Friday, August 6, 2021

The Student of Richmond College

the true secret

of a useful

and honorable

and successful life.

~ Richmond College Messenger

John H. Smith was a “student of Richmond College.” He was born in Georgia on July 18, 1858 and died in Lynchburg on July 20, 1880. He is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Lynchburg, Virginia. 

The pencil marks located to the left of the star.

What struck me about the grave is that Smith died young, which was not unusual for the time. He was just 22 years old, and he passed away just two days after his birthday. Someone actually worked out the math in pencil on the White Bronze grave. I’ll insert my own eye-roll here. Don’t write on graves, people!

Had he been buried under any other type of memorial, I probably would not have noticed the epitaph but I almost always walk over to "white bronze" or zinc markers. This one has the mark of the Monumental Bronze Company in Bridgeport, CT. These memorials were marketed as being superior to stone in terms of durability; and even today, nearly a century and a half later, they are easy to read and have lasted quite well here in Virginia.[1] Another part of the grave that struck me is that Richmond College is over 100 miles away from the grave and the University of Richmond is quite near my own home so all that I learned from the grave led me to a bit of a mystery.

Attending Richmond College in the late 1870s and early 1880 would have been quite different from attending the university today. The college opened in 1843 and during the American Civil War, the student body formed a regiment for the Confederate army. The campus buildings were used for war hospitals. And, like so many places in the South, Richmond College invested in Confederate war bonds and was completely broke by the end of the war.  Even more unsettling was that 1/5th of the alumni and the student body had died in the war.[2]  

I visited Spring Hill Cemetery and met John H. Smith, or rather his grave, a few weeks ago. Yesterday, I sat down to write about one of the women buried there when I just could not stop thinking about John H. Smith. Who was he? Why was he buried there when all the information on his grave mentioned nothing of him belonging in Lynchburg, Virginia?

I spent about four hours searching for information yesterday and with such a common name and so little clues on the marker, I could not find much at first. I could not find an obituary or even a death notice on; there was hardly any information on Ancestry, except his parents' names. Find A Grave also was not much help. 

I was about ready to give up when I thought about the amazing archival collection at the University of Richmond. I attended their graduate certificate program in Public History and was fortunate enough to take courses with their archivists who have some of the coolest jobs around. I decided to search the college's school paper, Richmond College Messenger, from 1880... and thanks to "G." (I'm not being secretive. This is how the piece was signed) who wrote the life story of the young John Henry Smith who died far from home and away from school, I know how he died and a bit of his character.

John Henry Smith was the son of Alfred Tate Smith and China Ward Gregory Smith. He was the youngest son born on July 18, 1858 in Gordon County, Georgia just before the American Civil War. He had one older brother and four sisters. His father was a Major in the Confederate army. After the war, the family moved to Titus County, Texas where the family would cultivate a farm.

John Henry Smith attended Furman University, a private liberal arts university in Greenville, South Carolina that was founded in 1826, and then attended Richmond College beginning in September 1877. His academics were recognized and “he gained promotions in the intermediate classes of Latin, Greek and English, and the Second Junior Class of Mathematics” after just one session at the school. By his second session, “he was a graduate in Chemistry and Greek and promoted in Intermediate Mathematics.”[3] On June 17, 1880, Smith earned diplomas in the schools of Latin, English, Moral Philosophy, and earned a Bachelor of Arts or artium baccalaureus.[4]

While a student, he was described as having an active mind. He was a member of the Philologian Literary Society and was known as a great speaker. He was a member of the Kappa Alpha Fraternity. He was seen as a faithful and good friend who encouraged his peers. “Pure in thought, word and deed, he did not appear to suspect others of being different from what they seemed.”[5] It was noted that he was not impulsive but “calm and deliberate.”[6]

The evening of June 17, 1880, after receiving his diplomas, he was struck with a fever. He had planned to visit with a friend in Prince Edward County, which is between Richmond and Lynchburg, but since he was not feeling well, he continued on to his brother’s home in Lynchburg arriving on June 22nd. For a month, he remained sick at his brother’s home. Rev. W. R. L. Smith had called a doctor and there were some instances where it appeared Smith was improving. He had been a member of Clay Street Baptist church in Lynchburg and continued to be in good spirits and faith while ill. He also did not appear to fear his death. He spent his 22nd birthday in bed and then passed away on Tuesday morning, July 20, 1880. His final words were reported:

“Yonder is Jesus opening the gates wider and wider for me to enter in…”


The author G. who wrote the description of John Henry Smith concludes, “may we learn from him the true secret of a useful and honorable and successful life.”

I am just so appreciative of archivists who scan historical documents and make them available digitally. While some doubt anyone else would want these old documents, here I am being so grateful to an unknown archivist for saving the story about a student that many people loved a great deal in July 1880. When we walk by monuments in cemeteries, we must remember that they were not only intended as places for loved one to visit to grieve but they were intended for us as reminders that these lives were significant. There are so many stories in our cemeteries and I’m glad I have learned part of this one. 


[1] Rotundo, Barbara. Monumental Bronze: a representative American company. In Cemeteries and gravemarkers: voices of American culture, ed. R. E. Meyer. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1989. 263-291

[2] “About Richmond College,” University of Richmond,

[3] “John Henry Smith.” Richmond College Messenger, Vol. VI, No. 2, Richmond, VA: November 1880), 15.

[4] “John Henry Smith.” Richmond College Messenger, 15.  

[5] “John Henry Smith.” Richmond College Messenger, 16.

[6] “John Henry Smith.” Richmond College Messenger, 16.

[7] “John Henry Smith.” Richmond College Messenger, 17.

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