“… a great man – the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my pleasure to meet …”
“More than 100 people from Hawai‘i fought on both sides of the Civil War. Arguably the most famous was the Union general Samuel C Armstrong.” (NY Times)
Armstrong, the son of missionaries, was born January 30, 1839 in Maui, the sixth of ten children. In 1860 his father suddenly died, and Armstrong, at age 21, left Hawai‘i for the United States and attended Williams College in Massachusetts, graduating in 1862.
After graduation, Armstrong volunteered to serve in the Union Army during the American Civil War, and recruited a company near Troy, New York.
Armstrong was among the 12,000-men captured in September 1862 with the surrender of the garrison at Harpers Ferry. After being paroled, he returned to the front lines in Virginia in December; he fought at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, defending Cemetery Ridge against Pickett’s Charge.
Armstrong subsequently rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, being assigned to the 9th Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT) in late 1863, then the 8th US Colored Troops when its previous commander was disabled from wounds. Armstrong’s experiences with these regiments aroused his interest in the welfare of black Americans.
When Armstrong was assigned to command the USCT, training was conducted at Camp Stanton near Benedict, Maryland. While stationed at Stanton, he established a school to educate the black soldiers, most of whom had no education as slaves.
At the end of the war, Armstrong joined the Freedmen’s Bureau. With the help of the American Missionary Association, he established the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute – now known as Hampton University – in Hampton, Virginia in 1868.
The Institute was meant to be a place where black students could receive post-secondary education to become teachers, as well as training in useful job skills while paying for their education through manual labor.
Hampton University’s most notable alumni is Booker T. Washington. “I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. … As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale’s Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859.”
“My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings. This was so, however, not because my owners were especially cruel, for they were not, as compared with many others.”
“I was born in a typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square. In this cabin I lived with my mother and a brother and sister till after the Civil War, when we were all declared free.”
“One day, while at work in the coal-mine, I happened to overhear two miners talking about a great school for coloured people somewhere in Virginia. This was the first time that I had ever heard anything about any kind of school or college that was more pretentious than the little coloured school in our town.”
“ In the darkness of the mine I noiselessly crept as close as I could to the two men who were talking. I heard one tell the other that not only was the school established for the members of my race, but that opportunities were provided by which poor but worthy students could work out all or a part of the cost of board, and at the same time be taught some trade or industry.”
“After hearing of the Hampton Institute, I continued to work for a few months longer in the coal-mine. While at work there, I heard of a vacant position in the household of General Lewis Ruffner, the owner of the salt-furnace and coal-mine.”
“During the one or two winters that at I was with her she gave me an opportunity to go to school for an hour in the day during a portion of the winter months, but most of my studying was done at night, sometimes alone, sometimes under some one whom I could hire to teach me.” (Washington)
After coming to Hampton Institute in 1872, Washington immediately began to adopt Armstrong’s teaching and philosophy.
Washington described Armstrong as “the most perfect specimen of man, physically, mentally and spiritually the most Christ-like….” Washington also quickly learned the aim of the Hampton Institute.
After leaving Hampton, he recalled being admitted to the school, despite his ragged appearance, due to the ability he demonstrated while sweeping and dusting a room. From his first day at Hampton, Washington embraced Armstrong’s idea of black education. (HamptonU)
“I have spoken of the impression that was made upon me by the buildings and general appearance of the Hampton Institute, but I have not spoken of that which made the greatest and most lasting impression upon me, and that was a great man – the noblest, rarest human being that it has ever been my privilege to meet. I refer to the late General Samuel C. Armstrong. “
“It has been my fortune to meet personally many of what are called great characters, both in Europe and America, but I do not hesitate to say that I never met any man who, in my estimation, was the equal of General Armstrong.”
“Fresh from the degrading influences of the slave plantation and the coal-mines, it was a rare privilege for me to be permitted to come into direct contact with such a character as General Armstrong.”
“I shall always remember that the first time I went into his presence he made the impression upon me of being a perfect man: I was made to feel that there was something about him that was superhuman”
“It was my privilege to know the General personally from the time I entered Hampton till he died, and the more I saw of him the greater he grew in my estimation.”
“One might have removed from Hampton all the buildings, class-rooms, teachers, and industries, and given the men and women there the opportunity of coming into daily contact with General Armstrong, and that alone would have been a liberal education.” (Washington)
Washington went on to attend Wayland Seminary in Washington, DC, and he returned to Hampton to teach on Armstrong’s faculty.
The founders of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, a new black college being built just east of Montgomery, Alabama, asked Armstrong to recommend a white man who could head the school. Armstrong suggested Washington instead. The institute would become a fundamental part of Washington’s legacy. (NPR)
Many religious organizations, former Union Army officers and soldiers, and wealthy philanthropists were inspired to create and fund educational efforts specifically for the betterment of African Americans in the South by the work of pioneering educators such as Samuel Armstrong and Dr Washington. (HamptonU)
Washington rose to become one of the most influential African-American intellectuals of the late 19th century. In 1881, he founded the Tuskegee Institute, a black school in Alabama devoted to training teachers.
Washington was also behind the formation of the National Negro Business League 20 years later, and he served as an adviser to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
King Kalākaua visited Hampton Normal and Agricultural School on one of his trips to the continent. President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was read to local freedmen under the historic “Emancipation Tree” at the Hampton school, which is still located on the campus today.