Squire Miller Henry is at rest now.
The 50 years he put in at Emory & Henry College carrying suitcases and trunks from arriving trains, hauling coal to heat dormitories and classrooms, ringing the nightly dinner bell and advising students on matters moral and material earned him an eternal respite beneath the broad boughs of God.
He lies in repose on a wooded hilltop in Glade Spring, Virginia, just up from the Mount Zion Baptist Church he helped establish 149 years ago and a short hop across Interstate 81 from the college campus he first set foot upon Feb. 13, 1868.
The man traveled a long way to get there.
Squire Henry was born into slavery on a plantation in Rockbridge County on Sept. 13, 1845. Shortly after the Civil War he headed not north, but south, to find work as a farmhand.
At the entreaty from a Washington County resident named John Buchanan, his journey stopped at Emory & Henry, a small liberal arts college founded in 1836 in the tiny community of Emory by the Holston Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and named for Methodist pastor John Emory and firebrand legislator Patrick Henry.
For 50 years, he served the campus and surrounding community with distinction.
Upon Squire Henry’s death in 1923, college officials solicited donations from students and alumni to pay for a headstone placed at the dearly departed gentleman’s gravesite.
The final epitaph has yet to be etched in stone.
Saturday, a full century after Squire Henry’s fire went out, the college is honoring its 50-year employee in a remarkable way.
During the school’s 2023 commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. at Fred Selfe Stadium on campus, Emory & Henry will confer a posthumous honorary Doctor of Divinity degree on the old porter, furnace stoker and tree-stump philosopher.
The school also will rename one of its existing dormitories in honor of the former slave, making it the first building of any kind on the growing campus named for a Black person.
Squire Henry’s descendants — some now eight generations removed and ranging in age from 90 years to 2 months — will be guests of honor at the ceremony honoring their ancestor.
And for one day, maybe for an hour or two, the ground that old Squire walked just might be called Emory & Henry … and Henry.
* * *
One hundred thousand bushels of coal hauled up and down the hilly campus.
A bushel of coal weighs 80 pounds.
Do the math.
The man carried 8 million pounds of coal — that’s 4,000 tons — in his five decades of service to Emory & Henry College.
Limber of back and clear of mind, the son of Woodroe and Francis Henry arrived in Southwest Virginia in 1868, soon to get to work at the college which was founded 32 years earlier as an all-male school and once served as a Confederate hospital during the Civil War.
He never left, serving all but the very first Emory & Henry president until his retirement in 1918.
Squire Henry might have been the first person an arriving freshman encountered after stepping off a train at the Emory station.
” ‘Trunks, gen’l’min, trunks! Trunks took to the college for 15 cee-unts,’ ” was the old porter’s shout, according to the author of a profile on Squire Henry in the 1901 college yearbook “The Boomerang.”
Squire Henry piled several trunks at a time into his trusty wheelbarrow. In cold weather he was “conspicuous” for carrying “two large coal buckets made of lard cans fastened on wire balls strapped with rags.”
He maintained a ledger containing the sums owed by individual students. The pocket-sized book was as ever-present as the dusty old hat atop his head.
Daily, Squire Henry rang the large dinner bell, stymied only once when campus pranksters swiped and absconded with the clapper.
He was fastidious in duty and free with advice. Whether pontificating from a porch railing on the rural campus or offering personal advice to struggling scholar or lovelorn soul, he had a seemingly endless supply of homespun homilies and hope.
“Squire Henry’s work is not only carrying coal and ashes, gathering rubbish and trundling a wheelbarrow,” the 1901 yearbook reads, “but bringing into the room of the home-sick boy or ‘busted’ Senior, cheer and hope and sunshine — a word of encouragement or advice, which no less serves its mission by often provoking a smile.”
* * *
Squire Henry had more than one mission on his mind.
Three years after arriving in Emory he married Mary Brown, a 14-year-old local girl. The wedding took place inside the home of Ephraim Emerson Wiley, the college’s second president and the first full-time faculty member.
The young couple settled in an area in Washington County known as “Blacksburg.”
