John Chavis.

by Lisa Y. Henderson


This marker, originally approved and erected in 1938, was the first one in the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program dedicated to African American history. The original sign (depicted in the photograph) was replaced in 2009 by one with a revised inscription.

John Chavis, born around 1763 in Virginia, was a prominent free black preacher and educator in and around Raleigh area from 1810 on. Chavis had an extensive education for the time, likely the best education of any African American of his day. He is best known for his classical teaching in Raleigh, educating children of all races. In 1832 free blacks lost many of their rights in North Carolina, and Chavis lost his freedom to preach and teach. He died in 1838, having lived and worked as a respected member of society.

Little is known about John Chavis’s early life, but it is thought, based on estate records from 1773, that he may have been an indentured servant for Halifax, Virginia, attorney James Milner. It is also speculated that Chavis received early education from Milner’s classical library under the tutelage of Reverend William Willie. In 1778, Chavis enlisted in the 5th Regiment of Virginia, serving for three years for the Patriots. Honorably discharged, Chavis studied at Washington Academy, present-day Washington & Lee University, and possibly studied privately at Princeton with Dr. John Witherspoon, the president of what was then College of New Jersey. In 1800 he returned to Virginia and was licensed as a Presbyterian minister.

Between 1801 and 1807, John Chavis did mission work among slaves for the Presbyterian Church throughout the southeastern United States. In 1809 he moved to Raleigh, where he began preaching as a part of the Orange County Presbytery. It was around this time that Chavis began his school.

Chavis’ school accepted both black and white students, widely expanding the options available for the education of free blacks in Raleigh at the time. Chavis taught white students during the day and black students during the evening. Many were from notable families in North Carolina, including future Governor Charles Manly and the sons of Chief Justice Leonard Henderson. Chavis may also have  instructed future United States Senator Willie P. Mangum.

Following Nat Turner’s Rebellion, free blacks across the south lost their standing as citizens. Chavis could no longer legally preach or educate, and was forced to close his school and retire. In 1833 he published his only written work, a sermon entitled An Essay on Atonement. The work was successful and widely read, and helped to supplement his income during the final years of his life. Chavis died on June 15, 1838. His burial location is unknown, although there is speculation that the grave is on Willie P. Mangum’s former plantation in present-day Durham County.

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