Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Martha "Pattie" Hicks Buford (14 March 1836–17 January 1901), educator, was born near Lawrenceville in Brunswick County, the daughter of Edward Brodnax Hicks, a well-to-do lawyer and landowner, and Elizabeth Stone Hicks, daughter of a former governor of North Carolina. Her mother died when Pattie Hicks, as she was called, was less than a year old, and thereafter her aunt Martha Hicks lived with the family and raised the children. Family tradition remembered Edward Hicks as imperious and severe, but he believed in education and sent Pattie Hicks, his youngest daughter, to Saint Mary's School, an Episcopal institution in Raleigh, North Carolina. Edward Hicks was an invalid for many years, and she often eased his discomfort by reading to him. On 24 November 1858, just three days before her father died, Hicks married Francis Emmet Buford, a lawyer, at the home of her sister. A strong-willed woman, she may have married on that date in order to escape the clause in her father's will that would have required approval from her uncle and brother for her to marry.

The Bufords built a house called Sherwood on land inherited from her father about a mile south of Lawrenceville. They had two daughters and four sons. In 1862 F. E. Buford entered the Confederate army and became captain of Company G, 3d Regiment Virginia Light Artillery, a local-defense unit called up to help protect the city of Richmond. After the war he served Brunswick County as commonwealth's attorney, judge of the circuit court, and member of the General Assembly.

Sunday School for Freedpeople
Brunswick County experienced dire poverty after 1865, as former slaveholders and newly freed slaves struggled to survive in a weak agricultural economy. One striking evidence of the changed situation for Pattie Buford was the shift of the freedpeople into their own churches. From her girlhood she had conducted a Sunday school for the slave children on her father's plantation. After the war many local freedpeople joined the Zion Union Apostolic Church, an independent church founded by James R. Howell, who served as its bishop. By early in the 1870s Zion Union counted 2,000 adherents from Brunswick and adjoining counties southward into North Carolina.

In the spring of 1875 Buford asked two female members of the church if she might conduct a Sunday school. They agreed, and she discovered an unquenchable thirst for education among the freedpeople and their children, regardless of religious doctrine. Buford appealed for assistance to the Diocese of Virginia and to the Committee for Domestic Missions of the national Protestant Episcopal Church's Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. Alvi Tabor Twing, minister and secretary of the committee, took up her cause, and her appeals for aid appeared regularly in the society's periodical, Spirit of Missions.

Charitable Work
Buford was soon receiving regular contributions of money and bundles of clothing and books from a network of supporters throughout the northeastern states. She sent the best of her pupils out to teach the Episcopal catechism at other Zion Union churches and estimated in 1879 that twenty-eight schools and 1,400 children benefited from the donations. With contributions of $165 Buford had also built the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, where a regular school opened in March 1879 with more than 100 pupils in attendance. That month Francis M. Whittle, bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, recognized her work by appointing her a regular teacher, sustained by the General Board of the diocese.

On 30 April 1879 at Buford's new church, fifteen ministers and more than 1,000 members of Zion Union petitioned two representatives of the bishop for affiliation with the Diocese of Virginia. At that year's annual council Buford received credit for accomplishing "an amazing work (unaided and alone, except by her Heavenly Father's help)." The Episcopal Church, however, required an educated ministry. Only Zion Union's young secretary, James Solomon Russell, who had spent two years at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, impressed the bishop's representatives as a candidate for the priesthood. At the diocese's expense, Russell attended what became the Bishop Payne Divinity and Industrial School (later the Bishop Payne Divinity School) in Petersburg, and after graduating he returned to Brunswick County and founded at Lawrenceville what became Saint Paul's College. He always credited Buford with making his ministry possible.

Suddenly, on 25 August 1881, Buford learned that Bishop Whittle and the Diocese of Virginia would no longer recognize and support her school. The motivation behind the decision is unclear—"for some reason, God only knows what, I have never known," Buford wrote years later. Possibly her conviction that the "plantation negro" was unsuited for all but the most rudimentary education conflicted with the diocese's intention to provide full training for black clergymen. The likeliest reason for the break came less than a week earlier, when the ministers of Zion Union, with whom Buford's schools were still connected, voted not to require use of the Episcopal prayer book in their services, an implicit act of disaffiliation from the diocese.

