At a time when few African-Americans were free and almost none were educated, John Chavis occupied a unique place in North Carolina society.
Though little is certain of Chavis' early life, there is much speculation. Chavis was a free man, born in 1762 or 1763. Scholars debate his birthplace, showing evidence for the West Indies, Pitt County or Granville County, NC, or Mecklenberg County, VA. He was possibly the "indentured servant named John Chavis" mentioned in the inventory of the estate of Halifax attorney James Milner in 1773.
Stories also differ as to how Chavis was educated. Milner had an extensive private library that included books in Greek and Latin. This library was inherited by The Reverend William Willie of Sussex, who may have also played a role in Chavis' training and education. One story even suggests that Chavis was sent to Princeton Seminary to settle a bet that blacks could not learn the classics. He was not allowed to attend classes, but studied to become a minister under the seminary president, John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He became a scholar of Latin and Greek. A certificate made out in Rockbridge County, Virginia, on April 6, 1802, attests that John Chavis was known to the court and considered a free man and that he has been a student at Washington Academy at Lexington, Virginia, now Washington and Lee University. His education was exceptional for the age. This is evident in his correspondence and in his professional accomplishments. He was probably the most learned black in the United States.
Chavis played a role in our nationís independence as a soldier in the Fifth Regiment of Virginia, in which he enlisted in December 1778. He served for three years in the Revolutionary War. Captain Mayo Carington, in a bounty warrant written in March 1783, certified that Chavis had "faithfully fulfilled (his duties) and is thereby entitled to all immunities granted to three year soldiers." In a 1789 tax list of Mecklenburg County, Virginia, he was shown as a free black owning one horse. He and his wife, Sarah Frances Anderson, had one son, Anderson Chavis.
Chavis was licensed to preach in 1799. It is recorded in Presbytery of Lexington records, "the said Jon Chavis (was voted a license) to preach the Gospel of Christ as a probationer for the holy ministry within the bounds of this Presbytery, or wherever he shall be orderly called, hoping as he is a man of colour, he may be peculiarly useful to those of his own complexion." Six months later he transferred to the Hanover Presbytery with this recommendation: "Öas a man of exemplary piety, and possessed of many qualifications which merit their respectful attention." From 1801 through 1807 he served as a missionary for the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to slaves in Maryland, Virginis, and North Carolina. He was provided a horse and lodging. He came to Raleigh in 1807 where he was licensed to preach the Christian Gospel by the Orange Presbytery. He continued to preach to black and white congregations in Granville, Orange, and Wake Counties. Chavisí preaching days ended abruptly in the 1832 after Nat Turner, an educated slave and preacher in southern Virginia, led a bloody rebellion that ended in the murder of dozens of whites. Slave-holding states quickly passed laws forbidding all African-Americans to preach. The presbytery continued to pay Chavis $50 a year until his death and continued payments to his wife until 1842.
An educator as well as preacher, Chavis taught full time following the ruling. He taught white children during the day and free black children at night. He prepared the white children for college by teaching them Latin and Greek. The school he opened in Raleigh was described as one of the best in the state. It surely was an excellent school, for some of the most powerful men in white society entrusted their sonsí education to Chavis. His students include Priestly H. Mangum, brother of Senator Willie P. Mangum; Archibald E. 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 Abram Renchu who became Minister of Portugal and Territorial Governor of New Mexico. Thus John Chavis' influence was far reaching.
Ad placed in the Raleigh Register August 23, 1809
Information & photograph courtesy of the N.C. Division of Archives and History
Chavis died in June of 1838. His contributions to Raleigh were memorialized
when the Chavis Heights apartments and Chavis Park, located near the site
of his school, were named in his honor. Chavis Heights served residents
with quality housing and an excellent neighborhood. The park served as
the only public park for African-Americans in central and eastern North
Carolina. On weekends people from miles around would gather to swim, picnic
and ride the carousel. In nice weather the park would be filled to capacity.
Today people public parks are open to everyone and people still enjoy a
day of sun, swimming, and fun at Chavis Park. Thus John Chavisí legacy
of public service continues.
Powell, William S., Editor, Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Vol. 1. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
Simmons-Henry, Linda, Project Director, Editors Philip N. Henry, Ph.D.
and Carol M. Speas, Ph.D. Heritage of Blacks in North Carolina,
Volume 1. Charlotte: The North Carolina African-American Heritage Foundation
in cooperation with Delmar Company, 1990.