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It all started when I stumbled across a book with the title, History of the American Negro: North Carolina Edition. Published in 1921, it’s filled with profiles of prominent African American citizens from our cities, communities, and small towns.
The most unforgettable entry belongs to Samuel Nathaniel Vass, son of a wealthy white man and his servant, a woman named Ann who had once been his slave. Ann was one-quarter black, known in the language of the day as a “quadroon.” When Vass was born in 1866, he was categorized as an “octaroon.”
Perhaps things went smoothly at first. At least, that’s what Vass suggests.
Then everything changed.
His father decided to marry and, coming into the home as mistress, the new wife found a situation she didn’t like–and wouldn’t allow. She made mother and baby move out of the house. Vass remembers being “brought up in the backyard of his father’s family,” likely in the servants’ quarters.
Vass doesn’t name his father in the biographical profile, but he does describe him with a single sentence.
The book’s intended readership, including many members of the African American community who had once been slaves themselves, would instantly recognize this description for what it was–an effort to suggest some truth without divulging the truth.
More accurate is Samuel Vass’s photograph. It shows a person who isn’t easily labeled, though Vass plainly and throughout his life identified as an African American.
In the years following his father’s marriage, the mixed race family broke apart. Vass ended up boarding at the St. Augustine Normal School and Collegiate Institute (now St. Augustine’s University). He performed brilliantly, moved on to graduate from Shaw University, and then joined the faculty as a professor of Greek and Latin.
Over time, Vass made a name for himself as a minister, researcher, author, and scholar. He wrote about progress within the black community and composed booklets on religion for the National Baptist Publishing Board of Nashville, Tennessee. He campaigned for better educational funding for African Americans and worked to improve race relations.
He spoke at hundreds of events nationwide, evolving into a public figure and expert on religion.
Even today, at least two publications written by Vass are available online in both digital and print formats. Letters from his correspondence with legendary activist W.E.B. Du Bois are held in the Special Collection at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Samuel Vass’s son and daughter carried on their father’s efforts.
Doctor Rufus Vass was a noted Raleigh physician who, in a 1939 interview for the Federal Writers Project, shared his views on prejudice in the criminal justice system, equal pay for black labor, and the importance of black newspapers. (A full transcript of that oral history is available here.)
Maude Vass married Dr. Urbane Bass, a volunteer with the Army Medical Corps in World War I. Bass was killed on the battlefield in France and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He became the first African American soldier buried in Fredricksburg National Cemetery in Virginia.
Obviously, we had to know which influential 19th century Raleigh businessman fathered Samuel Vass.
It doesn’t feel like a secret that needs to stay hidden. Also, virtually nothing today is secret. A massive amount of documentation is available online and more is added every day.
It took only a few well-phrased searches to find the rest of the story.
Samuel’s father was William Worrell Vass, a wealthy railroad executive from Granville County who relocated to Raleigh when he took a job as treasurer for the Raleigh & Gaston Railroad. Samuel was born after his father’s first wife died and just before he married his second.
In the 1870 U.S. Census, four-year-old Samuel is counted with his mother Ann, two additional children, and a servant named James Howard in the lines beneath William and his new wife Lillie.
It appears Ann and Samuel were indeed living next door… maybe in the backyard. When I first read the biographies in History of the American Negro, that was the part that made Vass stand out. The thought of a child growing up in his family’s backyard is painful. The knowledge that he didn’t let that pain diminish him is inspiring.
But then we learned so much more.
Because when you dig, you never know what you’ll find. And like so many other people doing genealogical research, we were in for a big surprise.
It was illustrated with a picture that looks strikingly similar to this one.
And we know this one extremely well. We walk past it all the time.
It hangs in the portrait gallery in the museum auditorium.
On the base of the frame is a little brass nameplate:
Major W.W. Vass
Wake Forest University had loaned us the portrait without a lot of fanfare a few years back, and we didn’t know that much about it–only that it would fit the museum collection better than the University’s because William Worrell Vass was part of the school’s early history.
Now a bit more digging helped us understand that Vass, who was fabulously wealthy and a devout Baptist, had given a great deal of money to Wake Forest College. He served on the College Board of Trustees from 1852 until his death in 1896.
He fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War and was indeed a slave owner.
William Vass and Samuel Vass officially appear as father and son exactly one time.
When Samuel died in 1938, the name W.W. Vass was duly recorded on the paternity line of his death certificate.
In articles about the white Vass family, we also find one mention of Samuel.
The Dictionary of North Carolina Biographies has an online entry about Lilla Vass Shepherd, a Raleigh poet, which includes the following:
She had a brother William Worrell, Jr., a sister Eleanor Margaret, and a half brother Samuel Nathaniel.
This final confirmation suggests some degree of recognition, maybe even a relationship.
Here at the museum, we constantly search for our local African American history. Too often, we hit a dead end.
It’s like sitting in a theater, waiting for the show to start. We hear the murmur of voices coming from backstage–men, women, old, young, all different ages and accents and dialects. Then the curtain rises and there’s this group of really dignified white men in suits. They are phenomenal talkers. Super smart. Sometimes they make speeches. But all the time, the only story they tell is their story. They never stop to listen to anyone else. They never even look around. And yet we can still hear those voices whispering.
It makes us want to shout from the audience, “For history’s sake… look into the wings! If you can’t move aside for the next act, at least tell us what’s going on back there!”
The men might pause. They might offer an anecdote about “Doctor” Tom Jeffries, the College groundskeeper famous for building the rock wall that still surrounds the campus. Then it’s back to business. We get nothing new. Nothing about the other people of color who played a role in the story of Wake Forest.
That is a problem.
Fortunately, we now have a solution. The internet, Google, and ancestry.com let us shine a light into the wings. We can look around a bit, see who’s there, and bring a few more actors onto the stage.
At long last we have some diversity. Get a chance to hear different voices, to really listen to their words. And what they say is important. Consider this remark from Dr. Rufus Vass, made at the end of his interview for the Federal Writers Project:
“There is one thing certain and that is: We’ve got to live side by side, so why can’t we be friends, respecting the rights of each other at all times.”
Wake Forest was living side by side with Samuel Vass all along, and we didn’t even know.
We’re happy to know it today.
And so it is with great pride and much respect that we welcome this family–these friends–to the documented history of Wake Forest College.
(By Jennifer Smart, assistant director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum)