In May 1861, John Baytop Cary was among the first Confederate soldiers to wave a white flag.
He arrived at Union-held Fort Monroe under a flag of truce to demand the return of what he and his new nation considered property. The day after Virginia’s secession from the Union, three slaves named Frank Baker, Shepard Mallory, and James Townsend learned that their slaveholder intended to bring them to North Carolina. They looked for freedom at Fort Monroe.
Cary expected to bring Baker, Mallory, and Townsend back into slavery.
Bad luck, replied Major General Ben Butler. He told Cary that while an international boundary now existed between Fort Monroe and the rest of Virginia, the men were “enemy contraband” and years of Fugitive Slave Law precedent did not apply. It became a step towards the Emancipation Proclamation two years later, and thus the fort became known as “Fortress of Liberty.”
Cary, who had enslaved four people Before the war and a “corpse servant” during the war, only appears on the fringes of the Civil War story. His work as an educator after the war is apparently what earned his name for the public schools built in Richmond and his native Hampton.
Last year, Hampton renamed its John B. Cary Elementary School. Supporters cited Cary’s enslavement of African Americans and his role in the Confederacy. In Richmond, Confederate General JEB Stuart’s name was removed from a public school in 2018.
With the last remnants of Confederate statues removed from Monument Avenue this month, a colonel whose most notable war action took place under a flag of truce is now the most prominent Confederate symbol remaining in Richmond.
Some chose to look past Cary’s background, while others had no idea who he was. Fifth District School Board Representative Stephanie Rizzi, who represents Cary Elementary, fell into the latter camp.
“I’m really kind of blind,” Rizzi said upon learning her biography. “It’s a snap out of nowhere.”
“Assurance of the Soul”
While John B. Cary’s role in the Fort Monroe episode can be found easily, other biographical sources are harder to find. Historians John and Ruth Ann Coski have written what appears to be the most definitive biography of Cary for the Library of Virginia. His role as the founding father of the “Lost Cause” movement is scattered among his papers collected at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, which itself originated in a Lost Cause memorial project known as Battle Abbey.
His papers note that in 1862, after having two horses shot under him, he was appointed to a paymaster position in Richmond. After fleeing Richmond for Appomatox, Cary worked for a year before getting into the life insurance business. He sought a congressional pardon for his role in the war in 1870.
As Reconstruction politics leaned toward segregation and violence, he landed political roles aligned with those who wanted Richmond to be governed as if the South had won the war.
John Kneebone, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University professor who is currently writing a book about the lost cause in Richmond, says even taking on the role involves some interest in educating black children.
“Many of the white people said, ‘What are schools for black people for? Let’s eliminate them or reduce them,” says Kneebone. “Cary became superintendent right after the Readjusters had been defeated. »
A former teacher and headmaster of Hampton, he was appointed superintendent of the public schools of Richmond in 1886, after serving as a penitentiary superintendent and chairman of the city’s Democratic committee and school board. It was also during this time that Cary became an early proponent of the “lost cause”.
What began as support for the Robert E. Lee Soldiers’ Home, where homeless Confederate veterans were cared for, turned into the beatification of the Confederacy’s racist worldview. Kneebone risks that Cary’s association with this scene may have helped avoid calls for funding black schools.
“In a way, it’s possible that his impeccable credentials for Lost Cause allowed him to fund all the schools,” Kneebone says. “Nobody could accuse him of being a Yankee.”
How was Cary as superintendent? While rummaging through his papers at VMHC, a vignette appears in a typewritten biography as “that he liked to tell”. A black student had been sent to him for being “disorderly and disobedient”.
In their biography, Ruth Ann and John Coski cite an 1888 annual school report in which Cary called for increased expenditure on black students “to educate every child, that he might read his Bible and the Constitution of his country in his mother tongue, and thus renders him fit for the privileges, duties and responsibilities of citizenship.”
Cary resigned in 1889, citing the need to focus on his business. Attached to this typewritten biography is a handwritten copy of a proclamation from the city’s Board of Aldermen offering “the best wishes of the Board be with Colonel Cary in his professional life.”
In 1890 Cary found a new interest outside of insurance. The claim for a monument to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis began immediately after Davis’ death, as pointed out by John Coski for the American Civil War Museum. Richmond became the top choice for a monument location after Davis’ widow opted to have his body shipped to Hollywood Cemetery. Davis would be laid to rest in his nation’s capital as Cary and other committee leaders planned what they called an “eternal memorial.”
Cary wouldn’t live to see the finished work. He died in 1898, two years after the cornerstone was laid for a temple for Davis and what the Richmond Dispatch called “Our Lost Cause” in Monroe Park.
A Richmond Dispatch obituary noted: “Colonel Cary never wavered in his devotion to the lost cause, and whenever money had to be raised or work had to be done, he was ready to work, and worked tirelessly for the end in sight.”
The typed biography in his VMHC papers concludes: “The character he built is his monument.
Six years after the final version of the Davis monument stood on Monument Avenue, Cary was honored with his own legacy. In 1913, John B. Cary Elementary opened as one of several schools in the city named after former superintendents.
While the offshoots of Brown v. Board of Education loomed, the city built a new school building for white children in 1954 and took the name with them. John B. Cary of Hampton opened a few years later, followed by schools named after Davis and Robert E. Lee – all of which have since been renamed.
According to an inactive corner of the Richmond Public Schools website, the 1913 building once called Cary educated black children as The West End School. The new John B. Cary Building was incorporated as a “model” in 1969 for a new way forward.
“John B. Cary Model Elementary School once represented the promise of a racially and economically integrated Richmond school system,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning Richmond Times Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams. written in 2012, that the possible closure was looming. “It was a place where a middle-class kid could find himself surrounded by a classmate from Windsor Farms and HLM, for the benefit of all.”
Williams has previously written about Cary Elementary’s new status as a Confederate outlier when JEB Stuart was renamed in 2018. Two years after the George Floyd protests that overturned Cary’s vision of an eternal monument to Jefferson Davis, and a year after Hampton renamed their school, Cary’s role in the Confederacy has evaded the same attention here.
Cary Elementary PTA President Timika Vincent wouldn’t discuss Cary’s role in Lost Cause, or his name change. She said the conversation broke out between parents in 2020, but was put aside.
“This topic alone is divisive and the John B. Cary PTA has worked hard to bring our communities together,” Vincent said in a post. “We will leave current and future naming issues to RPS legislators.”
The son of Fifth District School Board Representative Stephanie Rizzi dated Cary. She was blunt in her assessment after recently learning about Cary’s biography. No information about Cary is available on the school’s dedicated RPS site.
“When I think of my own son, who went to a school named after someone who called our ancestors property, it overwhelms me,” she said, referring to Cary’s attempt to capture Baker, Mallory, and Townsend at Fort Monroe. “These schools are also monuments in themselves, and their names really set the tone for the community and the children who attend this school.”
Virginia Department of Education enrollment figures for 2021 show that 114 of Cary’s 220 students are black.
Editor’s note: After the deadline, RPS Superintendent Jason Kamras responded to an interview request with an email saying that Cary is one of three schools “we intend to rename the year next”. Binford Middle School and Ginter Park Elementary School are also on the list, “both of which have Confederate ties.”