Thomas Calhoun Walker was too young to know the difference when the Civil War brought him freedom.
But even as an illiterate kid growing up in rural Gloucester during the 1870s, he knew his elders' annual readings of the Emancipation Proclamation at the old courthouse auction block merely marked the beginning of another struggle.
Years passed before the short, stocky lad with the gift of gab finally escaped his life of toil and talked his way into Hampton Institute, where his refusal to be rejected after failing the entrance exam led the school to found a pioneering work-study program.
More time passed after he graduated in 1883, during which he not only taught at an early black school but also persuaded two old Confederate officers to give him the instruction he needed to become one of Virginia's first African-American lawyers.
In the decades that followed, Walker pressed so persistently and effectively for black advancement that he made Gloucester a leader in African-American education and landownership.
He also earned acclaim as a defense lawyer in several cases of alleged black-on-white rape, first blunting the threats of white lynch mobs with a band of armed black men, then escorting his clients to jail before standing up in court to ensure — through his acknowledged mastery of the law — that they received an equal share of justice.
Even in the last years before his death in 1953 at age 91, Walker cast a long shadow, promoting his doctrine of African-American "roots, rights and responsibility" at every chance ranging from the church pulpit to the street corner.
"He always had an influence on people here," says retired Gloucester educator and historian Dorothy C. Cooke, whose childhood memories include some of the many Sunday morning self-improvement lectures Walker delivered at Bethel Baptist Church.
"He would get up every Sunday to have his say, encouraging folks to buy land and get an education. Then he'd collar you and tell you again if he met you walking down the street."
Determined to learn
Born into a family divided by slavery, Walker was spirited away to the Blue Ridge Mountains with his mother and siblings during the war so they couldn't be freed by Yankee raiders.
Not until the conflict ended did his father find his lost clan and bring them back to Gloucester.
There, Walker began working at age 10 to help support seven other children. Though he tried to attend one of the county's early black schools while toiling alongside his father on the farm and in the masonry and plasterwork trades, he still couldn't read or write after several years of sporadic education.
"He always wanted to go to school, but every time he started, his father would pull him out and put him to work," Cooke says.
"He also was so small he had a hard time walking as far as he had to walk. So even when he could go, it just didn't work."
Not until turning 18 in 1880 did Walker finally defy his father, pocket the $2.25 he had struggled to save and set out on the 14-mile trek to Gloucester Point and the ferry ride to Hampton.
He might not have made it without his father's change of heart, which convinced the senior Walker to catch up and give his tired son a buggy ride. Still more formidable was the hurdle the young man faced after arriving at Hampton Institute and failing his entrance exam.
"He still couldn't read or write. So they told him to go home. But he came up with a plan," Cooke says.
"He was determined to stay, and he told them, 'We came to get an education, and we're not going to leave until we get it.' That was how Hampton's work-study program began."
Working by day and studying under Booker T. Washington at night, Walker made up his lost time so quickly that he was able to graduate in 1883. So distinguished did he become for his quick wit, determination and scholastic achievement that teacher Helen Ludlow celebrated her plucky student in verse.
"When we want a man to mount the stump
"We look for a great talker.
"Perhaps of all assembled here
"The best is Thomas Walker.
Pioneer in the law
Walker returned to Gloucester that same year and began teaching despite the fact that the county had no black schools.
Within two years, however, he persuaded the school superintendent to build a one-room building. That was just the beginning in a decades-long crusade of construction and improvements that led Walker, in his later biography, to describe himself as "the self-appointed unpaid superintendent of Negro schools in Gloucester."
Inspired by the mishandling of a young black Gloucester woman's 1883 court case, Walker started studying law, too, convincing former Confederate Maj. Benjamin F. Bland to tutor him in exchange for doing odd jobs. Soon he was working as Bland's clerk, demonstrating such ability that he easily won a place as former Brig. Gen. William Booth Taliaferro's student after Bland became feeble.
Four years later, Walker stepped into a courtroom filled with 40 mostly skeptical white lawyers for his bar examination. But when he and the presiding judge re-emerged from their private session in the jury room 31/2-hours later, the one-time slave boy had become Gloucester's first black attorney
"I have examined this young man as thoroughly as I have ever examined anyone," the judge declared.
"I was more critical with him than I would be with a white boy because I know you are all going to criticize me for what I am going to say, but — he passed a better examination than anybody I have tested in 40 years."
Walker's legal training made him a pivotal figure in Reconstruction-era Gloucester, where the man who became known as Squire Walker served multiple terms as justice of the peace and county supervisor.
He also became a prominent landowner and the driving force behind a surge of other black property purchases in the county. He applied so effectively his own funds, powers of persuasion and a land company he founded that — by 1940 — 881 out of 995 African-American families owned their own homes. That same year, nearly 500 of the county's 574 black farmers owned their own fields.
"Tom Walker talked my mother and father into buying," recalls Charlie B. Carter, 91, whose close family ties to the lawyer and his father go back generations.
"He was responsible for a lot of blacks buying property here in Gloucester."
By 1896, Walker was getting national attention, including an appointment by President William McKinley as customs collector for the port of Tappahannock.
Theodore Roosevelt offered him a post as consul general to the island of Guadeloupe in 1902. But Walker declined in order to focus on bettering the lives of African-Americans in Virginia.
Even after the new state constitution of 1902 began to strip away the rights of blacks in favor of Jim Crow-era segregation laws, Walker remained an influential force, taking out a personal note to acquire land for the landmark Gloucester County Training School in the early 1920s.
He also convinced several national organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation to make critical donations to the school, underwriting its construction and supplementing teacher pay in the absence of adequate public funding.
"T.C. Walker became a nationally known figure for his work in Gloucester County," local historian John V. Quarstein says.
"In the 1930s, he led the way in organizing black welfare as the consultant on 'Negro Affairs' for the Virginia Emergency and Relief Administration. He became an important agent for the Rosenwald Fund and its schools for black children."
Walker's influence continued through his death in 1953, when thousands of people attended his funeral.
Many of them knew him through his direct personal interest in their lives as well as his public achievements.
"He was famous for giving people advice, and one of his favorite expressions was, 'Walk like you've got someplace to go and something to do when you get there,'" Cooke recalls.
"It's something people still remember."Copyright © 2015, CT Now