The community, mostly located along Indian Run Road just off U.S. 11, was given its name because it became a Black enclave within the largely segregated county and state.
“After slavery, a lot of Black people in the area moved here,” said Gaynelle Heath, a fifth-generation descendant of Squire and Mary Henry who now lives in Bristol. “It was a long time before there were any white people on this end [of the road]. It was called Blacksburg because it was a little burg where a lot of Black people stayed.
“It was not my chosen name.”
Some printed accounts state that Squire and Mary Henry had 14 children. Surviving descendants can account for 11, several who might have died at a very young age, according to family members.
Nevertheless, the family tree has sprouted wide branches, beginning with the couple’s first child in 1871, Benjamin Franklin Henry, and continuing through the 11th child, Ephriam Wiley Henry, named for the old Emory & Henry president and born in 1894.
The name of Wiley Henry is one of distinction in Washington County, particularly in the halls and haunts of Abingdon’s famed Martha Washington Inn.
Before the inn became a destination that attracted the likes of Harry Truman, Clare Booth Luce and Tennessee Williams as guests, it housed Martha Washington College. It was a women’s school that operated from 1850 to 1931. Upon the school’s closing, some of its students transferred to Emory & Henry, which first admitted women in 1899, according to the E&H website.
A 1964 Bristol Herald Courier article called Wiley Henry “Abingdon’s king of Southern hospitality.” Following Squire Henry’s blueprint, he served the former women’s college and inn for five decades from 1918 until his death in 1967 “without stint and far beyond the limits usually deserved.”
In 1969, alumnae of Martha Washington College endowed the Wiley Henry Memorial Scholarship, given to a deserving African American student at Emory & Henry. Rachel Sheffy, a great-great-granddaughter of Squire Henry, was the recipient in 1998, graduating from E&H in 2001 as a history major.
Heath was the first of Squire Miller Henry’s descendants to graduate from Emory & Henry. She completed a degree in elementary education in 1972, four years after the college produced its first Black female graduate.
She attended on a scholarship named for her grandfather Jim Foster, who was the grandson-in-law of Squire Henry.
“I knew about [Squire Henry’s] history with the college, but I didn’t know I could get a scholarship,” she said. “I only paid a hundred dollars to go to Emory.”
Heath’s cousin, Mary Lampkins, also became a teacher following her graduation from Emory & Henry. So did Carolyn Foster Doss, a 1986 E&H graduate who was inducted into the college’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1999 after a women’s basketball career that still has her ranked No. 1 on the school’s all-time list for rebounding average.
Foster’s daughter, Taylor Doss Dean, played softball at Emory & Henry, graduating in 2016.
When the surviving descendants convene for Saturday’s ceremony, 23-year-old Chandler Foster will have a unique perspective … in more ways than one.
The youngest great-great-grandson of Squire Henry, he is the only descendant currently enrolled at Emory & Henry. The mass communications major also has another distinction.
He has been totally blind since birth.
A lack of eyesight hasn’t stopped Chandler from his studies or from activities such as co-hosting a blues show on the college’s radio station, WEHC (FM 90.7).
“I’m not a blind person, I’m just a person,” he said. “My blindness might be total, but I sure can see through people.”
The Emory & Henry junior also doesn’t need eyesight to see the footsteps he is following.
“I feel honored to know that my great-great-granddaddy took pride in something that we have in common, Emory & Henry, the students, the people and the well-being of the campus,” he said. “That makes me feel connected to him.
“To see Emory & Henry, focusing on my family … I feel very respected. That says a lot to me. It speaks volumes.”
* * *
Emory & Henry held an inaugural Juneteenth Celebration on campus in 2022 when assistant professor of library science Rebecca Grantham delivered a brief address on the life and times of Squire Miller Henry.
The presentation piqued the interest of the college’s associate vice president for advancement, Shannon Earle.
Earle did the math.
The year 2023 would mark a full 100 years since Squire Henry’s death. Why not find a way to honor the old porter with a posthumous honorary doctorate during the May commencement exercises?
