CUMBERLAND — More than 120 years after his death, the descendants of Samuel P. Bolling gathered with the public Friday to celebrate Bolling’s legacy with a new Virginia State Historical Highway marker. The marker stands watch at the edge of the thickly wooded acreage Bolling once owned along what is now Virginia Route 45 in Cumberland County.
Born a slave in 1819, Bolling purchased his freedom and that of his wife. He went on to become a politician, landowner, mechanic, self-taught brickmaker and much much more.
“He was a visionary and really a forerunner of the self-help philosophy,” author and retired educator Muriel Miller Branch said at Friday’s dedication ceremony. Bolling, she said, provided others with the kind of opportunities he was denied, selling pieces of his land to poor African Americans and teaching by example.
“Telling this story is so important for many reasons,” said Virginia Humanities’ Justin Reid, a Cumberland County native who grew up on land purchased from Bolling.
“We have an opportunity to make sure people know how important Cumberland County is.”
Bolling’s achievements garnered attention in 2020 after a group of Cumberland Middle School students decided to enter then-Governor Ralph Northam’s Black History Month Historic Marker and Asian American Pacific Islanders Historic Marker contests. (Those programs have since been discontinued under Gov. Glenn Youngkin.)
Since 1927, more than 2,800 markers have been put up in the Commonwealth.
Oct 11. news story: ‘Why so many historical marker proposals come from Cumberland County’
Feb. 21 commentary by Lewis Longenecker: ‘Youngkin should continue historical marker competition’
March 8 commentary by Dwayne Yancey: ‘Why we’ll see fewer historical markers going up.’
March 31 news story: ‘Historical marker to Korean independence leader dedicated at Roanoke College’
As of Friday, less than 380 signs were about African American history and culture, according to Dr. Colita Fairfax of Norfolk State University, who spoke Friday. The two contests set out to tell a more diverse history of Virginia.
With the help of Cumberland Middle School U.S. History teacher Lewis Longenecker, CMS students won in both contests, garnering recognition for Roanoke College graduate Kim Kyusik, William & Mary graduate Arthur Azo Matsu and Cumberland County-native Samuel P. Bolling.
On Thursday Longenecker and his students were in Salem for the dedication to Kyusik (1881-1950), a leader in the Korean independence movement.
According to the text of the new marker Kyusik “advocated Korean independence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, promoted the Korean cause in the U.S. as chair of the Korean Commission, and helped organize the Korean National Revolutionary Party in China.”
The student’s third marker to Matsu, a renowned football player and the first Asian American student to graduate from William & Mary, is expected to be placed in Williamsburg.
Following Friday’s marker dedication to Bolling, Longenecker praised his students for their hard work.
“This is a brilliant group,” Longenecker said of former-students Ashley Alverz, Alex Gonzalez, Aleecia Mitchell, Christopher McCoy, Anna Parker, Adalie Rhulmond and Harley Thurston. “I’m just really really proud.”
Speaking at Friday’s ceremony, historian Dr. Larissa Smith said Bolling’s brickyard made 200,000 to 300,000 bricks annually and he repeatedly drove his white competitors out of business. Probably more than half of the brick houses in Farmville were constructed with Bolling’s bricks, she said.
Full text of marker
Samuel P. Bolling (1819-1900)
Samuel P. Bolling was born enslaved in Cumberland County and became a skilled mechanic. After the Civil War he purchased several lots in Farmville, where he established a successful brickyard by 1874. He later acquired more than 1,000 acres in Cumberland. About 1880 he aligned with the Readjuster Party, a biracial coalition that refinanced the antebellum state debt to pay for public education and other services. In 1885 he was elected to represent Buckingham and Cumberland Counties in the Virginia House of Delegates; his son, Philip S. Bolling, had won this seat in 1883. Bolling later donated land to establish a school. His daughter, Eliza Bolling, was a noted local educator.
“He is indeed foundational to modern-day Farmville and modern-day Longwood University and the campus there,” Smith, Longwood University Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and University Liaison to the Moton Museum said. “We would not have a campus without him.”
Bolling would end up owning more than 1,000 acres of land in Cumberland County, as well as property and a thriving business in Farmville. In the 1880s Bolling became active in local politics, finally joining the Virginia House of Delegates in 1885.
“His life is a real, significant testament to the possibilities of post-war Virginia. He’s a lesson of Black entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency and self-help but also as a politician he helped to build a biracial Virginia, one founded on institutions that believed in a system of public school for all Virginians,” Smith said.
In bringing attention to Bolling, Cumberland Middle School students helped remind the public of the possibilities in post-war Virginia, Smith said.
“I hope that you have recognized and learned that history is all around you,” Smith said. “And that you can look around and ask questions about the past and find the sources to answer them, and be able to tell stories that still have meaning and significance.”
Dr. Carol McMahon remembers well the stories she heard about her great great grandfather Samuel Bolling. Most of them, she said, came from Bolling’s oldest daughter, Olive Rebecca Bolling.
“In April of 1865 he took her, Sam took Olive Rebecca and his second oldest child Phillip to Appomattox to see Gen. Lee surrender to General Grant and they were just awed by the formality of it,” McMahon said proudly.
Wanda Williams was similarly proud as she gathered with her siblings; mother, Joyce Bolling-Jackson; and Bolling’s great, great, great, great grandaughter 4-year-old Ketrah Jackson.
Until recently Williams — Bolling’s great-great-granddaughter — said she hadn’t known about her connection to Samuel Bolling. Friday’s event was both exciting and special, she said, praising his generosity and determination.
“History, as we are already seeing here today,” McMahon said “is about storytelling.”