Uncovering the hidden history of Dr. Robert Russa Moton

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Avis Thomas beams with pride talking about the man connected to some of Black History’s biggest moments.

“Dr. Moton was my great-great uncle,” says Thomas. “During the 1920’s and 30’s, he was one of the most influential figures of that time. During his time, he was about as well-known as Martin Luther King is known today.”

Born in 1867 on an Amelia County plantation, Dr. Robert Russa Moton learned to read early on at the guidance of his parents who had been slaves.

He attended Hampton Institute, which is now Hampton University, and Dr. Moton became its commandant a year after his graduation.

(Photo: Avis Thomas)

In that role, Dr. Moton used his influence to lead his black community during key transitions.

“When they switched from the Radical Republican party, which it was at the time, to the Democratic party,” explains Thomas.

In 1922, Dr. Moton was the keynote speaker at the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication.

To this day, Thomas says he remains the only African American to advise five different presidents, from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Dr. Moton was the original writer of the Tuskegee Airmen program and bought its first plane in 1936.

“Unfortunately he passed away in 1940, so he was not able to see him dream come to fruition,” says Thomas. “However, the airfield that the Tuskegee Airmen flew from was named after him in order to honor him.”

Dr. Moton spent his final years at a home in Gloucester County called Holly Knoll or Cappahosic.

Civil rights leaders often met there to solve problems of the day.

The Gloucester Institute opened the doors of Holly Knoll, often called Cappahosic, in 2007. (Photo: The Gloucester Institute)

“Dr. Moton’s invitation was, ‘Come to Cappahosic,’” says Martin Brown, Executive Director of The Gloucester Institute, which acquired the property in 2005.

The doors opened at the renovated Cappahosic in 2007, and the Moton Center holds educational programs, leadership programs and serves as a place for discussing issues affecting society at this time.

“What we’re doing is simply trying to carry on that passionate solutionist mentality,” says Brown. “And so we’re inviting people to come to Cappahosic.”

Adds Thomas about how her great-great uncle was able to break down barriers, “He really was an inclusionist. He really wanted to include everybody.”

Even in his passing, Thomas says Dr. Moton continued to have a role in major events in history:

— The United Negro College Fund started at Cappahosic in 1944.

— In 1951, Barbara Johns led a walkout to protest segregated school at Farmville’s Moton High School, which was named after Dr. Moton.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior is said to have written part of his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech sitting on a bench under a 400-year-old tree at Cappahosic.

— Hampton University completed a dormitory called Moton Hall in 1964.

August 26, 2017 would be Dr. Moton’s 150th birthday, and Thomas says it is the perfect time to visit Cappahosic to experience his legacy.

“Everybody, please come and learn more about Dr. Moton. There are a lot of events and things that have gone on in history that he has a lot of ties to.”