Today’s post is from Beth Harris, Special Collections Librarian & Archivist at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.
As the graduation season draws near, institutions of higher learning often reflect on their beginnings and founding ideals in their commencement ceremonies. As Hollins University approaches its 173rd commencement this month, I am reminded of Charles Lewis Cocke’s role in the history of higher education in Virginia, particularly women’s education. Cocke was born in King and Queen County, Virginia in 1820 and attended the Virginia Baptist Seminary (now University of Richmond) and Columbian College (now George Washington University). Upon graduation, he returned to the Virginia Baptist Seminary to teach mathematics. While still a young professor, he was approached by the Valley Union Seminary’s board members for the job of running the four year old school. Located in Botetourt Springs, Virginia, it was floundering financially and without leadership.
While the actual founder was Joshua Bradley, a Baptist minister from New York, Charles Lewis Cocke is considered to be the true founder of Hollins because without his life-long leadership and managerial skills, the school would not have survived. Valley Union Seminary was eventually re-named Hollins Institute due to the generosity of Ann and John Hollins of Lynchburg, Virginia. John Hollins was a successful miller and also board member. Their initial gift of $5,000 brought financial stabilization to the school and in gratitude, the board voted to rename the school Hollins Institute.
Although much is known about Charles Lewis Cocke establishing Hollins, many are not acquainted with his role in Virginia education for both boys and girls as well as his interest in evangelism and establishing Baptist churches in the state of Virginia. While he was adamant about Hollins remaining non-sectarian, it is clear from his papers, housed in the University Archives, that his zeal for both education and evangelism drove many of his activities beyond the administration of Hollins. Commencement addresses to the students make clear his educational ideals for Hollins students but his other writings demonstrate his wider interests for improvements of the educational system throughout Virginia. The collection contains many writings on the subject of education, including addresses to the Virginia Education Association as well as articles and essays on various topics: “Our boys and girls! Where will they stand in coming generations?”, “The true ideal of a female school,” and “What are the best methods for educating the very ignorant?” Few know that Cocke also helped to established two other schools in Virginia: Alleghany College in 1858 at Blue Sulpher Springs and Alleghany Institute in Roanoke. The institute, established in 1886, was the first chartered high school in the western part of the state. While both schools were short lived, it is clear Cocke was concerned for educational opportunities for Virginians.
The Charles Lewis Cocke papers in the University Archives also describe many writings on religious topics, in general and specifically Baptist issues. In an 1897 letter to his children he comments about his early career: “In 1846 I came to this place to save the Institution now known as Hollins Institute from sale and to do also a kind of lay evangelistic work. While most of these documents do not indicate their purpose, whether for speech or publication, they reveal his broad interests, from the theological (“The Priesthood of Christ”), to daily life (“Can Christians read novels and light literature of the day without injury to themselves and the cause of Christ?), and to evangelism (“The wider circulation of our Baptist newspapers & the better support of our missionary work”). Cocke also wrote about African American issues, including “Our duties to the Colored Baptists” and “Mission work among the colored race in the days of slavery.” In addition, records of the Valley Baptist Association show that people of color either joined existing white churches or formed their own churches.
Among his personal papers are his will and a letter to his children and grandchildren, written on his 77th birthday. Anticipating his death, which would not come until 1901, he wrote of his wishes for his children to continue his life’s work at Hollins and for success and contentment in their lives. He closes the letter with what seems fitting a benediction to his life and for Hollins: “I enjoin you all, my children, to live and labor together in peace and harmony and to carry out the great design for which I have toiled assisted by yourselves through a long life. Aim to do a good and honorable part in all the labors and responsibilities of this life and acquit yourselves as those that must give an account at a solemn tribunal and at the bar of a common consensus of opinion of good men in this world and of the great God in the world to come.”
The Charles Lewis Cocke papers are located in Special Collections, Wyndham Robertson Library, Hollins University, Roanoke, Virginia. The images of Cocke used in this post are located in the Photograph collection also located in Special Collections.