John Chavis (c. 1763-1838) was a black educator and Presbyterian minister in the American South during the early 19th century.
The exact date of Chavis's birth is not known. It is believed that he was born in either 1762 or 1763. One source claims he was born on October 18, 1763, but with no evidence given.
Information about Chavis's early life is scant as well, with few records to document it. It is believed that he may have been the 'John Chavis' who was employed as an indentured servant by a Halifax lawyer named James Milner. A 1773 inventory of Milner's estate does list an "indentured servant named John Chavis." Since Milner possessed a large library, it is likely that Chavis received some schooling during his period of service.
Read excerpts from John Chavis: African American patriot, preacher, teacher, and mentor, 1763-1838 by Helen Chavis Othow, free from Google Books.
Chavis served as a soldier during the American Revolutionary War. He enlisted in December 1778 and served in the 5th Virginia Regiment for three years. Captain Mayo Carrington of the regiment wrote in a bounty warrant dated March 1783 that Chavis had "faithfully fulfilled [his duties] and is thereby entitled to all immunities granted to three year soldiers."
A 1789 tax list of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, shows that he was listed as a free black man owning one horse. He had married a woman named Sarah Frances Anderson, and they had one son, Anderson Chavis. In 1789, he was employed by Robert Greenwood's estate as tutor to Greenwood's orphans.
Chavis arrived at the Liberty Hall Academy in Lexington, Virginia in 1795, one year prior to George Washington's gift of 100 shares of James River Company Stock. He was still a student when the institution changed its name to Washington Academy. (Washington Academy would change its name a third time long after Chavis left the school, becoming Washington and Lee University.)
Prior to 1795, Chavis had resided in New Jersey, where he had taken private classes under John Witherspoon in preparation for entering the Presbyterian ministry. In the recorded minutes of the meeting of the trustees of the College of New Jersey (later to become Princeton University) dated September 26, 1792, there is a recommendation by Reverend John Blair that "Mr. Todd Henry, a Virginian, and John Chavis, a free black man of that state, ... be received" on the school's Leslie Fund. Chavis transferred to Liberty Hall Academy after Witherspoon's death in 1794.
On November 19, 1800 Chavis completed with high honors a rigorous theological examination that began on June 11, 1800. On this date, he was also granted a license to preach by the Presbytery of Lexington in Virginia.
Six months later, with high character recommendations from the Presbytery of Lexington, Chavis was transferred to work under the Hanover Presbytery.
In April 1802, Chavis had applied for freedmen's papers and received them from Rockbridge County Court. It was recorded that "said [John] Chavis has been known to the Court for several years ... and that he has always ... been considered as a freeman, and they believe him to be such, and that he has always while in the county conducted himself in a decent orderly and respectable manner, and also that he has been a student at Washington Academy [sic] where they believe he whent [sic] through a regular course of academical [sic] studies."
Between 1801 and 1807, Chavis served as a circuit riding missionary for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to slaves and free blacks in the states of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. He also converted whites as well.
Chavis came to Raleigh, North Carolina sometime between 1807 and 1809, where he was licensed to preach the Christian Gospel by the Orange Presbytery. While he was not given a parish, he continued to preach to Black and White congregations in Granville, Orange, and Wake Counties. Some of the white congregations included slaveholders.
In 1808, Chavis opened a school in his home where he taught both white and black children. He placed ads in the Raleigh Register to encourage enrollment. At first he taught both races together, but after some white parents objected, he taught white children during the day and black children in the evenings. He charged white students $2.50 per quarter, and black students $1.75 per quarter. As an educator, Chavis taught full time and instructed his college bound white students in Latin and Greek, which were required study in the colleges and universities of that time.
His school was described as one of the best in the state. Students from some of the most prominent white families in the South studied at Chavis' school. His students includes Priestly H. Mangum, brother of Senator Willie P. Mangum; Archibald E. Henderson and John L. Henderson, sons of Chief Justice Henderson; Governor Charles Manly; The Reverend William Harris; Dr. James L. Wortham; the Edwardses, Enlows (Enloes), Hargroves, and Horners; and Abraham Rencher, Minister of Portugal and Territorial Governor of New Mexico.
Chavis maintained a friendship with one of his white students, Senator Willie P. Mangum. For many years, they conducted a correspondence where Chavis often criticized the senator's political positions. Chavis, it seems, was opposed to the abolition of slavery, had a great dislike for President Andrew Jackson and was opposed to the states' rights advocacy of Mangum and his colleagues. In 1837, Chavis published "An Essay on the Atonement," though no copies are known to have survived.
After Nat Turner, an educated slave and preacher in southern Virginia, led a bloody rebellion in 1831 that saw the murder of dozens of white men, women and children, slave-holding states quickly passed laws that forbade all blacks to preach. Although Chavis was forced to give up preaching and teaching school, the presbytery continued to pay Chavis $50 a year until his death to support him and his wife. The presbytery even continued payments to his wife after his death until 1842.
Receiving charity was not a new experience for Chavis. In the past he had received financial assistance from his friend and former student, Senator Mangum. In 1825, Mangum helped him secure renewal on a bank loan for $270. Later Chavis asked Mangum to pay the interest of $30. Chavis was always able to turn to prominent friends when he was in need, and usually they were generous to him.
Chavis died in June 1838. The circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear.
Both Chavis Heights apartments and Chavis Park in Raleigh, North Carolina are named after him.