Black history in Gloucester: From slave child to folk hero

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.