Several hundreds of young men and women were educated under Principal Richards and his small faculty. After KUA, many graduates left their familiar firesides to become part of the great migration westward across America working as doctors, lawyers, statesmen, businessmen, ministers, teachers, and pioneers. Some journeyed to new countries as missionaries, including Richards’ own daughter Helen, class of 1857. Over the years, I imagine they spoke of their youthful days at Kimball Union quietly spreading the growing reputation of the Academy and its abolitionist principal far and wide, turning new students eastwards to Meriden.
At least four African Americans who heard of KUA in this manner studied here during Richards’ tenure. In 1841, 20 years before the start of the Civil War, Augustus Washington, class of 1843, arrived in Meriden. Born in Trenton, NJ, in 1820 or 21, the son of a freed slave from Virginia, he had received some early education in a school for white children. He later taught in an African American school, where, having been influenced by anti-slavery literature, he nurtured a desire to study at Dartmouth College in order to further his cause. He was, however, told he wouldn’t be accepted without more preparatory work. The Charter Oak, an abolitionist newspaper in Hartford, CT, printed a letter Washington wrote in 1846 describing his journey to Meriden.
“A month or two elapsed before we could hear of an Academy where they would receive and prepare for College, a colored student, without distinction on account of color. An application was made to Kimball Union Academy, at Meriden, N.H., one of the most wealthy and flourishing preparatory institutions in New-England, where several teachers are the advocates of sound learning, and would be an ornament to any enlightened community. In reply, the Principal stated that, ‘after considerable deliberation and consultation with the teachers and Trustees, they had decided to receive me; but would not commit themselves in regard to party questions regarding abolitionism.’ But, said he, ‘we receive him simply as we would receive any gentleman of like character and purposes, without regard to any public questions or excitements.’ He also expressed the opinion, that if there was a difference of treatment, it would probably be in my favor. This proved to be true, for I could not have been better treated in London or Paris, than I was during the two years spent at that Institution….”
Washington was able to attend Dartmouth, but only for a year as he lacked necessary funds to continue. While looking for a way to earn money, he learned the art of daguerreotype photography and after leaving Hanover, he opened a successful photography business in Hartford, CT. In 1853, he took his family to live in Liberia where he set up his studio. Three other African Americans studied at KUA during Richards’ years. Jonathan Gibbs, Class of 1848, and James D. and John B. Lynch, both class of 1855.
Over 200 KUA graduates fought for the abolitionist cause in the Civil War. Daniel Foster of Hanover, NH, class of 1836, a minister, wrote in his diary, that he “… became an abolitionist from a settled conviction of the inherent sinfulness of Slavery, a conviction forced upon me by what I saw of the evil-workings of the system.” He enlisted as chaplain in the 33rd Massachusetts Volunteers Regiment, but later accepted a Captaincy in the 37th Regiment of United States Colored Troops. As the Union army approached Richmond, VA, Foster’s regiment was 10 miles away at Chapin’s Bluff and there he was shot in his left side during a rescue mission. He asked, just before he died, for his men to turn him around “… as he had vowed that he would die facing the enemy.”
A few KUA men fought for the South believing in their own cause and, although graduates were enemies during the war, fond memories of their old school days outlasted the conflict. Major Van de Graff, class of 1850, came to KUA from Gainsville, Alabama. He joined the 5th Alabama Volunteers in 1861 and led his men in many battles including Fredericksburg and Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. On April 9, 1865, he and 125 officers and men of the 5th Alabama Battalion surrendered at Appomattox Court House. A KUA classmate and Union soldier wrote to Van de Graff’s sister in 1902, “I know he made an ideal soldier…. There was no one in my class to whom I was so much attached as to him & that began when I first met him at school in Meriden in 1848.”
Richards’ long and esteemed career as principal of Kimball Union came to an end with the class of 1871. This was not to be the end of his work in education as, at age 63, he pursued, for the next 14 years, his keen interest in the welfare of recently emancipated slaves at Howard University as Dean of the Preparatory Department and a professor of Latin and Greek. Richards died on July 19, 1885, and was buried in Mill Cemetery in Meriden not far from Daniel and Hannah Kimball.
Next year: Kimball Union Academy in the Twentieth Century