Earle, who has spent 23 years working in higher education, certainly got no argument from her husband, current Emory & Henry president John Wells. She drafted a document and presented it to the college’s board of trustees, who voted unanimously in favor bestowing the honor upon the old coal hauler.
Precedent had been established in 2021 when Emory & Henry conferred an honorary Doctor of Food Sciences degree on Willie Thompson, a chef at the college for nearly 60 years.
Earle contacted Squire Henry’s family to gauge their interest in participating in a ceremony connected to Saturday’s commencement. As of Thursday, 70 descendants had pledged to attend, ranging from the oldest, Rose Marie Lampkins, 90; to the youngest, 2-month-old Dawson Anthony Dean who might need a boost to view the tribute from a distance of seven generations from his ancestor.
“We’re all standing on his shoulders,” said Earle, who will join her husband in serving the family for lunch at the college’s student union. “He did so much work to ensure this institution [survived] through some of the hardest times. Not all schools were able to stay open in that time after the Civil War. Without the work of Mr. Henry, I wonder how students, faculty and staff would have functioned.
“There was no discussion on ‘Should we do this or not?’ The discussion was on why we haven’t done this before. Every time I think about the institution honoring Mr. Henry, I get teary. I get a lump in my throat. It’s so special. He obviously carried a lot of weight.”
* * *
Squire Henry is buried in a small, rough-hewn cemetery in Glade Spring dotted with scattered headstones, small markers and unmarked graves.
The old campus caretaker’s official death certificate shows that he died Dec. 6, 1923. Shortly thereafter, Emory & Henry professor J.L. Hardin took care to make sure Squire’s final resting place would not be lost under layers of anonymity.
Hardin issued a circular letter a month later to former students and other “sons of Emory & Henry,” in an attempt to raise $350 for a proper burial and headstone. The professor placed a limit of $5 per donation so the campaign was vigorous. The sum of $350 in 1923 money would equal nearly $6,200 in 2023.
Despite the princely amount, Hardin did not miss the mark with his missive.
The response was swift.
Letters and enclosed funds flooded the post.
The return addresses included the likes of the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce; University of Maine, Orono, Maine; Ear Nose and Throat of Akron, Ohio; Dallas Sanitarium of Dallas, Texas; and Methodist Episcopal Church South of Nashville, Tennessee.
Emory & Henry maintains a file folder full of the return letters at its Kelly Library on campus, available to the public.
E.T. Cecil, M.D., of Bramwell, West Virginia. included the following handwritten note:
“I am glad to make a contribution for a nice burial and monument to the memory of ‘Squire Henry.’ I remember him very well though it has been 30 years since I came to Emory to enter college. I am enclosing you a check for $2.00 and if you don’t have enough you can call on me again. Very truly, E.T. Cecil.”
A Dec. 14, 1923, Roanoke Times article stated that Professor Hardin sought to have the funeral service inside the college’s auditorium, but Squire Henry’s family preferred the confines of nearby Mt. Zion Baptist Church, where he was a founding member in 1874, later becoming a deacon.
The church held a 41st anniversary celebration in 1915. Deacon S.M. Henry, Esq., delivered the Sunday morning address titled “Our Church.”
The small white chapel at the mouth of the road leading to old Blacksburg remains the family church, although attendance on recent Sunday in April numbered 10 souls.
“We have about 11 every Sunday morning and we just do what we have to do,” said Debbie Foster, a great-great-granddaughter of Squire Henry who worked in the dean’s office and the Office of Residence Life at E&H from 1976-86.
Foster said that when she worked at the college, “Nothing was ever mentioned about Squire Henry. Nothing.”
So she went to find out for herself, poring through the file at the E&H library and recoiling at some of the 1920s-era descriptions of her proud ancestor.
Along with the willing contributions for Squire Henry’s headstone came a few stark reminders that racial differences remained part of the equation. One gentleman’s response offered an illustration:
“I am enclosing a contribution to the fund for the purpose of erection [sic] a memorial at the grave of my friend, ‘Squire Henry.’ He was a man whose skin was black but within his body beat a white heart.”
“It was sad,” Debbie Foster said.
Things can change over the course of 100 years.
