Research digs up history of ex-slave, educator, Willis Carter

Historians in the News

Willis Carter lived in Staunton more than a hundred years ago.

Researchers from around the state and country have spent four years looking for information about the man — a former slave and, later, Staunton educator and newspaper editor — but after 1902, his historical paper trail fell blank until a recent find is helping the team lay the mystery of Carter's life to rest.

New York-based historian Deborah Harding has led research on Carter's life with the help of Virginia historians, librarians and researchers. The team, looking for evidence of his death, spent four years learning about a man who contributed greatly to Staunton and Augusta County schools and to an early movement for equal rights for African-Americans. Last month, two copies of his obituary from two newspapers surfaced. To celebrate the victory of the find and wrap up research, Harding returned to Staunton to visit with the team and to honor Carter's life at a private reception Friday.

"It took us four years to find the end of the story," Harding said."It's fortunate it took us so long because what we found in the middle was a great life story."

A man's story

Harding began searching for evidence of Carter's existence in 2005, when friend and historian Cuesta Benberry gave Harding an old hand-written journal she'd bought at an antiques dealer several decades ago. With the help of Richmond's Library of Virginia, the Augusta County Genealogical Society, Friends of Fairview Cemetery, The Augusta County Historical Society and researchers around Staunton and neighboring counties, they pieced together information from Virginia newspaper articles, school records, a marriage license, Carter's journal and a score of other documents.

"Everytime we found something new, it was a victory," Harding said.

From research, Harding found that Carter was born a slave in Albemarle County, 16 years before Emancipation. He attended the Wayland Seminary in Washington, D.C., a Baptist school created to educate freedmen and the alma-mater of Booker T. Washington. He was a distinguished student there and graduated at age 29. He became a school teacher and principal in Staunton and was president of the Augusta County Teachers' Association before founding the Staunton Tribune, a popular African-American newspaper in Staunton in the 1890s, which was revived in the early 1900s. He also lead demonstrations for African-American rights, spoke at conferences and was an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1896...
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