Dictionary of Virginia Biography

John Malcus Ellison (2 February 1889–13 October 1979), president of Virginia Union University, was born in Northumberland County and was the son of Robert James Ellison, a waterman, and Margaret Jane Stepter Ellison. His father died when he was young, and he lived with his maternal grandparents, who like his parents had been born into slavery, until his mother married another waterman, Moses J. Conway, about 1895. Ellison worked as a day laborer from a young age and received no more than a sixth-grade education before he began taking classes in 1906 at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (later Virginia State University), near Petersburg. That prepared him for entry into the Wayland Academy of Virginia Union University, in Richmond. There he received the equivalent of a high school education and matriculated at the university, from which he received a bachelor's degree in sociology in June 1917.

Ellison resided in Northumberland County and served as pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church from 1917 to 1926. During the 1917–1918 academic year he was principal of Northern Neck Industrial Academy, in the Richmond County town of Ivondale, and from 1918 to 1926 was the founding principal of Northumberland County High School, located in Reedville and supported by funds from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. On 31 July 1917 in Richmond, Ellison married Mabel C. McWilliams, who died shortly after the birth of twin daughters. On 23 June 1920 in Powhatan County he married Ophelia I. Gray. Before she died from liver disease on 25 September 1925, they had one son, who became a dentist.

Ellison resumed his education while teaching. He earned a second bachelor's degree, in education, from Virginia Union University in 1925, an M.A. in theology from Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1927, and a doctorate in Christian Education and Sociology from Drew University, in Madison, New Jersey, in 1933. Later that year his dissertation, "Negro Organizations and Leadership in Relation to Rural Life in Virginia," was published by the agricultural experiment station at Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College and Polytechnic Institute (later Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University), where he also worked as an assistant collaborator for a project studying Virginia's rural population. In 1930 the experiment station had published Ellison's first work, written with co-collaborator C. Horace Hamilton, The Negro Church in Rural Virginia. Ellison and William E. Garnett completed another short study, Negro Life in Rural Virginia, 1865–1934, which the experiment station published in 1934.

From 1927 to 1934 Ellison taught at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute, where he was also the campus minister and director of religious education. While on the faculty he took leave to study at Drew University and also served as minister of First Baptist Church, in South Orange, New Jersey, from 1931 to 1933. On 18 June 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, he married Elizabeth B. Balfour. They reared his three children and also two nieces and one nephew. In 1934 Ellison joined the faculty of Howard University as an instructor in the Department of Religious Education, and while he taught there for three years served as pastor of Zion Baptist Church, in Washington, D.C. He continued researching and publishing during the decade after receiving his doctorate and conducted several other community studies in Virginia and elsewhere and published his findings in professional journals.

In 1936 Ellison returned to Richmond as professor of sociology and philosophy at Virginia Union University. On 29 April 1941 he was the surprise choice of the board to become the first African American and the first alumnus elected president of the university. He took office in June and was formally inaugurated in October. Ellison's first conspicuous contribution to the university campus was to complete the fund-raising for the project started by his predecessor, William John Clark, to install the building and bell tower that had been the Belgian Pavilion at the New York World's Fair of 1939–1940. Christened the Belgian Friendship Building, it served as the gymnasium, library, and sciences building and also as a recruiting station during World War II. The International Style pavilion—with its tower and art deco bas-reliefs depicting scenes in the Belgian Congo—gave the campus a unique and well-known appearance. The building was placed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1969 and on the National Register of Historic Places the following year.

The war years were difficult with many college-age men in the military, but Virginia Union University rebounded after the war, and Ellison was able to create a graduate theological program that became known as the Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology, named for one of his protégés who was his successor as the university's president. Ellison was active in many educational and racial reform organizations while president of the university, including the Virginia Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the Negro Organization Society of Virginia, the Southern Regional Council, the Southern Education Foundation, and numerous other educational and religious organizations. A personal and professional rivalry with Virginia Union's most famous faculty member, Gordon Blaine Hancock, led to Ellison's surprise announcement in 1952 that Hancock would retire but would not, like other retired faculty members and administrators, retain faculty status.

While at Virginia Union University Ellison prepared an essay, "The Story of the Hamitic Peoples of the Old and New Testaments," for a 1940 edition of the King James version of the Bible, and a short book published that same year entitled The Art of Friendship. He announced that he would relinquish the presidency on 1 July 1955. Thereafter Ellison devoted himself to writing, speaking engagements, his duties as first chancellor of the university (from 1955 to 1979), and his charge as minister to the congregation of Saint Stephen's Baptist Church, in nearby Caroline County. Ellison wrote and published A Century of Service to Education and Religion for the 1965 centennial issue of the Virginia Union Bulletin. He also published Tensions and Destiny (1953), They Who Preach (1956), They Sang Through the Crisis (1961), and several other shorter works.

John Malcus Ellison died in a Richmond hospital on 13 October 1979 and was buried at the city's Riverview Cemetery.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Commonwealth 8 (Aug. 1941): 16, G. James Fleming and Christian E. Burckel, eds., Who's Who in Colored America, 7th ed. (1950), 177, Virginia Union Bulletin 65 (June 1965), 32–41 (portrait on 32), and Lester F. Russell, Black Baptist Secondary Schools in Virginia, 1887–1957 (1981), 156–157; Marriage Registers, Richmond City, 1917, and Powhatan Co., 1920, both Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; 1933 marriage certificate (HB7851/33), Office of the City Clerk, New York, N.Y.; incomplete autobiography, correspondence, unfinished history of Virginia Union University, and official presidential documents in John Malcus Ellison Papers, and oral history interview, both L. Douglas Wilder Library, Virginia Union University, Richmond, Va.; résumé (n.d., but ca. 1939), and other papers in General Education Board Archives, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.; Richmond Afro-American, 3 May 1941; sound recording, 11 Dec. 1950 (WRVA-161), WRVA Radio Collection, Accession 38210, Library of Virginia; Harry Starks Wright, "A Study of Preaching Styles: An Analysis of the Preaching and Sermons of Timothy Moses Chambers, Sr., John Malcus Ellison and Howard Thurman" (STM thesis, Southern Methodist University, 1971); Ernestine Leach, "Dr. John Malcus Ellison: Prototype of the Black Preacher Educator" (Ed.D. dissertation, Rutgers University, 1985); Sherman John Curl, "John M. Ellison Within the Veil: Confronting the Challenges of Leadership in the Age of Jim Crow" (Ph.D. dissertation, College of William and Mary, 2007); John William Kinney, "Reflections on the Life of Dr. John Malcus Ellison," 12 Nov. 1980, sound recording (2009), Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Va.; obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 14 Oct. 1979, Richmond News-Leader, 15 Oct. 1979, and Norfolk Journal and Guide, 19 Oct. 1979.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Raymond Pierre Hylton.

How to cite this page:
Raymond Pierre Hylton,"John Malcus Ellison (1889–1979)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2015 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Ellison_John_Malcus, accessed [today's date]).

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