens, Yankee citizens, and common citizens. Have omitted one important class, newspaper editors.”

About half of the 6,000 or so residents of Lynchburg were Black, and many worked in tobacco warehouses and factories where they had created much of the city’s wealth. They also “developed considerable craft autonomy and a tradition of collective activism against white authority,” wrote Stephen A. Tripp in Yankee Town, Southern City /Race and Class Relations in Civil War Lynchburg. Kelso’s brother worked in a tobacco factory, along with other relatives, and he may have as well, although that’s not documented. The factories, the new schools like Kelso’s, churches and fraternal organizations provided a foundation for the newly-freed people to organize politically. In 1867, Kelso was formally identified by the Freedmen’s Bureau in a list of African American community leaders across the state who had the respect of both races.

However, Blacks seeking any sort of equal rights with whites in Virginia faced bitter opposition. After the war ended whites set about renewing their ties with Northern businesses and attempting to repress or virtually re-enslave their Black neighbors, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment in 1868 guaranteeing them citizenship. In late 1866 Lynchburg was still whipping Blacks convicted of minor crimes: For petit larceny, Frederick Jones received 30 lashes, was ordered to jail for 10 days, and then was to receive 30 more lashes, which the Lynchburg News mockingly referred to as “another dose of 30 drops of cow-skin oil.” The Black community was not shy about confronting the whites. Many openly carried guns to protect themselves, and some organized quasi-military units.

Virginia was still under military occupation, not yet allowed to rejoin the Union. For that to happen, the state would have to write and adopt a new Constitution. The election of delegates to the four-month Constitutional Convention in 1867-68 was the first-ever in which Virginia Black men could vote and have their votes counted. Kelso had become a Radical Republican, the branch of the party including newly-freed Southern Blacks and Northern abolitionists, and decided to run for one of Lynchburg’s seats. He defeated Conservative Republican candidates in a demonstration of Black political power that alarmed the white community. His involvement in politics attracted the attention of local newspaper editors who insulted and ridiculed political opponents, especially Black progressives, Lynchburg Museum Director Delaney told Cardinal News before Tuesday’s ceremony. 

“It’s hard for us to imagine the courage and inner strength it took for a Black person like Kelso to engage in politics in Virginia right after the Civil War, at a time when the socio-political and racial climate was so intensely fraught, and the threat of personal violence was very real.  Just the act of going to the polls and voting was risky for Black people, and to be a candidate for public office — not to mention being involved in drafting the state’s constitution — was another level of scrutiny and danger that is hard to comprehend today,” Delaney said.

The Lynchburg newspapers called for any Blacks who voted for Kelso and other Radical candidates to be fired from their jobs. A Staunton newspaper claimed that Radical Blacks in Lynchburg had attacked Conservative Black voters (of which there were almost none) and termed reconstruction in Virginia “a black carnival of license ushered in by fraud, violence, and meditated murder.”

Kelso was able to rise above the fray and make valuable contributions to the Constitutional Convention as one of 24 Black delegates and the only Black delegate from the western part of the state. First, he introduced a resolution that the new constitution should “guarantee, for the future, a system of common school education, to be supported by the State, which shall give to all classes a free and equal participation in all its benefits.” In its entry on Kelso, Encyclopedia Virginia notes that the creation of the state’s first system of public schools was one of the convention’s “signal achievements.” Kelso didn’t go it alone. Public education was a plank in the Virginia Republican Party platform, and other delegates submitted similar proposals which were consolidated with Kelso’s. 

Kelso’s work at the convention was not confined to education. Blacks were using their freedom to move around, and he introduced another resolution in January requesting that Virginia’s military commander, a U.S. general, allow voters to cast ballots where they lived in the constitutional ratification election, not where they had first registered to vote. He met with another general, the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia, who endorsed this. (The ratification vote ended up not taking place until 1869 after a new registration of qualified voters.) The constitution that the convention proposed for Virginia was a historic achievement. Known as the Underwood Constitution, it granted all males over 21 the right to vote, in addition to endorsing public education for all.

Kelso suffered a particularly personal insult at the convention. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant happened to be in Richmond in late January, and Kelso was part of a committee appointed to invite him to attend the convention. One of the appointed white members, a Confederate veteran from Roanoke County, refused to serve with a Black man, and Encyclopedia Virginia reports that when the committee met with Grant, “white members reportedly left Kelso in the hotel parlor and saw Grant without him.” This was such a flagrant snub that even a Richmond newspaper complained via a patronizing comment: “He is one of the most respectable looking negroes in the convention … he dresses well, and is certainly as well worthy of respect as any negro that could have been appointed.” 

