History of Richard Bland College
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History of the College | Sam Harris and the Pecan Grove | President's House | Sculptures | Water Garden | RBC Mace
History of the College
Richard Bland College is the junior college of the Commonwealth and a branch campus of the College of William and Mary. It was established by the General Assembly in 1960 and has provided students with unique opportunities in higher education for the past 50 years. The College offers a traditional curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences leading to the associate degree. The curriculum is intended to allow students to acquire junior status after transferring to a four-year college.
The affairs of the College are directed by the Board of Visitors of the College of William and Mary. Its members are appointed by the Governor of Virginia. A president, appointed by the Board of Visitors, is in charge of the actual administration and courses of study at the College.
Richard Bland College derives its name from that of Richard Bland, Virginia statesman and champion of public rights in the years leading up to the American Revolution.
About the Property
Before the Civil War, the property on which Richard Bland College is now located was a plantation owned by the Gurley family. It became an important part of the Union-occupied territory during the 1864-1865 Siege of Petersburg. The present campus was the scene of two battles during that campaign.
Shortly before the turn of the century, Hatcher S. Seward (of the Seward Trunk Manufacturing family) established a dairy and cattle farm on the former Gurley property and constructed two farmhouses. Today, one of these farmhouses serves as the residence for the President of the college.
In 1906, the still-beautiful grove of pecan trees was planted. The farm was used as a work camp for about twenty conscientious objectors during World War I.
The Commonwealth of Virginia authorized Central State Hospital to purchase the land in 1932 for use as the Petersburg Training School and Hospital for African-American Youth. That institution was moved in 1959, and the land, still owned by the Commonwealth, became the location for the establishment of Richard Bland College.
Presidents of the College
Under the guidance of Colonel (Ret.) James M. Carson, the former hospital and training facility was transformed into Richard Bland College, and classes were held beginning in 1961. In the late 1960s, Ernst Hall (named for a local business leader influential in the establishment of the college) was added to the original campus. In addition, a Student Center/Library building and a gymnasium also were constructed. Colonel Carson retired as the founding President of the College in 1973.
From 1973 through 1975, Dr. Cornelis Laban, Professor of Biology, Emeritus, served as the Acting President of Richard Bland College.
In 1975, Dr. Clarence Maze succeeded Colonel Carson as President. During his tenure, Richard Bland College expanded its academic programs and created a number of programs to encourage international awareness and travel.
Dr. James B. McNeer became the third President of Richard Bland College in 1996. Under his leadership, two residence halls were built to provide students from other parts of Virginia a place to stay. In addition, a new state-of-the-art science and technology center opened in Fall 2010, aptly named McNeer Hall. Dr. McNeer announced his retirement as president, effective June 2012.
Dr. Debbie Sydow was selected as the fourth President of Richard Bland College, and its first female president. In an interview in March 2012, Dr. Sydow stated that "The opportunity to build on [the college's] progress and assist RBC in establishing and navigating its roadmap for future success has tremendous appeal. I look forward to working closely with the campus and local communities in the coming months." She assumed her post on July 1, 2012.
For more on the history of Richard Bland College, see the following online library resources:
Sam Harris and the Pecan Grove
The impressive pecan grove was developed by an engineer around the turn of the twentieth-century. The grove is made up of hundreds of pecan trees, evenly spaced apart from one another. Sam Harris, known to friends as "Old Sam," worked on the college property near the turn of the 20th century when the Hatcher Seward Farm occupied the premises.
At the invitation of the Poor Richard (RBC student newspaper) staff, Mr. Harris visited campus and shared tree-planting tips with students interested in replanting trees lost to storms and old age. A local newspaper article relays various memories Mr. Harris has of the property and the pecan grove:
The Friends of the RBC Library have supported the College's pecan grove over the years, including purchasing new trees and creating a pecan recipe book.
To this day, members of the community, such as Edward Robertson of Petersburg who is pictured below, visit the College to pick the pecans. Area residents are encouraged to visit the pecan grove and to do some pecan picking while here!
The house is typical of those built on many turn-of-the-20th century Virginia farms. The front façade is of clapboard (all covered) with a sizable central entrance and large double hung sash window to the left. The second floor possesses two sash windows equally spaced. The roof is of a transom standing seam in dark green metal.
As for the interior, the front door enters into a spacious, well-appointed living room with a staircase at the main entrance. There is a small library/office to the right of the staircase. Past the living room is a good-sized dining room with a family room (den) to the right. This is followed by a large kitchen and a smaller breakfast area. The laundry room/half bath is to the right. Beautiful oak floors are prominent throughout the entire house, accented with lovely carpets. At the rear of the first level (off the kitchen) is a spacious room for hosting invited guests. Three bedrooms and two baths make up the second floor.
The house was remodeled in the 1960s, and later between April and August 1996 when President and Mrs. McNeer moved in. The views from the house are grand, with a Water Garden on one side, the Pecan Grove, and Virginia woods on the remaining sides. There is a fountain with the statue of Hebe in front of the house. There is also a lovely Gazebo at the end of the drive. There is a Guest House, behind the President's House, which is furnished with antiques from the estate of John and Ada Herrman. There are also two additional dependencies on the site.
In April 2005, the President's House was featured as a home during the Historic Garden Week in Virginia. The President's House has been featured many times on the tour, but this was the first time it was open to visitors since the extensive renovations were done by President and Mrs. McNeer.