Founding a Hospital
The decision might have stymied a less determined person, but it inspired Buford to greater effort for what she turned into a private charity. In autumn 1881 she appealed to her northern supporters for funds to establish a hospital for blacks. They responded generously, and in 1882 the General Assembly incorporated the Church Home for Infirm and Disabled Colored People, which opened in October 1883. The continuing expenses of that institution, soon filled with a steady stream of patients, and of her overcrowded school, which offered instruction in sewing and the rudiments of nursing for the women students, required Buford to devote much of her time to raising funds. In addition to articles in church papers, she issued annual appeals and often traveled for weeks at a time soliciting help from Episcopal circles in the North. Nonetheless, she did not neglect her family, including a daughter born in 1884 when Buford was forty-eight years old. Her sons assisted in her work, and her devoted husband stood by her at every step. They reportedly differed only about thunderstorms, which he hated but she found exhilarating. Buford was also known for her lovely flower beds, especially a rose garden in which she spent much of her spare time.

From childhood Buford had suffered from a chronic and sometimes debilitating illness, possibly rheumatoid arthritis. Whenever possible she taught daily in her school, and through the years she recruited several others to assist her, including two friends and neighbors, Indie Davis and Sarah Wilkes. Margaret Weddell, of Petersburg, served as her personal secretary for the last eighteen years of Buford's life.

On 17 March 1891 the hospital burned to the ground. During the previous year it had served 53 patients on the premises and provided outpatient care to another 1,012 persons. Buford set to work and quickly raised the money for an even larger hospital, which opened in January 1892. The new three-story building, which still stands, had a raised basement and eight wards, each containing eight to ten beds. A separate building housed orphaned children, and an adjacent outbuilding provided beds for patients with extremely contagious diseases. In September 1892 Buford reported that the new hospital buildings cost $7,840. Other contributions since January amounted to $3,340, but expenses had totaled $5,538. To cover the difference, Buford used the surplus from the building fund. The high expenses and the continuing need help to explain the insistent tone of her fund-raising letters. Buford often declared that one had only to witness the suffering to feel and act as she did. In 1893 the hospital cared for 81 patients and helped 721 outpatients.

Family tradition records that the death of her youngest son on 14 May 1900 broke Buford's heart. Martha "Pattie" Hicks Buford died at her home less than a year later, on 17 January 1901, following a long bout with her illness. She was buried in the family plot at Sherwood. Buford's will stipulated that the hospital and the twenty acres set apart for its work should revert to her estate if it did not operate as a hospital for five years. The last known report of the work is dated 30 September 1907, and at some point thereafter the property did indeed pass back to her estate. Despite holding racial views common to southern whites of her day, for twenty-five years this courageous and unsung white woman dedicated her life to caring for the black people of Brunswick County.

Sources Consulted:
Birth and marriage dates in Hicks family Bible records, 1822–1935, Accession 29685, Library of Virginia (LVA); Robert P. Buford IV, A Buford Family Sourcebook (1982), includes "She and God," a memoir by her granddaughter Florence deLaunay Buford, and excerpts from diaries, published articles, "Mrs. Buford's Annual Report and Appeal," ca. 1897 (second quotation), and will; Buford's writings include "A Wonderful Work among the Plantation Negroes," Spirit of Missions 44 (1879): 102–110, 256–262, and 45 (1880): 262–269, and Aunt Sally [ca. 1892]; untitled pamphlet [ca. 1882], reprinting three Buford letters from Spirit of Missions and an untitled, unidentified magazine article, Boston Public Library; Brunswick Co. Marriage Licenses; Marriage Register, Brunswick Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, LVA; Southern Churchman, 8, 29 (first quotation) May 1879, 1 Sept. 1881; James S. Russell, Adventure in Faith: An Autobiographic Story of St. Paul Normal and Industrial School, Lawrenceville, Virginia (1936), 15–16; Frances Ashton Thurman, "The History of St. Paul's College, Lawrenceville, Virginia, 1888–1959" (Ph.D. diss., Howard University, 1978), 2428; death notice in Richmond Dispatch, 19 Jan. 1901; obituaries in Richmond Times, 19 Jan. 1901, and Southern Churchman, 9 Feb. 1901.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Gay W. Neale.

How to cite this page:
Gay W. Neale,"Martha "Pattie" Hicks Buford (1836–1901)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Buford_Pattie_Hicks, accessed [today's date]).

Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram linkedin