Liberty Hall Academy Ruins
These ruins, on the northwest side of Washington and Lee’s campus, date back to the University’s days as Liberty Hall Academy in the late 1700s. They are the oldest aboveground remains of what is now one of the twenty oldest colleges in America. In addition, the first African American to receive a college education, John Chavis, resided and attended classes in this building before graduating in 1799. This was also the location of the Academy when it was renamed after George Washington, in gratitude for a large donation of stock.
Backstory and Context
Though Washington and Lee claims 1749 as its founding date, historians debate the University’s connection to the college preparatory school founded by Rev. Robert Alexander in that year. Only oral tradition seems to connect the two institutions, and the first record directly connected to Washington and Lee’s existence is from October 1774, when the Presbytery of Hanover established Augusta Academy from what was Rev. John Brown’s Mount Pleasant School of Fairfield, Virginia. (The connection to this school is also debated; some researchers believe that October 1774 was the absolute earliest date connected to any entity that became today’s Washington and Lee.) The Presbytery wanted a proper seminary and installed Rev. William Graham - also the pastor of Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church, as well as several other area congregations - as the Rector. Under his leadership, more classes were offered and modern equipment was purchased. The school was moved to and donated by Captain Alexander Stuart and Major Samuel Houston on Timber Ridge and renamed Liberty Hall (in “patriotic fervor”) in May 1776. This advertisement was run in the newspaper by Rev. Graham that Fall:
“An academy to be distinguished by the name of LIBERTY HALL, is now established for the liberal education of youth, on Timber Ridge, in Augusta [now Rockbridge] county, where all the most important branches of literature, necessary to prepare young gentleman for the study of law, physic, and theology, may be taught to good advantage, upon the most approved plan.”
The school closed from 1779 to 1782 due to hardship caused by the Revolutionary War; in fact, some students fought at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse in 1781. However, Rev. Graham boarded and taught a few remaining students at his farm on Mulberry Hill, just outside Lexington. The school reopened in a small wood frame building here in 1782. The same year, an Act of Incorporation (essentially a charter) was passed by the Virginia Assembly for “Liberty Hall Academy”. This charter allowed the Academy to grant degrees; the first 12 students graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in September 1785. The first building burnt in early 1783; another was built but burnt in December 1790. The trustees then decided to construct a building large enough to house the school’s expanding student body (up to forty) and collection of educational implements. (Its library and scientific equipment were up-to-date and comparable to any other American university at the time.) This three-story limestone structure was completed in 1893 and served the Academy for ten years. However, it too burned in January 1803 after its roof caught fire; while it was gutted, most of its important contents were saved. This building is what still stands today at the Liberty Hall Ruins site. Visitors can still spot the “corner fireplaces,” an architectural oddity that is almost unique to the area. Archaeological excavations at and research on the Liberty Hall site in the early 1970s and again from 2014 onwards have discovered evidence of several other buildings, including a steward’s house, a smokehouse, a spring house, a Rector’s house, a brick kiln, and a barn or horse stable.
After three catastrophic fires and numerous requests from Lexingtonians, the Board of Trustees decided to move the Academy into the city proper. A land trade was negotiated with Andrew Alexander; the Mulberry Hill site eventually became a slave plantation but, today, houses many current Washington and Lee buildings (including the law school and upperclassmen housing) and sports fields. More information on the current, “downtown” site (the former Alexander land) and the school’s ongoing history can be found at the entry “Washington and Lee University Historic District."
While at the Liberty Hall location, in 1796, George Washington selected the school from among several competitors to receive 100 shares ($20,000 at the time; the current equivalent is millions of dollars – the money is still used today) in James River Canal Company stock. (Washington had accepted this stock as a reward from the Virginia General Assembly on the condition that he would give it to a worthy institution.) Washington believed education was essential to fostering unity and promoting virtue in the new nation. This gift saved the school financially for an almost indefinite period and advanced its reputation to the national level. In 1798, the Assembly tried to turn the Academy into a public college named after Washington; while it remained private, the Board of Trustees elected to rechristen the school as Washington Academy. In response, Washington wrote:
“To promote literature in this rising empire and to encourage the arts have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart, and if the donation which the generosity of the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has enabled me to bestow on Liberty Hall – now by your politeness called Washington Academy – is likely to prove a means to accomplishing these ends, it will contribute to the gratification of my desires.”
The Liberty Hall building was also where John Chavis, “the first known African American to receive a college education in the United States,” would have resided and attended classes. He matriculated in winter 1795 and graduated in 1799; he went on to become the first licensed African American Presbyterian pastor. The building on Washington and Lee’s current campus formerly known as Robinson Hall was renamed Chavis Hall in his honor in 2019.
Finally, the school was significant among early colleges for its purpose and scope; as opposed to many colleges of the time which were founded and focused on training ministers, Liberty Hall was founded “for the liberal education of youth.” Though it was founded and led solely by Presbyterian clergy in its early years, it never opened a full-fledged seminary like the Presbyterian Synod of Virginia wanted. Instead, the students’ early education focused heavily on ancient languages and classics, before moving on to mathematics, sciences, and other humanities. (Students’ behavior was still stringently regulated, including many moral rules and required attendance at daily services and twice-daily prayers.)
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Wikimedia Commons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberty_Hall_Site#/media/File:Ruins_Liberty_Hill_Washington_and_Lee_University_Lexington_Virginia.jpg