When Squire Henry’s descendants numbering 70 strong take their place of honor Saturday, there will be familiar Southwest Virginia names: Foster, Cato, Lampkins, Carter, Preston, Pender.
They will come in all shapes and sizes and yes, colors.
“Let them see the diversity in our family,” Debbie Foster said. “We had a lot of different colors in our family, but we are family. We stick together no matter what.”
* * *
The last word belongs to Squire Miller Henry himself.
The former slave who came to Emory & Henry College as a janitor, who hauled coal and ash in and out of school buildings, who counseled frightened freshmen and gave sage advice to departing seniors, who raised a family on a meager pittance, who founded a church that still serves parishioners today, who left a legacy of fair play and honesty on generations to come … his words alone will be the epitaph.
Old Squire addressed Emory & Henry’s student body on Feb. 3, 1920, exactly 52 years to the day from when he first showed up at the college to work.
His remarks were printed verbatim in the school’s “The Weekly Bulletin,” a weekly publication by the Emory & Henry Athletic Association.
Here are the excerpts:
“I am in a strange country this mornin’, but you don’t know how glad I am to be here on this occasion. Fifty-two years this mornin’ I came on the College place to make a home worth livin’; and I have been here some way, somehow or ‘nother ever since. But this mornin’ I can’t see the face of no one a tall that was here when I came; no one. When I begin runnin’ it over in my mind to see where they all are, pretty nigh all of them have gone to the other world, only one of our professors, who was here, is livin’ now; only one. All the rest dead and gone, and somehow or ‘nother the Lord saw good enough to spare me for some purpose, some purpose, or nuther.
“When I first come here and got settled down Professor Buchanan was so good to me and so kind to me, that I had a direct talk with myself to make a man out of myself. I was way out in a strange country by myself without free schools and no money. I tried to fight it off, but it stayed in my heart, still come to me; and I decided to make a man somehow or ‘nother — did not know how in the world I was goin’ to do it — and I started out.
“Just nature or somethin’ told me what to study: ‘You study RIGHT FROM WRONG.’ Well, now, I went to work at that. I studied the same as the students studied their books, RIGHT from WRONG, and kept on studying it for about three of six months and another spirit came to me: ‘Now, you studied that pretty well, study HOW TO DO BETTER.’ Well, I studied in that and that was a lifetime study. Did not have any books, don’t have to have books. … I graduated in 44 years and got my diploma …
“This is another thing that come to me. I was a man with a family, and now if you want to be –- if your want your children to grow up in the world and be something you take care of those other people’s children. That was the reason I was so kind to the student bodies. I may never see their mothers and fathers –- they live thousands of miles away, maybe. But when my children go through the world they will be remembered by them parents. …
“If I want my children to come up and be protected, I am to protect the children of other people, and they was here, and I done it the best I could. I don’t know, I have tried in every way, not only in this student body but in the student bodies from the day I come here until today. They ought to say that ‘Squire Henry gave me good advice.’ …
“I thank you for the privilege of talking on my [anniversary] at the college, fifty-two long years, fifty-two long years. Supposin’ I was to go on fifty-two more years. You would be gone as those before you. … If you come in the world and don’t do the world some good you had better never been in it. So, gentlemen, I thank you for what I’ve said in a broken manner; obliged to do that. I thank you for your attention, only hoping that you all will be Christians and will meet where congregations never break up and where Sabbaths have no end.”
Full text of Squire Henry’s speech to Emory & Henry
Squire Henry’s speech, as printed in The Weekly Bulletin – February 13, 1920
I am in a strange country this mornin’, but you don’t know how glad I am to be here on this occasion. Fifty-two years this mornin’ I came on the College place to make a home worth livin’; and I have been here some way, somehow or ‘nother ever since. But this mornin’ I can’t see the face of no one a tall that was here when I came; no one. When I begin runnin’ it over in my mind to see where they all are, pretty nigh all of them have gone to the other world, only one of our professors, who was here, is livin’ now; only one, Dr. J.L. Buchanan, he is livin’. All the rest dead and gone, and somehow or ‘nuther the Lord saw good enough to spare me for some purpose, some purpose, or nuther. The Lord was good enough to spare me here from the third day of February in ’68 down to the third day of February in 1920. I am here for some purpose, what it is I don’t know. I leave it to the people who passed out and are gone to say what the purpose is. One thing I can say — I’ve tried, I’ve done my best, to do my purpose: To be good. I’ve tried to do that.