Kelso continued his political activity after the convention. He was on hand for a Republican rally in 1868 at the Campbell County courthouse, with another local activist, Jack Averitt, when they saw two armed white men tear up an American flag and force a Black speaker from the platform. The promises of Reconstruction were beginning to wane across the South, the Freedmen’s Bureau educators were withdrawing, but Kelso kept moving forward. He and Averitt attended the National Convention of Colored Men in January 1869, which was chaired by Frederick Douglass. African Americans had been holding large conventions like this since the end of the Civil War to push for civil rights and fair treatment.

Many resolutions were suggested at the multi-day meeting at Union League Hall in Washington, D.C. , and Kelso and two other Virginia members offered one that shows how desperate the people of color were in the South:

“Whereas, the removal of the Freedmen’s Bureau from the Southern States and especially from the States of Virginia, Mississippi, and Texas, leaves the colored people in those States wholly at the mercy of their enemies, homeless, landless, uneducated, and without clothes, by reason of their not being paid for their labor since they were made free by the Government; therefore, be it Resolved, That a petition be presented to the Congress of the United States by this Convention that they make some provision for the starving colored people in those States.” The matter was tabled, but Kelso had made his point.

After the Underwood Constitution Kelso helped craft was finally ratified, he ran for a House of Delegates seat representing Lynchburg in 1869. He was narrowly defeated by a Conservative as the former Confederates began to regain control of the state, which was officially readmitted to the Union in January 1870. A month later, Kelso wrote a letter to the editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard newspaper: “We are beginning to reap the fruits of the hypocritical admission of this State into the Union. The old rebel Democrat masters … first secured the entire control of the State at the so-called election last July, by the most infamous premeditated frauds ever known to let stand in any civilized government.” Kelso then described how an unnamed Radical Republican leader, perhaps Kelso himself, was assaulted on the street with an outburst of cursing and racial epithets by an attacker who vowed that the whites would reduce the freedmen to the status of the free blacks before the war.

Racial hatred like this ended the brief period of Black equality in Virginia after the Civil War. One of Kelso’s foes was Col. Robert E. Withers, a physician, farmer, and editor of the Lynchburg News from 1866 to 1868. A virulent racist, he was originally from Danville, had a farm in Russell County, and, like Kelso, had run for a seat at the 1867 constitutional convention. He blamed his loss on “the results of the Negroes’ choice of vicious and malignant radical emissaries (over) intelligent, respectable men.” 

Two years later, Withers advocated using the issue of race to ensure future Conservative victories statewide. In his autobiography, he wrote that he knew Southwest Virginia had more Unionists than the rest of the state, and combined with the “immense black vote” farther east, might be overpowering. So the key to tipping the scales toward the Conservatives and regaining their pre-war power, are said, would be boosting white turnout in the old slave lands by stoking white fears. 

And that’s what happened, wrote Harry S. Ferguson many years later. Like Kelso, Ferguson was an educator. He taught in Campbell County and Lynchburg and retired as principal of Dunbar High School in the city. In his 1950 thesis, The Participation of the Lynchburg, Virginia Negro in Politics, he examined the 1870 local and congressional elections in Lynchburg: “The effectiveness of an appeal by the local press to the emotions of many whites that they were in danger of being ruled by Negroes appeared to have won the election for the Conservatives.”

Kelso remained active in local politics and remained true to his beliefs. During a Lynchburg Republican meeting in 1873, he was accused by a white Republican of advocating the claims of a Virginia governor who refused to commute John Brown’s death sentence for attempting to incite a slave rebellion in Harper’s Ferry back in 1859.

“What! I support Henry A. Wise, the man who murdered John Brown, who was the first to endeavor to give me my freedom? Never! never !! never!!!’” Kelso said. 

Kelso died of heart disease in 1880. He had no children. His nephew and namesake, his brother Allen’s son, was born in Lynchburg in 1865 but by 1900 had left the Old Dominion for New Jersey. The Underwood Constitution was replaced in 1902 with a new constitution explicitly aimed at disenfranchising Blacks and working-class whites and partly written by another Lynchburg man, newspaper editor Carter Glass.

Sources: Lynchburg Museum System; The Participation of the Lynchburg, Virginia Negro in Politics 1865-1900; The Fire of Liberty in Their Hearts / The Diary of Jacob Yoder of the Freedmen’s Bureau School, Lynchburg, Virginia; Yankee Town, Southern City / Race and Class Relations in Civil War Lynchburg; Republicans and Reconstruction in Virginia, 1856-70; Virginia Humanities’s Encyclopedia Virginia; Freedmen’s Bureau and census records.

Joe Stinnett is retired editor of The News & Advance and The Roanoke Times. He is a member of the...