One day in March 1892, the president of a small, private school in Virginia walked through a literal open door in Washington, D.C. — and opened a bigger one metaphorically, one that ran contrary to the dominant social trends of his time.
Julius Dreher had always been a young man in a hurry. The son of a South Carolina planter, he enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 17 and soon became a lieutenant. After the war, while perhaps still in his late teens, he taught school. Many things were backwards in those days: He was a teacher before he was a student. With the money earned from teaching, he went off to study at Roanoke College in Salem. As soon as he graduated, Dreher was hired as a professor of ancient languages. Within four years, he was the school’s financial secretary and when the presidency became vacant in 1878, Dreher was deemed the obvious choice to fill it. He was all of 32.
By 1892, when business took Dreher to Washington, he was no longer a young man, but he was still in a hurry, which is what led him to a certain three-story residence at 15 Iowa Circle.
Dreher had some unusual ideas for his time. To understand just how unusual they were, we must first understand the tenor of the times.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, there was a brief period in Virginia when it seemed as if racial reconciliation might be possible. Schools were segregated but streetcars were not. Danville elected a Black-majority town council and hired an integrated police force. In the early 1880s, the Readjuster Party came to power and founded the state’s first public university for Black students, the school that we know today as Virginia State University. And then it all came to an end; a backlash in 1883 restored conservative Democrats to power and then set about systematically rolling back one right after another — until 1902, when the state chucked its constitution altogether and, without benefit of a referendum, simply imposed a new constitution that restricted voting rights so severely that half the state’s voters were disenfranchised.
These moves did not happen in a vacuum. They came against the backdrop of a national movement aimed at preserving white supremacy. In 1882, just a year before voters in Virginia started throwing out the biracial Readjusters, Congress enacted what the Library of Congress calls the “first significant restriction on free immigration in U.S. history.” That was the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act that imposed a 10-year-ban on Chinese immigrants — a temporary ban that was extended in 1892 and then, in 1902, was made permanent. Notice how that date lines up with what Virginia was doing at the same time.
That means that Dreher’s presidency of Roanoke College, which ran from 1878 to 1903, came at a time when the society around him was hell-bent on restricting the rights of anyone who wasn’t, well, white. And yet Dreher, at the helm of a school whose existence could well have been called fragile, bucked many of those conventions.
After Roanoke College, Dreher became a diplomat
Julius Dreher, Roanoke College’s third president, was a transformative figure. He traveled extensively to raise money and put the school on a firm financial footing by establishing its first endowment.
He tried to admit women to the school. He succeeded partially: In 1899, he won permission to admit women who had some connection to people at the school, on the condition that the female students not be awarded degrees. Full admission would have to wait until 1930.
In 1903, Dreher retired, but only for a while. He somehow was friends with President Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1906 named Dreher as the U.S. consul to Tahiti. For the next 18 years Dreher served as an American diplomat, first in Tahiti, then in Jamaica, in Canada, and finally in Panama. (Dreher complained that Canada was too cold, and asked for a warmer assignment.) In 1924 he finally retired — to Florida — where the Dictionary of Virginia Biography says he “continued writing articles and letters in defense of African American rights and speaking out against lynching.” He died in 1937 and is buried in Salem’s East Hill Cemetery.
Dreher sounds like a fellow who deserves more recognition than he’s gotten.
Like college presidents today, Dreher was keen to boost enrollment, but he did it in a most unusual way for the time. He traveled to what was then called Indian Territory — today we’d call it Oklahoma — to recruit Choctaw students. During his tenure, 36 Native American students came to study at Roanoke College. That number may seem small, but remember that in those days the college’s enrollment may have been no more than 60 to 80 students at any one time. According to a history of Roanoke College, Dreher also recruited Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and, according to the Roanoke College history, “young men from other islands of the West Indies.” Dreher notably did not recruit Black students, although the Dictionary of Virginia Biography published by the Library of Virginia says that while Dreher was “vigilant in his opposition to the injustices directed against African Americans, Dreher called for practical and industrial education that would better prepare Black citizens to compete with whites in the workplace and would enable them to achieve property ownership and economic independence.” That put him in line philosophically with Booker T. Washington, whose star is somewhat diminished today because some of his views that seemed progressive then are now seen as retrograde to our sensibilities.
History is complicated.