Of course there is a great change. You can see what great changes in the buildin’s, but there’s more change in the student body now to what it were when I come — great deal more of a change in the student body than then, because the students principally had just come out of the Civil War, and when they come to College they was like most people who had learned much. They tried to explode their knowledge; and so a great deal of difference to what they are now. Dr. E.E. Wiley, he was the President here; Dr. Buchanan was the Professor; and Professor Longley – whether he was ever a doctor or not I don’t know – I expect he was before he got through; and several others who I cannot call the name of just now. My memory’s not so long as it use to be. There was about 150 students I think. I was a stranger and don’t know much about it. Of course, they carried sheep, cows and wagons in the old chapel, and took the clapper out of the bell, and one thing and ‘nother; but that day’s done passed. The cows eat on the campus and the wagons stay where they please, but them things were goin’ on then. Somebody has done some good, some body or ‘nother. I think I done what I could whether it has done much good, I don’t know; but I had determination to do what I could.
I was converted about six months before I come here. If I hadn’t don’t know whether I’d been or not! But I’ve tried while I was here to interest my mind in the work, that’s a fact. I certainly have. Because after I’d come here and mingled with the young men and the college, those students who went out into the world become close to me, that’s a fact. Many times I’ve been troubled bout the student body. I’ve seen the day when the world out yonder didn’t think much about Emory students. They said they was bigoty man. That time has done passed, but it was that way. Of course I can’t say what I see in them fifty-two years, it would take a book that all of you couldn’t carry – what I’ve seen in my experience, but I tell you I’ve learned a heap – don’t know much – but seen a heap and learned a heap as well as the student bodies.
When I first come here and got settled down Professor Buchanan was so good to me and so kind to me, that I had a direct talk with myself to make a man out of myself. I was way out in a strange country by myself without free schools and no money. I tried to fight it off, but it stayed in my heart, still come to me; and I decided to make a man somehow or ‘nother – did not know how in the world I was goin’ to do it – and I started out. Just nature or somethin’ told me what to study: ‘You study RIGHT FROM WRONG.’ Well, now, I went to work at that. I studied the same as the students studied their books, RIGHT from WRONG, and kept on studying it for about three of six months and another spirit came to me: ‘Now, you studied that pretty well, study HOW TO DO BETTER.’ Well, I studied in that and that was a lifetime study. Did not have any books, don’t have to have books, and I can’t graduate in that. How to Do Better, I studied Right from Wrong. Next thing I studied was How to Do Right, and so it went all along. That thing stuck in my heart — How to Do Better.
After a while I came closer to the College. I come to be a janitor. I don’t tell how long, for one of our professors now become a graduate at the same year. I’ve said there were so many things to be done. This is another thing that come to me. I was a man with a family, and now if you want to be — if your want your children to grow up in the world and be something you take care of those other people’s children. That was the reason I was so kind to the student bodies. I may never see their mothers and fathers — they live thousands of miles away, maybe. But when my children go through the world they will be remembered by them parents. I raised up nine children — grown — and one of them, or two of them, has traveled all through the world, or the United States, and part out of the United States, and they tell me they never have been arrested by the law. One thing I gave them encouragement to protect themselves, and they didn’t just associate with anybody.
If I want my children to come up and be protected, I am to protect the children of other people, and they was here, and I done it the best I could. I don’t know, I have tried in every way, not only in this student body but in the student bodies from the day I come here until today. They ought to say that “Squire” Henry gave me good advice. I am not ashamed in my heart for any advice that I have given this student body; not ashamed. My conscience don’t condemn me for what I’ve given the student bodies. I’ve always told them to be a Christian, to be a gentleman, to be honest; and after I’d seen them going wrong, if I could, I would tell them to go right. But here’s one thing I impressed on the student body. You may leave home to come to Emory and that brother there behind you there will stay at home; and you come here and stay ten months and go back home. The mother and father, the people at large, expect more of you than they do of that one that didn’t go ‘way, and many in their hearts, they say, ‘My boy is not doing what I thought he’d so. Here’s the one that stayed home does as well as he does.’ When you leave home, say ‘I am going out for education, for knowledge, for wisdom.’ Go out and get it then when you go back hone it is time to show it. Neighbors will be disappointed all ‘round they will be disappointed. They may not say it – that they are disappointed, but they feel it.
