Clio Logo

As a white man who led a congregation of enslaved and free African Americans in pre-Civil War Richmond while enslaving thirteen people, Robert Ryland appears to be a study in contradiction. One of the early fathers of the University of Richmond, Ryland worked to justify and maintain the system of enslavement, from which he and his family benefitted, even as he wrestled with its implications.


  • Robert Ryland (front row, third from right) in undated photo with later Richmond College faculty (Source: A Richmond College Picture Book, 1911)
  • Robert Ryland (undated) (Source: findagrave.com)
  • Detail of The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown by A. Donnelly. (Source: Library of Congress)
  • Detail of “[Richmond, VA. First African Church (Broad Street)] (Source: Library of Congress)

This building was named in honor of Robert Ryland, a driving force behind the evolution of a small farm-based Baptist educational association into Richmond College which was then located in Richmond’s Fan District. As one moves from the plaque marking the building’s dedication to the beautiful former university library inside, the transition provides an opportunity to consider other aspects of Ryland’s life.

Robert Ryland grew up on the Farmington plantation in King and Queen County, forty-five miles from Richmond, where his father, Josiah Ryland, enslaved thirty-four people in 1850.1 According to an account written by Robert Ryland’s daughter describing her memories of her grandfather’s plantation, there may have more people held there in previous years. Until at least 1860, Robert Ryland was regularly served by those enslaved by him or by his members of his family.2

In a letter dated July 7, 1832, Ryland describes the role of a man he held in bondage in the operations of Virginia Baptist Seminary which would soon become Richmond College:

The board has agreed to give me 200$ from now to Xmas besides boarding my family for acting as steward and teacher & for permitting my furniture & boy Sam to be used here as common stock.3
In a later letter to his wife, Ryland discusses the need to procure “servants” and asks his wife to pass a request to his father to discover “how many servants he can let me have at the beginning of next year…. If he gives them to me, I shall not buy any. I can’t think he will decline giving me some servants & some cows."4 By 1846, Ryland was happy to transfer a portion of institutional management to Charles Cocke so he would be less preoccupied by residential issues and have “less to do with Negroes.”5

After assuming leadership of the First African Baptist Church in 1841, Ryland wrote A Scripture Catechism, for the Instruction of Children And Servants (1848) which was also published under the title The Scriptural Catechism, for Coloured People. While providing enslaved people the opportunity to read, the work also answered the question, "Should servants obey masters who are unkind?" by quoting Peter 2:18 (KJV), entreating enslaved people to, "obey masters who are unkind" and to "endure grief, suffer wrongfully" out of "conscience toward God."6 In 1850, Ryland enslaved twelve people, and yet, because of his work with the First African Baptist church and, perhaps, because of his misgivings about family separations, he was suspected of abolitionist leanings and was investigated in 1857.7 In 1860 Ryland was listed in the Federal Census Slave Schedule as being the owner of thirteen people, including a mother and two daughters who were leased to a woman named Agnes Cooper.8  

One of Ryland’s parishioners at the African Baptist Church was Henry Brown, an enslaved man who, after his wife and young children were sold and sent away from Richmond, arranged to have himself boxed and shipped from Virginia to Pennsylvania. In the narrative Brown wrote of his life, he described Ryland’s ministerial approach:  

[Robert Ryland] used to preach from such texts as that in the epistle to the Ephesians, where St. Paul says, "servants be obedient to them that are your masters and mistresses according to the flesh, and submit to them with fear and trembling"; he was not ashamed to invoke the authority of heaven in support of the slave-degrading laws under which masters could with impunity abuse their fellow creatures.9

In 1852, Ryland preached to those gathered at the church, “God has given this country to the white people. They are the law-makers… [and] the superiors. The people of color are the subjects -- the servants -- even when not in bondage, the inferiors. In this state of things, God enjoins on you submission.”10

In his role as pastor and leader of the church, Ryland was “mortified” to discover that his practice of distributing mail addressed to church members was facilitating escape attempts: “I was mortified to perceive that a few of the congregation had abused my confidence, and had caused me unwillingly to desecrate the pastoral office.”11 Still, he used the same word to describe his reaction to a request that he assist in targeting potential “runaways”: “I was mortified to learn that some white persons, even some professing Christians, advised me to take the letters from the office, to read them, and to communicate their contents, if any plot was being formed to escape their masters!”12 

Ryland expressed concern over the morality of the family separations13 that routinely occurred in the slave trade. Still, according to the Federal Census Slave Schedules of 1850 and 1860 he also enslaved up to thirteen people.

Robert Ryland left the College in 1866. In 1880, at the celebration of the centennial of the First Baptist Church, Ryland spoke of his experiences at the First African Church, saying: 

The negroes are now all free, and I am heartily glad of it, though I say nothing of the agencies and methods by which the event was accomplished. They are our fellow-men -- our fellow-citizens -- and many of them our fellow-Christians. Let us treat them in the spirit of our common Christianity. And let us remember that its leading doctrine, in respect to our relations to man, is: “Love worketh no ill to his neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.14
Despite these feelings, there is no evidence that Ryland was aligned with abolitionist groups prior to the Civil War. Until his death in 1899, however, he maintained an affiliation with the American Colonization Society, an organization committed to the transportation of formerly enslaved people to Africa.15 

1 “Josiah Ryland” in “US 7th Census, 1850 Slave Schedule, King and Queen County, Virginia” National Archives, Washington DC (available online at ancestry.com).

2 
“R. Ryland” and “Robert Ryland” in “US 7th Census, 1850 Slave Schedule, Henrico County, Virginia” National Archives, Washington DC (available online at ancestry.com) and “US 8th Census, 1860 Slave Schedule, Henrico County, Virginia” National Archives, Washington DC (available online at ancestry.com). 

3 
Alley, Reuben. History of the University of Richmond. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1977, 15.

4 
Ibid. 21.

5 
Oast, J. B. (2008). Forgotten masters: Institutional slavery in Virginia, 1680–1860 (Order No. 3340951). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304448239). Retrieved from http://newman.richmond.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.newman.richmond.edu/docview/304448239?accountid=1473.

6 
Ryland, Robert. (1848). A scripture catechism, for the instruction of children and servants. Richmond [Va.]: Harrold & Murray.

7 
Richmond Enquirer, December 22, 1857.

8 
“US 8th Census, 1860 Slave Schedule, Henrico County, Virginia” National Archives, Washington DC (available online at ancestry.com).

9 
Brown, Henry. Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown: Written By Himself. 1st ed. Manchester: Lee & Glynn, 1851, 32. (available online at https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brownbox/brownbox.html).

10 
Quoted in Alfred L. Brophy, The Nat Turner Trials, 91 N.C. L. Rev. 1817 (2013), 1822. Available at: http://scholarship.law.unc.edu/nclr/vol91/iss5/10.

11 Quoted in Ayers, Edward L. "The Trials of Robert Ryland." Baptist History & Heritage, 48:2 (2013): 20.

12 Ibid. 21.

13 Ibid. 17.

14 The First Century of the First Baptist Church of Richmond Virginia: 1780-1880. Richmond, VA: Carlton McCarthy, 1880, 272.

15 The 61st Annual Report of the American Colonization Society…. Washington: American Colonization Society, 1878, 3.