Dictionary of Virginia Biography

James Lawrence Blair Buck (13 April 1886–16 March 1964), educator, was born at Fort Benton, Montana, the son of Horace Riverside Buck and Mary Elizabeth Jewett Buck. His father, a justice of the Montana Supreme Court, died in 1897, after which Buck's mother moved the family back to her native New Haven, Connecticut. He was educated at the Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven and the Gunnery School in Washington, Connecticut.

Early Years
J. L. Blair Buck, as he was known as an adult, graduated from Yale University with a Ph.B. in electrical engineering in 1906. He worked for the General Electric Company in West Lynn, Massachusetts, for one year before becoming an electrical engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona, Pennsylvania. After taking courses in agriculture at Pennsylvania State College, Buck in 1911 purchased a farm in Charles County, Maryland, but his dream of living a simple agricultural life quickly soured. Later that same year he and a Yale classmate visited Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The classmate's father, the school's president, offered Buck a job as an assistant to the director of agriculture, and Buck accepted.

Having begun his career in education, Buck believed he was settled enough to start a family. On 19 September 1914 he married Dorothea Dutcher, the sister of another Yale classmate and later a prominent women's organization leader. They had one son and two daughters. Because northern philanthropists had traditionally provided a large proportion of the institute's funding, during Buck's years at Hampton his household hosted a number of prominent businessmen, educators, and politicians visiting the school, including Andrew Carnegie, William Cameron Forbes, George Foster Peabody, and William Howard Taft. In November 1915 Buck joined Battery D of the 1st Virginia Field Artillery, Virginia National Guard, and he was absent from Hampton for more than a year attending officer training schools. He was promoted to captain on 15 August 1917 and to major in the coast artillery on 13 October 1918. World War I ended shortly before Buck was scheduled to go to Europe, and on 13 January 1919 he was discharged at Washington, D.C. He returned to Hampton as director of extension work, a new position in which he worked with black schools. Buck also traveled on fund-raising campaigns in 1924 and 1925. In 1927 he received an Ed.M. from Harvard University.

Hampton Institute
By the time Buck joined the faculty, Hampton Institute had become primarily a school for training teachers. The trade school and the agricultural and home economics departments preserved the industrial education tradition on which Hampton had been founded. Buck naively believed that the institute was grounded in a progressive philosophy of learning by doing and never made the connection between the school's curriculum of menial labor and the persistent economic and educational deprivation experienced by southern blacks. Buck showed little evidence that racial segregation troubled him, but on 27 November 1925 he represented Hampton Institute at a meeting in the city of Hampton at which spokesmen for the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America charged the school with advocating equality of the races and intermarriage. He was one of two among the 300 people present who spoke against a proposed resolution condemning Hampton Institute and requesting legislation requiring segregated seating at public assemblages. Buck did not persuade the crowd to withdraw the resolution, but it was watered down to charge only that the institute's teachings tended to encourage racial intermarriage. In the context of the time, he had won a small victory against racial unfairness.

Virginia Department of Education
In 1930 Buck moved to Richmond as assistant state supervisor of secondary education under Harris Hart, Virginia's superintendent of public instruction. He was therefore strategically placed in 1931 when the next superintendent, Sidney Bartlett Hall, began a controversial curriculum revision. Hall invited a number of prominent educational innovators to come to Virginia and tried to involve classroom teachers in the development of the new curriculum. As supervisor of secondary education in the Division of Instruction, Buck played a key role in devising the new curriculum, which was based on the belief that schools should lead their communities out of dependence on old ideas of individualism and into a future of collective planning. In January 1938 he was appointed director of the Division of Instruction in the State Department of Education, and in 1941, the year Hall resigned under pressure, Buck became director of the Division of Teacher Education. He received an award in 1940 from the professional honor society, Phi Delta Kappa, for his service to education.

With the outbreak of World War II, Buck tried to enlist in the army but was rejected as too old. During the war he served as president of the Richmond Children's Aid Society and sat on the board of the Richmond Public Forum. Buck also turned his attention to completing his doctoral dissertation, begun under a General Education Board grant awarded for graduate work at the University of Michigan in 1933 and 1934. He received his Ph.D. in 1942, and a decade later the Virginia State Board of Education published his dissertation as The Development of Public Schools in Virginia, 1607–1952, the first modern comprehensive history of education in the commonwealth.

Buck spent the 1947–1948 academic year in England as a visiting professor of education at the University of London's Institute of Education. He and his wife, who was serving as president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, also traveled through Europe. During his ten-month leave of absence Buck was named coordinator of teacher education in the State Board of Education's Division of Teacher Education (after June 1952 the Division of Teacher Education and Certification). In 1951 he served as vice president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. He also sat on the central committee of the Department of Interracial Cooperation, an affiliate of the Virginia Council of Churches. Buck was deeply disturbed when the state government responded with a program of Massive Resistance to the United States Supreme Court's ruling in 1954 that racial segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. On 1 July 1956, at age seventy, he retired, but as head of the Virginia Committee for Public Schools he continued to combat the hysteria that opponents of desegregation promoted.

Buck was an admirer of Frank N. D. Buchman, the founder of what came to be known as the Oxford Group movement, or Moral Re-Armament, devoted to nondenominational Christian evangelism. In 1937 Buck and his wife moved their membership from Richmond's Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church to the new Saint Giles' Presbyterian Church after Grace Covenant's congregation split as a result of the participation of the pastor, John Blanton Belk, in the Moral Re-Armament movement. The Bucks supported Belk and were charter members of the new church. After his retirement Buck traveled thousands of miles each year promoting the Moral Re-Armament movement in Latin America and Europe.

James Lawrence Blair Buck began work on a family history and his memoirs but had not completed them when he died in Richmond on 16 March 1964 after exploratory cancer surgery. His ashes were buried in Washington Cemetery in Washington, Connecticut.

Sources Consulted:
MS autobiography in possession of daughter Frances Buck Hamilton, 2000, who verified family history; feature article in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 4 Jan. 1962 (portrait); J. L. Blair Buck Papers, 18581960, and some Buck letters in Editorial Correspondence Files of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, Kathryn H. Stone Papers, and Louise O. Wensel Papers, all Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; birth date in Military Service Records, World War I History Commission Records, Record Group 66, Library of Virginia; Gloucester (Mass.) Daily Times, 29 Sept. 1914; Newport News Daily Press, 28, 29 Nov. 1925; Virginia Journal of Education 41 (Oct. 1947): 104–105; published works include Buck, The Patrons' League on a Business Basis (1922); obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 17 Mar. 1964 (portrait), and Virginia Journal of Education 57 (Apr. 1964): 39; editorial tribute in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 19 Mar. 1964.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Michael E. James.

How to cite this page:
Michael E. James,"James Lawrence Blair Buck (1886–1964)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Buck_James_Lawrence_Blair, accessed [today's date]).

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