So I know I’ve done good ‘long that line, as I’ve told many a boy these things whose father and mother were at home prayin’ for his success, givin’ him money, and him here foolin’ his time away and their money ‘way. The big thing is to be religious – be religious that’s it. I think that the foundation of all the human family is to be religious. To be successful, be religious. We can’t let the spirit of the Devil in the world tell us what to do. You will be just back-slidin’ presently. So many of them just pleases him and just go on an’ on, and say “I’ll try next time” and the time is right now, right now is the time – tomorrow is not the time. All you do to be converted is an easy kind of matter. All you do is to make up your mind to quit the old life, never to take it up no more, live for God, live for Jesus; and when you do that ‘way down in the depth of your heart you know it then – you will be converted. My time is up – but the thing is this: I want you to live a Christian life, for this is a religious college, supposed to be a religious institution. You come from a gospel land to learn at Emory and Henry, who teachers God’s work. How can you depart from being a Christian?
Now, when I got to be janitor, I had to carry coal to the boys in that old college buildin’, and there was four stories above the basement, and it seemed like they all got on to the very highest floor. Up to three years before I quit carryin’ coal they reckoned I’d carried 100,000 bushels of coal besides the ashes. I had to carry it on my back, and I carried 100,000 bushels of coal, three years before I quit. My j’ints seemed to get stiff, but I suppose it was the Spirit of God that kept me goin’ up the steps. Sometimes when it would be cold, and I’d be in a hurry, I would get somebody to help me half a day. Next time I wanted somebody to help me I’d have to ask somebody else. He’d not want to help me again, but I carried – I live to have said how many years – but, you know, Professor Cole is here.
Well, I am going to tell you something of my rooms. These rooms were numbered just as they are now, 22, 23, 24 and like that. I could carry coal in the day tie and go home at night and set every peck, bushel or four bushels wherever it belonged.
Well, I recon I’m almost done, but Dr. Wiley was the President here, and don’t you know he was the second President Emory and Henry College ever had? And I’ve been under service of every President the college ever had since. I never saw the first President. I graduated in forty-four years and got my diploma. It took me forty-four years to graduate, and so I tell you I’ve lived a happy life. No person have been so close to me as the Emory school. Now the faculty here when I come here were not like they are now. I thought this whole thing belonged to the faculty because they stayed here so long, raised families, children and grandchildren. Now the time has come just like the old master sent his servant out to feed his cattle, and he comes back after while. “John, did you count them cattle?”
“Master, I count them all but the white-faced steer, and he run ‘round so I couldn’t count him.”
They come here, but you can’t hardly count them before they are up and gone. So that is the difference in things now. But I tell you this – I’ve lived fifty-two years a happy life on Emory and Henry College. There is no place I love more, except my home and church, than Emory. I love this spot of ground. I love this spot of ground of Emory – so I’ve had a good time. So many things I could say, but I won’t – but I’ve had a good happy time in these fifty-two years, learnin’ a heap, seein’ a heap, and have been getting’ a lifetime education for me.
I thank you for the privilege of talking on my birthday at the college, fifty-two long years, fifty-two long years. Supposin’ I was to go on fifty-two more years. You would be gone as those before you, so there is one thing I will say: “I hope to see the faculty prosper, to be men in the world, to be men.” If you come in the world and don’t do the world some good you had better never been in it. So, gentlemen, I thank you for what I’ve said in a broken manner; obliged to do that. So, gentlemen, I thank you for your attention, only hoping that you all will be Christians and will meet where congregations never break up and where Sabbaths have no end.