Bishop Payne Divinity School

Bishop Payne Divinity School was a racially segregated Episcopal school for African-American ministerial students, in Petersburg, Virginia. It operated on Perry Street (1878–1886), West Washington Street (1886–1889), and finally South West Street (1889–1949).[1]: 29  The school's Emmanuel Chapel still stands, at the corner of South West and Willcox Streets.[2]

Whittle Hall, the Bishop Payne Divinity School.


Russell Hall and the Warden's home, across the street from Whittle Hall.

The College began in 1878 when James Solomon Russell, who would be the school's first graduate and left us a description of his experiences there,[1]: 34–35  was called to the ministry but was not allowed to study at the all-white Episcopal Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in Alexandria. To provide schooling for him, and other African-American students who "were not in any way prepared to enter either the Preparatory Department or the Theological Department of the Seminary", some of whom "had only the barest rudiments of common-school [primary school] education,"[3]: 489, 491  a theology professor was added to a new (1866) school for freedmen, St. Stephen's Normal and Industrial School, in Petersburg, Virginia. The theology professor's salary ($600) was paid by VTS. The school became St. Stephen's Normal and Theological School. It was located on Perry Street, between Gill and Washington Streets. Russell was the only ministerial student for three years. By 1876, 20 students had enrolled.[1]: 5 

It was chartered in 1884 by the state of Virginia as the Bishop Payne Divinity and Industrial School, in honor of John Payne, first Episcopal bishop of Liberia.[1]: 4  (Payne's widow was the school matron.[3]: 500 ) "The title of the school was somewhat misleading as it implied an Industrial Department which the school did not have, and gave no hint of a Normal Department, which the school did have."[3]: 500 

From 1886 to 1889, the school was based in a house and lot in the 1100 block of South Washington Street. In 1889, the school purchased eight lots on both sides of the street in the 400 block of South West Street, where it built Whittle Hall and Russell Hall on opposite sides of the street,[1]: 6, 29  remaining at that location until it closed. In 1902 the Warden's residence was erected and in 1917 Emmanuel Chapel was added.[1]: 29  In 1910 the name was changed again, to Bishop Payne Divinity School; the school was newly authorized by the state of Virginia to award the degree of Bachelor of Divinity.[1]: 9 



Bishop Payne was the only Divinity School in the Episcopal Church devoted exclusively to the training of "young Negro men" for the ministry; as of 1921, there were 91 alumni, who constituted about 60% of the Episcopal Black clergy in the U.S. It was founded in 1878 as the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church Normal and Industrial School, and provided high school level instruction, as did most normal schools at the time.[4] In 1894 John W. Johnson, an 1890 graduate, became the first Black faculty member.[5][1]: 13  In 1910 it gained the ability to award the Bachelor of Divinity degree and was renamed Bishop Payne Divinity School. Enrollment was low, only 12–15 at a time. In 1921 there were five professors, four of them white; as of that there were 81 alumni[6] Until the 1940s all the trustees, photographed in an old film clip, were white;[7] in 1947, seven of the seventeen trustees were Black.[1]: 30 

Enrollment was negatively affected, to the point of threatening the Seminary's survival, by the decision of the church's Diocese of Virginia to deny a vote in the Diocesan Council to all newly ordained Negro clergymen.[1]: 7–9 

From 1905 to 1922 the president was Corbin Braxton Bryan, a white supremacist who believed whites had a responsibility to offer blacks the benefits of Christianity.[8]

The last graduation class of the school was in 1949. VirginiaTheological Seminary started admitting African-American students in 1951.[9] At least 256 Black men and 6 Black women had attended (not all graduated).[5]

On June 3, 1953, the school's assets and records were transferred to Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, Virginia. The merger was negotiated by civil rights attorney Armistead Boothe.[1]: 25 

The library at Virginia Theological Seminary is named the Bishop Payne Library.[10]




  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Harris, Odell Greenleaf (1980). The Bishop Payne Divinity School: Petersburg, Va., 1878–1949. History of the Seminary to Prepare Black Men for the Ministry of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Alexandria, Virginia: Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary. OCLC 7911157. The author says he was a graduate of the school.
  2. ^ Our history, St. Stephen's Episcopal Church (Petersburg, Virginia), 2020, archived from the original on May 16, 2021, retrieved April 24, 2022
  3. ^ a b c Ribble, Frederick G. (1923). "The Bishop Payne Divinity School For Colored Students, Petersburg, Virginia". In Goodwin, Wm. A. R. (ed.). History of The Theological Seminary in Virginia and its Historical Background. Vol. 2. New York: Edwin S. Gorham. pp. 480–522. Ribble was at the time Dean of the school.
  4. ^ Fisher, Bernard (2014), Bishop Payne Divinity School, Historical Marker Database, archived from the original on November 24, 2021, retrieved April 30, 2022
  5. ^ a b "Explore our 200 years of history". Virginia Theological Seminary. Archived from the original on May 2, 2022. Retrieved May 4, 2022.
  6. ^ "Bishop Payne Divinity School". Our Church Schools for Negroes : Under the Supervision of the American Church Institute for Negroes. New York: Church Missions House [of the Episcopal Church]. c. 1922. pp. 11–13.
  7. ^ "Separate and Unequal: Payne Divinity School". The Archives of the Episcopal Church. Archived from the original on April 16, 2022. Retrieved April 20, 2022.
  8. ^ Tarter, Brent (December 22, 2021), "C. Braxton Bryan (1852–1922)", Encyclopedia of Virginia, archived from the original on March 17, 2022, retrieved April 30, 2022
  9. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions about the Reparations Initiative". Virginia Theological Seminary. 2022. Archived from the original on May 2, 2022. Retrieved May 1, 2022.
  10. ^ Virginia Theological Seminary. "Bishop Payne Library". Archived from the original on March 26, 2022. Retrieved April 15, 2022.

37°13′10″N 77°25′06″W / 37.21936599809°N 77.4183788857°W / 37.21936599809; -77.4183788857