My great-great grandfather and the founding of a black Austin college

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Racial justice and reconciliation is a theme lacing through much of the work of the 79th General Convention in Austin, Texas.

The Episcopal Church has struggled—and faltered—with this for all of its existence.

Yet there are also stories of courage in our church, some nearly lost to time. One of these nearly forgotten stories is here in Austin.

Not far from the Austin Convention Center, on the east side of I-35, stands Huston-Tillotson University, an historically African American school officially connected to the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ—and connected to my family.

This thriving university would not have been born without the Episcopal Church, and one parish in particular—St. David’s—in the 1870s.

The story of Huston-Tillotson is a story of survival against official persecution, vigilante violence and a chronic lack of financial support from churches in the North.

The school was founded in 1875 by my great-great grandfather, the Rev. George Richardson, a Methodist pastor from Minnesota, who with his wife, Caroline, had used their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad. In the Civil War, he served as the white chaplain to a black Union regiment in Memphis.

After the war, he felt his mission incomplete. He came to Texas with the dream of starting a school for the freed slaves. He kept a journal, and I have that journal.

George Richardson had no idea how to start, and hardly enough money to rent a room for himself and his oldest son, Owen. He soon found a partner: a black pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Webster, and together they launched a one-room school in Dallas in an old wooden church. The school was soon burned by the Ku Klux Klan. Rebuilt, the school was closed by the city of Dallas after the teachers could not pass an exam designed so they could not possibly pass it. Pastor Webster died not long after.

George came to Austin to restart the school, and it was here where his work intersected with the Episcopal Church.

St. David’s Episcopal Church was founded in Austin by the Rev. Charles Gillette, who was pro-Union during the Civil War. When he refused to recite a prayer on Sundays ordered by his bishop calling for the victory of the Confederate army, Gillette was forced to flee. He settled in New York, never to return to Texas.

In 1867 Gillette was elected the first Secretary and General Agent of the Commission of Home Missions to Colored People—the Episcopal Church’s organization establishing schools for the freed slaves. Gillette raised funds to build black schools in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. He died suddenly in March 1869.

Charles Gillette deserves to be remembered by our church.

During the Reconstruction years, Gillette’s house in Austin stood empty. His family would not allow it to be occupied.

In 1875, George Richardson, relocated in Austin, heard about the Rev. Gillette and the abandoned church rectory. The house was large—eight rooms—and built of concrete and bricks. Gillette had designed it for a seminary, with the lower floors for classrooms, and the upper floor for living quarters.

George believed that both its size and pedigree from Fr. Gillette made it perfect for a school serving the freed slaves and their children. He appealed to the Gillette family, and they approved using it for the school. The Richardsons moved in and started classes. “We dignified it with the name Gillette Mansion,” my great-great grandfather wrote. It was there that the future Huston-Tillotson University was launched.

Gillette Mansion was torn down long ago, and the school went through many trials. It closed more than once for lack of funds. The estate of Samuel Huston, an Iowa abolitionist, eventually provided enough money to keep the school open, and hence the name of the school (locally pronounced “Houston”).

In the 1950s, Samuel Huston College merged with another black college, Tillotson College, connected to the United Church of Christ, and the name was changed to Huston-Tillotson College. Not long ago, with graduate programs, it became a university.

Among H-T’s illustrious alumni are the Rev. Cecil Williams, retired pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. The faculty has included John Mason Brewer, a prominent scholar of African-American folklore. A young athlete named Jackie Robinson coached the basketball team in 1944-45 before going to the Negro baseball leagues and then on to make history.

The connection to the Episcopal Church continues. St. James Episcopal Church in Austin was founded by H-T alumni, and former rector Greg Rickel is now the bishop of the Diocese of Olympia.

The school sits on Bluebonnet Hill, the highest hill in Austin, and today has 965 students. You can learn more about Huston-Tillotson University here:

George Richardson died in 1911 at the age of 86. Near the end of his life, he returned to Northfield, Minnesota, where he had spent much of his ministry before the Civil War. He preached one last sermon, recounting the many trials and many miles he had traveled.

He ended with this: “Not only is God’s Almightiness in the sense of strength available; but his Almightiness in the form of love.”

The Rev. James Richardson is an alternate deputy from Diocese of Northern California, interim dean of Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento, and a former political writer with The Sacramento Bee.