Samuel Chapman Armstrong (1859)

Samuel Chapman Armstrong was a "larger-than-life" figure in the nineteenth century, both as an outstanding Union general in the Civil War and thereafter as a crusader for racial equality. He was widely admired for his strong moral principles and for his dedication to improving the lives of those who had been the victims of slavery and oppression.

Armstrong was the son of missionaries and grew up on Maui, Hawai‘i and O‘ahu. He graduated from Punahou (O‘ahu College) in 1859. While still at Punahou he was the editor of the Hawaiian language newspaper Ka Hae Hawai‘i. Armstrong then matriculated at Williams College in Massachusetts, where he received a Bachelor's degree in 1861.

After graduating from college, Armstrong, along with most of his classmates, volunteered to serve in the Union Army. At the time, Armstrong considered himself to be a Hawaiian citizen rather than an American, but he felt there was a moral imperative to end slavery. Armstrong distinguished himself at Gettysburg and in other battles as a leader and motivator of troops. He was put in command of several black regiments which gained a high reputation for bravery and, at the age of 26, was promoted to brevet (brigadier) general.

At the end of the war, Armstrong decided to dedicate his life to assisting newly freed slaves and volunteered for service in the Freedman's Bureau. Armstrong was convinced that the best way to free African Americans from the vestiges of slavery was to help train black leaders and teachers. These leaders and teachers would in turn spread out across the country to educate and help others.

During the Civil War, Armstrong had led night classes to teach his troops to read and write. In 1868, Armstrong founded Hampton Institute (later Hampton University), which today is regarded as one of the top traditionally-black universities in the United States. Originally established exclusively for freed slaves, Armstrong later encouraged the enrollment of Native Americans. This was considered quite controversial at the time, because Indians suffered from prejudice that was at least as strong as that faced by blacks. Hampton became the first federally-supported institution of higher learning for American Indians, and eventually enrolled students from 65 different tribes. Armstrong remained at Hampton for the rest of his life, developing a program of education which emphasized, both, academics and vocational skills as well as service to the community.

Perhaps the greatest admirer of Armstrong (and a lifelong friend) was the famous educator Booker T. Washington, who was educated at Hampton and later founded Tuskegee Institute. Washington wrote in his autobiography that he considered Armstrong to be the "rarest, strongest, and most beautiful character that it has ever been my privilege to meet."

Over the years Armstrong's health deteriorated, and he died in 1893 at the relatively early age of 54. His damaged health was widely believed to be the result of the many burdens and barriers he had to overcome in seeking equality for blacks and Native Americans. Armstrong's memory and teachings are still honored by Hampton, which every year holds a "Founder's Day" to celebrate his birthday.

Although he spent his adult life on the Mainland, Armstrong never forgot Hawai‘i, and attributed his principles and belief in racial equality and brotherhood to his upbringing here.