The Life and Legacy of T.C. Walker

“It’s the life story of T.C. Walker and starts when he was a boy, a child, until he reaches his later years. It’s a remarkable story. My goal with the mural is to get you to really know, on a more in-depth level, all the things that made T.C. Walker, T.C. Walker.”

– Artist Michael Rosato

Known as Virginia’s “Black Governor,” Thomas Calhoun (T.C.) Walker was a teacher, lawyer, and government official. Born a slave less than a year before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Walker grew up to become the first African American to practice law in Gloucester County. In 1891, he was elected to the Gloucester County Board of Supervisors and in 1934 President Roosevelt appointed Walker as the advisor and consultant of Negro affairs for the Virginia Emergency Relief Administration.

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TC Walker Mural Story

TC Walker Mural Story
2 - Career Dreams 1 - Honey-Pod Tree 3 - Walker's Cane 4 - Church Influence 5 - Building Schools 6 - Ownership 7 - Cultivating Food 8 - Gloucester Schooling 9 - The Envelope 10 - Hampton University

2 - Career Dreams

History shows us that as a lawyer, Walker was motivated to defend injustices to African Americans. It was in this moment that Walker was motivated to pursue justice. In this scene, Walker had graduated from Hampton Institute and was back in Gloucester helping his father build a house and farm. One day, while walking downtown, he ventured inside the courthouse as a 13-year-old girl was tried for stealing. Because she had no legal representation, it became her word against her accusers. The judge found her guilty and sentenced her to three years in prison. Walker then and there decided to go to law school, determined to never let something like that happen again.

1 - Honey-Pod Tree

The honey-pod tree, which once stood near Gloucester Court House in the middle of Main Street, shaded the slave block where many of Walker's own relatives had been sold. Walker’s autobiography, published in 1958, was titled “The Honey-Pod Tree: The Life Story of Thomas Calhoun Walker.” While Walker would live to see both the tree and the slave block destroyed, he went on to live through what he called “honey-pod tree moments,” or times in life that were unfair, that would set you back, that you had to overcome. In life there are always honey-pod trees and he never wanted to forget that. It is in the fighting to overcome, in the work to move beyond, that you can truly tear down all the honey-pod trees and achieve your goals.

3 - Walker's Cane

It was not enough for Walker himself to get an education and make a difference in his own life. He wanted that for everyone. Walker was known to spend time on Main Street, cane in hand, tapping and pointing at folks. Get busy, he would say. Don’t let anything stop you. Persevere. Have faith. Get an education. Your life is in your hands...and will be what you make of it.

4 - Church Influence

A pastor of pastors. Walker conducted religious teachings to enable the people of Gloucester County to have a better understanding of the Bible. His faith formed his code of ethics and guided all the work he did in his life. So much so, in fact, that he felt the calling to bring that faith to as many people as he could. In the mural, there are five churches, showcasing that from the one church his family belongs to, four additional churches were created.

5 - Building Schools

While Walker had children of his own, he also took in and raised others. Illustrated here is an imagined moment of Walker with children around a table, showcasing his belief that with the love of family, and an education, there is no stopping you. Education and supporting children was so important that Walker also helped build the county’s first high school for black students and personally convinced philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears, Roebuck & Co., to build six schools in the county for black children. Rosenwald funded 5,300 elementary and training schools in partnership with local communities and in 1919 Walker travelled to Chicago to meet with Rosenwald and secure funding for six schools and a teacher’s home. Only 800 of these Rosenwald schools remain nationwide, with one remaining in Gloucester – the Woodville School located on U.S. Route 17.

6 - Ownership

The importance of property ownership and education were among the two strongest pieces of advice Walker gave and fought for. He owned and lived in a house on Gloucester Main Street, which remains there today, owned by Hampton University. Walker is also remembered for helping the county earn the highest rate of black home ownership in the country by 1930.

7 - Cultivating Food

Growing up, Walker’s mother and grandmother often feared that they would not have enough food to help them survive through the winter. After completing his studies at Hampton Institute, Walker returned to Gloucester and helped show people how to more effectively grow their own food. You don’t need to just be able to survive the winter, but everyone should be able to provide for themselves. Being able to cultivate and provide for yourself, being dedicated to getting an education and working toward owning your own property were hallmarks of his mentorship and guidance.

8 - Gloucester Schooling

The Gloucester Training School became the first public high school for black students in Gloucester County. In 1921, Walker and others constructed a wooden building for the school with gifts from the Rosenwald Fund and other national and local donors. The original building was replaced with a brick structure in 1951, as depicted here. With the integration of schools and subsequent reorganizations, the present school functioned as Gloucester Intermediate School in the late 1960s, Gloucester Middle School in the mid-1970s and from 1986 to 2012 was the Thomas Calhoun Walker Elementary School.

9 - The Envelope

When Walker was 13, his father told him he was too old to learn. A Sunday school teacher would go on to give him a spelling book so he could learn to read and write on his own. But it was this moment, as shown in this scene, where Walker realized he could still learn new things. One day, while in the post office, a doctor came in to check his mail. He opened an envelope, pulled out the letter and dropped the envelope to the ground. Walker picked up the envelope and saw writing he had never seen before – cursive instead of block letters. He took the envelope down to the creek and practiced writing the letters he saw on the envelope over and over again in the sand until he could decipher what the cursive letters were. “Dr. Tabbs” was what he wrote, and in this transitional and monumental moment of his life, Walker realized he could in fact still learn.

10 - Hampton University

With 92 cents in his pocket, Walker made his way from Gloucester to Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in search of a higher education. Even though he could not pass the entrance exam and was denied admission, Walker persuaded the school’s founder to make an exception. He was allowed admission as long as he did work on campus during the day and attended classes at night. Some credit Walker and his experience with starting the formal work study program at the school.