The Statue of Hebe
The Torch of Youth in Greek Mythology was carried by Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera. Hebe filled the cups of the gods with nectar, the eternal restorer of the aged. Richard Bland College’s 150-pound, 44-inch cast iron statue of eternal youth symbolizes hopes of the future-the broader world available to those appreciating both the responsibilities and the benefits which come to them because they are Americans and are free. (from RBC yearbook, STATESMAN, 1972)
The statue of Hebe initially graced the top of an ornate fountain in Poplar Lawn Park in Petersburg and later the pool at the farm of the late Hatcher Seward, which is now the site of Richard Bland College and the former site of Petersburg Training School. In 1956, the Poplar Lawn Garden Club asked the State Hospital Board for Hebe with the intention of restoring the fountain at Poplar Lawn. It was given to the club and remained behind the E.E. Titus Inc. Machine Shop and Foundry in Petersburg for almost 14 years. When Richard Bland College opened in 1961, the Poplar Lawn Garden Club agreed to place Hebe on permanent loan to the college.
The Richard Bland German Club spearheaded the drive for the restoration project. Bruce Longstreet, manager of Andrews-Joyner Iron Works of Petersburg assumed the role in sandblasting Hebe and donating components to build a fountain. Mayor Arlie G. Andrews even volunteered his services to haul the 44-inch statue to the campus. (from SOUTHSIDE VIRGINIAN, Nov. 20, 1969) The Statue of Hebe now sits atop the fountain in front of the President's House.
Glin Casey's Sculptures
Glin Casey was a generous benefactor of the Richard Bland College library. We have several pieces of his artwork on display. In addition, two of his sculptures are located behind the Student Affairs building on campus.
The Water Garden
Richard Bland College's water garden was inspired by Monet's famous water garden in Giverny, France. In 1989, Anna Lou Musgrove, Thelma Helmick, and Rose Owens took a group of RBC students overseas, and they visited the garden.
Inspired by this garden, former RBC President Clarence Maze Jr. with the able assistance of RBC Landscape Supervisor and horticulturist Bill Wamsley, created the College's beautiful Water Garden. It was started in 1988 and fully developed in 1994. It consists of a one-acre garden, a quarter of which is under water, along with two waterfalls, two Japanese-style bridges, and a pier. There is a gravel path, benches, and a cupola. The garden is open to visitors throughout the year.
Flora and Fauna
The water garden is home to many varieties of plants and trees, including:
The crane fountain was created around the turn of the 19th century. This metal fountain weighs approximately 150 pounds, and stands five feet high. Its wing span measures three feet, four inches. The crane fountain was donated to the Richard Bland College Foundation by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel P. Johnson, Jr. of Petersburg in June of 1996. The crane fountain is reminiscent of a very similar fountain which once adorned the grounds of Virginia's Executive Mansion in Richmond.
The cupola originally stood atop a gas station owned by Mrs. Frederick Hancock Cole, Sr. on Sycamore St. in the vicinity of the Petersburg Courthouse. It was originally designed as a replica, or at least homage to, the courthouse steeple in its original form. In the early 1960s, when the Courthouse underwent renovation, Mrs. Cole's daughter (Annie Ruth Cole Maclin) sold the gas station, which was demolished to make way for the newer annex buildings on the side of the courthouse. However, Maclin saved the cupola and installed it in her gardens.
For over 20 years, the cupola resided in her two-acre azalea and camelia garden that was often featured on the Historic Garden Week tour. The cupola held a statue of the goddess of spring, and was even wired for electricity (because it used to sit atop the gas station). In 1984, Mrs. Maclin's daughter, Anne Wilson Maclin Gregory, gave the cupola to Betty Pat Webb, who agreed to find it a good home. It was Betty Pat Webb who donated the cupola to the College.
Preserving the Garden
Committed to preserving the garden, the College had one of the Japanese-style bridges rebuilt in the Fall 2007. Also, the bridges, dock and chairs were repainted during the 2006-07 academic year.
In Spring 2007, former president Dr. James McNeer announced that Richard Bland College had entered into an exciting partnership with the Prince George Master Gardeners Association. Volunteers from PGMGA will be collaborating with RBC Landscape Supervisor Bill Wamsley and his staff to make improvements to the Water Garden. Read more about the RBC and PGMGA partnership.
Richard Bland College Mace
Today, many academic and governmental institutions have ceremonial maces that represent the authority, dignity, and power of that institution. (Originally, in medieval times, a mace was a war club used to bludgeon an enemy). The US House of Representatives, for example, has a ceremonial mace.
The College Mace is used during graduation every year. It is carried by the President of the Student Association as a symbol of authority vested in the Rector of the Board of Visitors. When the President of the Student Association graduates, it is formally passed down to the next president in the graduation ceremony.
In 1976, Earl Hopkins, a Colonial Williamsburg woodcarver, designed and carved the RBC Mace from black walnut. Adorning the base of the mace is a pecan carved of wood from the college's own grove. The almost flower-like head affords a hollow placement for the college seal of silver. This seal signifies that Richard Bland is a branch of the College of William and Mary established in 1960. On the staff, the Bland family coat-of-arms is engraved in silver. This work was at Silversmith Shop in Williamsburg by Jim Curtis. The silver collar toward base carries names of donors, Mrs. Traina and her husband, James.