James Heyward Blackwell

James Heyward Blackwell (ca. February 1864–October 14, 1931)

Educator and Community Advocate

Born, probably enslaved, in Marion, Virginia, James Heyward Blackwell (ca. February 1864–October 14, 1931) grew up in Manchester, across the James River from Richmond. Although his parents could not read or write, they encouraged him to obtain an education. After being tutored by the local pastor of the First Baptist Church, Blackwell graduated in 1880 from Richmond Theological Institute (now Virginia Union University). He taught in New Kent County for two years before returning to Manchester when its segregated public schools began hiring African American teachers. In 1888 he became principal and initiated a high school curriculum.

After the consolidation of Manchester and Richmond in 1910, his school was named the Maury School. Richmond law forbade Blackwell from being principal, so he returned to teaching. He remained the de facto chief administrator of the Maury School until 1916, when a white principal was hired for the renamed Dunbar School. Blackwell retired in 1922, after more than forty years in public education. Throughout his career he was also a leader in fraternal orders and Baptist Sunday school organizations. Devoted to expanding opportunities in the African American community, Blackwell helped establish a building and loan association, an insurance company, and real estate businesses. He also managed two employment agencies, including one for African American teachers.

In 1951 the Dunbar School became a combined elementary and junior high school, and the following year the Richmond School Board renamed it the James H. Blackwell School. An elementary school alone since 1970, it has given its name to the surrounding neighborhood.


Barbara Sookins-Goode, a teacher at Blackwell Elementary School, accepts the 2014 Strong Men and Women in Virginia History award on behalf of James H. Blackwell.

Primary Sources:

  • Obit in Norfolk Journal and Guide. 24 October 1931

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

  1. What do you think was Mr. Blackwell’s greatest achievement?
  2. What were his greatest challenges?
  3. Do you know of anyone else in your community who has achieved goals in multiple fields?