That’s not the part of history we’re dealing with today, though. At a time when the country was enacting legal barriers to restrict its first Asian immigration (from China), Dreher attracted students from another Asian country, described in that official Roanoke College history as the first students from Japan to study in Virginia. The Roanoke Times in 1892 reported that “the college seemed especially adapted for the education of youths from foreign countries.” And that was just the beginning.
That year, Dreher was in Washington on business and began to wonder about … Korea. Some more context is in order: Korea up until then had essentially been a closed society — “the Hermit Kingdom,” it was called. We’ll skip over the messy history — in 1871, American ships attacked a Korean island and killed more than 200 Korean troops — but eventually Korea came out of isolation and was on friendly terms with the United States. When Dreher visited Washington, the Korean legation in D.C. was just four years old, still new enough to be an object of curiosity. Dreher paid a visit. He soon found himself in the pleasant company of a Korean diplomat who told Dreher that he’d heard of Roanoke College from a Japanese diplomat and that “I believe Roanoke would be a good place to send some Korean boys.” (Roanoke College was all-male in those days, something else Dreher was trying to change.)
A more formal visit by that Korean diplomat — Ye Cha Yun and his wife, listed only as Mrs. Ye — soon followed. One highlight of that visit: Mrs. Ye was baptized a Christian at the Salem Presbyterian Church. She asked church officials not to say anything for fear that her conversion might have unsatisfactory political repercussions for her husband’s career.
In 1894 the first Korean student arrived in Salem: Surh Beung Kiu, who had served as an interpreter at the Korean booth at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago the year before. He went on to become the first Korean to receive a bachelor’s degree in the United States. From then until 1930, some 34 Korean students matriculated at Roanoke College. There were perhaps never more than five or six at a time, but research by Roanoke College professors Whitney Leeson and Stella Xu suggests that Roanoke College at the time had more Korean students than any other college in the United States.
So close were the ties between Roanoke College and Korea that the Korean emperor sent one of his sons, His Imperial Highness Prince Eui Wha, and what contemporaries described as two “fine-looking companions.” Almost every year the Korean minister in Washington attended Roanoke College’s commencement ceremonies, and one year the minister’s son was among the graduates. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how Roanoke College’s enthusiastic recruitment of non-white students in the 1890s and early 1900s came as Virginia, and the nation, were busily restricting the rights of anyone who wasn’t white. This is an astounding look into that era that has only recently come to light thanks to research that Leeson and Xu have done into Roanoke College’s early ties with Korea.
Many of those Korean students who passed through Roanoke College went on to prominent careers back home. Yi Won Ick invented the first Korean typewriter. Kim Kyusik became a prominent leader in the Korean independence movement following the country’s annexation by Japan in 1910.
Over time, from the 1930s onward, Roanoke College’s ties with Korea withered away. “I think there were two reasons,” says Xu, who teaches history. “One, more Korean students wanted to look for other big-name colleges. Also by that point, Korea had become a colony of Japan, so it was harder for Korean students to study abroad.” Then came World War II, which served to interrupt the entire globe, followed by the Korean War.
Now Roanoke College has set about rebuilding those connections. Last year, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources authorized a historical marker at Roanoke College to Kyusik, perhaps one of the school’s most influential graduates. For the first time in a century, a delegation from the embassy in Washington visited campus to attend the dedication. More recently, Roanoke College was just one of five schools to receive a $40,000 grant from the ASIANetwork, a network of North American colleges that promotes Asian studies. Xu will use that to take six students to South Korea for a three-week research trip to study the modern-day legacy of U.S. missionaries in South Korea. Christianity is now the dominant faith in the country, a long way from the days when Mrs. Ye asked the Salem Presbyterian Church to keep her baptism secret.
Xu would also like to see Roanoke College establish a Center for East Asian Studies that would be a resource for “helping students to do research about East Asia and have access to East Asian history and culture and study-abroad experiences,” she says. There’s no target date or cost figure, although she estimates $100,000 as a decent amount to establish something. The way she sees it, none of this is new — merely a continuation of President Dreher’s work long ago. She even has a proposed name for it: the Kim Kyusik Center for East Asian Studies, after the student who graduated 120 years ago and who a century ago was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree at Roanoke College.
Now ponder how Roanoke College back then bravely reached out to another country, another culture, at the same time that Virginia and the rest of the United States was making it clear that the United States should be for “whites only.”