John Chavis, early 19th Century minister and teacher, was the first African American to graduate from a college or university in the United States. Chavis was born on October 18, 1763. Many scholars document that Chavis was born in Oxford, NC (about 2.5 hrs northeast of Charlotte), although others debate this. Some scholars think that Chavis hailed from the West Indies. Others believe that he was born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Available records document that Chavis was born a free African American who probably worked for Halifax, Virginia attorney James Milner beginning in 1773. It is likely that Chavis utilized the books in Milner’s extensive law library to educate himself.
In 1778, while still a teenager, Chavis entered the Virginia Fifth Regiment and fought in the Revolutionary War. He served in the Fifth Regiment for three years. In the 1780s Chavis earned his living as a tutor and while working in this capacity he married Sarah Frances Anderson. Although an excellent teacher, Chavis’ own intellectual capacity was not satisfied. He soon moved his family to New Jersey to enter a tutorial program with John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1792, at the age of 29, Chavis was accepted into the College of New Jerseys’ Theological School, later renamed Princeton University.
In 1794, after Witherspoon’s death, Chavis left New Jersey, transferring to Liberty Hall Academy in Virginia, which was later renamed Washington Academy and which would eventually become Washington and Lee University. Chavis was licensed to preach in the Presbyterian Church of Lexington, Virginia upon his graduation from Liberty Hall Academy in the fall of 1799.
In 1808, John Chavis opened a private school in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he taught black and white children. Chavis specialized in Latin and Greek, and his school soon gained a reputation for excellence. Before long, however, white parents protested the presence of black pupils, and Chavis re-arranged his school, teaching white children during the day and African American children by night. Despite their insistence on segregated classrooms, some of North Carolina’s most powerful whites sent their children to Chavis to be educated. Chavis educated a generation of young North Carolinians including the children of Governor Charles Manly.
Historic Marker in Lexington, Virginia. Location: 37° 47.196′ N, 79° 26.652′ W.
In his later years Chavis became vocal in his support of the abolitionist movement. His outspokenness may have cost him the allegiance of some white families. While a few abolitionists in Virginia and North Carolina were allowed to openly express their views, the Nat Turner-led slave rebellion of August 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia (depicted in Nate Parker's film, "The Birth of a Nation") made such dissent unacceptable. Virginia and North Carolina passed laws restricting free African American freedom of movement and barred their education. Chavis could no longer practice his professions in North Carolina. He became, however, more vocal in his condemnation of slavery and fought for the rights of African American citizens. Foul play may have lead to Chavis’ mysterious death in June of 1838. According to his biographer, Helen Chavis Othow, the oral tradition suggests that Chavis was killed by whites who did not want him educating blacks. Local legend says that Chavis was beaten to death in his home. In 1986 Othow founded the John Chavis Historical Society. One of its goals was to locate Chavis' gravesite. Dr. George Clayton Shaw wrote the first biography about Chavis, published in 1931. He wrote that Chavis was buried on the plantation of Senator Willie P. Mangum, Chavis' former student. After numerous searches for the gravesite, in 1988 members of the John Chavis Historical Society found the old cemetery. The group appealed to the state archaeologist to investigate the site, but this has not occurred as of 2013. The Old Cemetery was added to the map of Hill Forest (the former Mangum plantation) by Michael Hill, historian of the North Carolina Archives. He was survived by his wife, and son, Anderson Chavis.
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