February 13: Absalom Jones and the Legacy of Episcopalian HBCUs

Today marks 201 years since the death of Absalom Jones, freed slave and first Black Episcopal priest in the United States. According to church literature, Jones’ “witness to the way of Jesus included efforts to abolish slavery and to lift up all those cast down. He understood that education is a key to empowerment.”

Jones and Richard Allen founded the Free Africans Society, a benevolent organization which provided social and economic guidance to newly freed citizens and encouraged a spirit of self-determination to help them establish new lives.

It is in this spirit of encouraging self-determination that many HBCUs were founded during Reconstruction, including many under religious umbrellas. At the height of HBCUs’ reign, there were 10 Episcopal-affiliated HBCUs. Now, only two remain: St. Augustine’s University and Voorhees College.

St. Augustine’s was officially founded by the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina in 1867, while Voorhees is part of the Booker T. Washington education tree — founded 30 years later by Tuskegee Institute graduate Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, who sought to be “the same type of woman as Mr. Washington was of a man” and set out to start several schools in rural South Carolina.

Episcopalians take up the Feast of Absalom Jones every year in memory of his death, and the offerings from that service go into the Absalom Jones Fund, which is designated to support St. Augustine’s and Voorhees.

“We honor Absalom Jones by supporting our HBCUs, which prepare the talented leaders who will continue the work of building a more just and humane society,” the church says on the fund’s webpage.

Autumn A. Arnett is an education reporter and editor and an avid sports fan based in Austin, Texas. www.a2arnett.com